Exploring how Silence and the Contemplative Way infuse into our ordinary everyday active lives, how Awareness manifests itself, and how we respond to the call to surrender to the divinity within.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

St. Brigid

Feast of St. Brigid 1 February

The 1st of February marks the Feast day of St. Brigid, also spelled Bridget, Bridgit or Bríd. She is the patroness of Ireland and was also known as Mary of the Gael. The daughter of a pagan chieftain from the province of Leinster, she was born into slavery as her mother was a servant of the chieftain. After a period of time being fostered, she returned to live as a servant to her father around the age of 10. St. Brigid became known for her strength of character, holiness, protection and generosity to the poor and sick, frustrating her father by giving away his food and home provisions to the poor and hungry who called to their home for help. It is thought that he became so frustrated with her that he carried her in a chariot to the King of Leinster to try and sell her, and as she waited in the chariot, a beggar approached her looking for help. She immediately gave him her father's jewelled sword to be used as barter for food. The King, in recognising her genuine sense of charity and holiness, granted her her freedom. Later, attempts by her father to find her a marriage partner failed as she dedicated herself in service to God and to the poor.

She lived from approximately AD455 - AD525, and ranks alongside St. Patrick and St. Columcille (or St. Columba) as some of the earliest and most influential saints. Starting with 7 other postulants, it is thought she first approached St. Maccaille for direction, and under his guidance, began her first novitiate. They made their final profession with St. Mel of Ardagh. She founded numerous convents throughout Ireland, the most famous being a monastery for both monks and nuns in Kildare.

She is held with great affection in Ireland, particularly in rural areas, where her affinity with the earth and healing finds devotion among farmers, mothers and healers. Having grown up in pre-Christian pagan times, St. Brigid brought forward with her many of the ancient traditions, customs and practices into her new Christian faith. She believed in healing wells, the symbolism of fire and Imbolc, the Celtic celebration of the start of spring. Tradition still finds people hanging a ribbon or scarf outside on St. Brigid's Eve, as it was known to become blessed and imbued with the healing properties of St. Brigid for the head, throat, ears and neck. She is associated in folklore with a white red-eared cow, and is said to visit on 1st February to bless the people, the land, and the livestock.

There are many legends and healing miracles associated with her, including her pleading with the King of Leinster for land to build her convent in Kildare. Though hesitant, he finally agreed to offer her enough land to cover her cloak, upon which four of her Sisters each took hold of a corner of the cloak and began running in the four directions of the compass, the cloak expanding as they ran. On seeing this, the King relented and offered her as much land as was needed for the convent.

Early February is known in the Celtic calendar as Imbolc, the start of Spring. I have often felt this is a great season of renewal. While the frost and snow can still be solid on the ground, there is a sense that the soil is warming up, bulbs are shooting up through the earth, and a promise of spring is present. It is characterised by snowdrops, the planning of spring farming schedules and vegetable seedlings. The quality of light has changed. It is becoming more powerful, with the sun rising higher in the sky, and the light extending longer into the day. It is a time of progress and cooperation. It is a time of prayer for the year ahead. Even when I lived in the Southern Hemisphere, late February marked the end of oppressive heat and humidity, and a turning point into cooler, more comfortable conditions. It is possible to move forward.

When I pray to St. Brigid during this season, I sense a feisty, wise woman with tremendous courage to show compassion and generosity and to fight for the poor and marginalised, in her practical devotion to God. She had tremendous faith, and it is thought that she used the rushes to make a cross to teach people about Christianity. One legend tells how St. Brigid was called to visit a dying pagan chieftain. As she sat near his bed, she picked up some rushes from the floor and began to weave a Cross. Though delirious, he calmed and asked her what she was doing and, in explaining, she told him about Christ and the meaning of the Cross. He was deeply impacted by her and what she taught, and asked to be baptised on his deathbed.

St. Brigid's Cross

Traditionally, a new St. Brigid's Cross is made on 1st February and hung inside the house over the entrance door to replace the one from the previous year. The cross acts as a blessing to all who enter the house, and as a prayer of protection over the occupants. In pagan rituals, it was also known to protect the house from fire.

In spite of many legends and folklore surrounding her, it is certainly true that she founded a number of convents, held herself in tireless service to the poor, and educated and inspired many people to Christianity. There is still a strong Brigidine community of religious present in Ireland, particularly in Leinster, and in the area surrounding Kildare. She is venerated not only in Ireland, but in Britain and in many parts of Europe. St. Brigid's Well is located on the site of her original monastery in Kildare, and still acts as a devotional and pilgrimage site today. There are 5 prayer stones thought to symbolise St. Brigid's vocation - the Earth/Land, Welcome for the Poor, Prayerfulness/Peacefulness, Compassion, and Holiness/Contemplation. The well itself is held in high regard as one of Ireland's healing wells.

St. Brigid's Well, Kildare

Image of St. Brigid courtesy of Ann MacDuff from “The Little Book of Celtic Saints”
Image of St. Brigid's Cross courtesy en.wikipedia.org
Image of St. Brigid's Well courtesy www.kildare.ie