Monday 6 February 2023

Saint Brigid in the Woods

Continuing with the octave of posts in honour of Saint Brigid with an episode depicting some of the difficulties she experienced during her childhood. The holy childhood of a saint often forms part of a written Life, but in the case of Saint Brigid we are given a glimpse into the less holy domestic arrangements of her father Dubthach's household. Brigid's mother, we are told, is one of Dubthach's slaves and this is something which does not sit well with his wife, who attempts to poison her husband's mind against her unwanted stepdaughter. Indeed, Brigid's stepmother is every inch the stereotypical 'wicked stepmother' of secular tales who even places Brigid in a Cinderella-type role as a domestic drudge and general scapegoat. Interestingly, the story which follows is not to be found in the Vita of Cogitosus, the earliest of Saint Brigid's Lives, but features in the vernacular Bethu Brigte and other later sources. It is reprinted here from an 1899 edition of the American Catholic monthly journal The Pilgrim of Our Lady of Martyrs:


WHEN the gentle St. Bridget — or St. Brigid, as she is now more properly called in Ireland — was a child, many were the crosses which she had to endure, and, strange to say, none more grievous than those inflicted on her by her stepmother.

This woman entertained an unnatural hatred for the sweet and lovely maiden whom God had given into her charge. One form her hatred took was to embitter against St. Bridget the mind of Dubthach himself, her father. Whatever the child might do, the step-mother declared was ill-done, wicked, and deserving of punishment, and many a stinging reproach and heavy blow followed her false accusations.

Poor little Bridget bore it all sweetly. She never retorted, she never complained; and yet no change came over her parents. They only grew worse, and finally their beautiful child was driven to tend the swine in the forest.

Noble little lady though she was, Bridget did not shrink from this degrading office. She knew that God would regard the humility of His handmaid, and so she went gladly into the woods and the fields with her repulsive herd, and thought only of thanking our Lord Who had thus deigned to grant her a share in His sacred sufferings. When her cruel stepmother had kept her in the kitchen at home, she had washed the dishes and done every other menial task with alacrity and holy joy; and so now she drove the swine hither and thither or checked their wanderings with no less happiness and care.

All the while, however, her heart was united to God. Here at the foot of a tree and there in the shadow of a rock, she would fall on her knees and thank Him for His mercies in creating and redeeming her, and would tell Him how she longed to merit by good works to see His adorable Face one day in eternal glory. This spirit of prayer God chose before long to make the means of revealing to her father how holy a child she was.

God permitted her once to remain so long abstracted in prayer that some of the swine roamed off a great distance without her knowledge. Two thieves chanced to pass at the time and, seeing their opportunity, forthwith drove two of the herd away before them. They had not gone far when Dubthach drew near them, which so alarmed them that they abandoned their booty and fled Dubthach recognized the swine as two of his own herd, and in his wicked heart resolved to punish his innocent child.

He concealed the two swine, and, putting on a pleasant countenance, came where Bridget was sitting. After a few words of ordinary business, he grew very savage and demanded of her an account of the herd. She must let him see whether she had not lost some of them by her foolish devotions. She could never pray and tend swine at the same time.

Bridget, without a suspicion of ill, raised her heart as usual to God and then asked Dubthach whether he would not count the herd and see whether any were missing. Still full of indignation, the man did so, and, to his amazement, found the number correct, the two swine which he had concealed being miraculously restored. Again and again he counted, but always with the same result.

Abashed and awe-stricken, Dubthach then hurriedly withdrew to his castle, and so deep an impression did the miracle make upon him that for many a day afterward his sweet child was free from his persecutions.

The Pilgrim Of Our Lady Of Martyrs Vol. XV, 1899 , 49-50.

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