Thursday, 1 February 2018

Saint Brigid: 'Her grace was her staff through life'

To celebrate the feast of Saint Brigid below is an account of her life from a nineteenth-century American author of Irish descent, John Gilmary Shea (1824-1892). Shea was a Church historian and thus places Saint Brigid into a wider context. His account is both romantic and heroic, paying tribute to our patroness as a pioneering monastic founder and champion of the poor.


SAINT BRIDGET. , Abbess, and Patroness of Ireland. St. Patrick not only planted the faith in Ireland, but he also confirmed it by his miracles and preachings, and by establishing monasteries and churches throughout the length and breadth of the land; thus laying the foundations of those great religious establishments which, in after ages, sent missionaries and saints to spread the Gospel throughout Europe. St. Bridget shares with St. Patrick the glory and sanctity of being the first to combine the pious young virgins of Ireland into conventual communities. Her success in this holy task was miraculous, for religious establishments of this kind soon extended over the land, and Bridget encouraged them by her visits, her teachings and example. We all know how great the influence of woman is in softening and refining society, and particularly for moulding the minds of youth for good or evil; and it is not too much to say that the holy and virtuous fire infused by Bridget into the hearts of the women of Erin powerfully aided the labors of St. Patrick in Christianizing the inhabitants.  She was born at Fochard, in Ulster, soon after Ireland had been blessed with the light of faith. She received the religious veil in her youth, from the hands of St. Mel, nephew and disciple of St. Patrick. She built herself a cell under a large oak, thence called Killdara, or cell of the oak, living, as her name implies, the bright shining light of that country by her virtues. Being joined soon after by several of her own sex, they formed themselves into a religious community, which branched out into several other nunneries throughout Ireland, all which acknowledged her for their mother and foundress, as in effect she was of all in that kingdom. She flourished in the beginning of the sixth century, and is named in the Martyrology of Bede, and in all others since that age. Like St. Patrick, St. Bridget spent much of her time in traveling through the country, establishing communities of nuns, and converting and instructing the people; like him, also, she was accompanied by several companions, or disciples, one of whom she always left to preside over her newly-established community, and, finally, having fulfilled her mission, like St. Patrick, she established a permanent house, where she spent the remainder of her life as head of the great and numerous order of Bridgetine nuns which she had established. The fame of her miracles, her virtues and piety had spread over the land, and young virgins — even the daughters of kings and princes — were inspired with similar religious zeal, and desired to follow in her footsteps, and to become worthy to establish religious communities.   The shrine of St. Bridget was to Ireland what Loretto has been to Italy, and was enriched from time to time by the offerings of the faithful until it became one of the wealthiest in Ireland. In that early age of the primitive church the conventual life was only just beginning to assume shape and form. St. Bridget was, perhaps, the very first among the saints of Europe who gathered into communities governed by certain rules a congregation of holy virgins. She was anterior to St. Scholastica, the sister of St. Benedict, who was the great founder of Monasticism in the West. These communities were primitive in their manner of living, as also in the severity of their rules and discipline, which were of the most austere nature. They dwelt in cells of the rudest and simplest construction, and spent their time in prayer, mortification and acts of charity. They freely clothed the naked and fed the hungry; and the convents and monasteries were not only the asylums of the learned and pious, but also of the poor, the afflicted and the distressed. At a time when the licentiousness of paganism struggled against the purity of Christianity in men's hearts, the pure sacrificing lives of those holy virgins who despised the pleasures and allurements of the world to give themselves up, soul and body, to Jesus Christ, must have had great influence upon the sterner and ruder nature of man. Innumerable are the traditions handed down of St. Bridget's charity and generosity. The poor never left her empty handed, and her convent was, indeed, a house of refuge for them. The miracles said to have been performed by the Saint are innumerable. She was visited by several of the holy bishops and nuns of her time, and a warm friendship existed between herself and most of them. She was also frequently visited by other holy men, and by the kings and princes of the land. St. Bridget's life was one series of acts of mercy, love and charity. She labored in peace and for the good of mankind and the glory of God. She sacrificed all worldly pleasures for the beatitude of heaven. The only attainment she sought on earth was to do the will of her Father who is in heaven. His grace was her staff through life, and supported her in her trials and afflictions. His love was the pure flame that warmed her heart and that rewarded her for all her labors and sacrifices. The love of her Saviour alone filled her heart; for Him she lived on earth, and with Him she reigns in heaven. She died Feb. 1, 525, in the seventy-second year of her age. Her body was found with those of SS. Patrick and Columba in a triple vault in Downpatrick, in 1185, as Giraldus Cambrensis informs us. They were all three translated to the cathedral of the same city; but their monument was destroyed in the reign of King Henry VIII. The head of St. Bride is now kept in the church of the Jesuits at Lisbon. See Bollandus, Feb. t. i. p. 99.

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