February 1 marks the feast day of St. Brigid of Ireland. Her life approximately dates from 452-523. Saints have always been a part of my faith tradition and spiritual journey. However, I knew little of St. Brigid except that she was considered one of the patron saints of Ireland and finds a place on the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Episcopal Church calendars.
That all changed in 2017 when I arrived at St. Brigid’s Anglican Cathedral in Kildare, Ireland. I was amazed! The cathedral was built in the 13th century on the same land where St. Brigid’s monastery was centuries before. Entering the building, her image in the stained glass window actually took my breath away. There she stood right between St. Patrick and St. Columba. And what was she holding? A crozier, the primary symbol of the office of Bishop! Stories are told that the bishop said the wrong prayer over her as she was being set apart as an abbess, making her a bishop in the church. To see what I had considered to be a folktale preserved in the historical record of the church (the window) was amazing.
Bishop aside, she is remembered as a fine monastic leader, a spiritual guide and a healer. She and her double monastery (she presided over both men and women) were known for their generous hospitality and their compassionate care for the sick, the poor and the oppressed far beyond the gates of the monastery.
St. Brigid is predated by the Irish Goddess, Brigid sometimes spelled Brigit. Some speculate that the many legends which surround the saint are actually Christian versions of the traditions of the pre-Christian goddess. The goddess Brigid was associated with animals and nature, the elements of water and fire and poets, artisans and healing.
Upon leaving the cathedral the day I was in Kildare, my friend and I looked for lunch in the village. Amazingly, signs of Brigid were everywhere.
I saw her image in a fine tile portrait in front of a local pub, pictured with her legendary mantle. Just a few doors down the road her cross was displayed in a shop window. I imagined the owners hung her cross asking for her special prayers of blessing and protection on their business.
There are many accounts about the cross of Brigid being placed in homes and shrines asking for her blessing and companionship. I knew this but I was not prepared to see her large cross guarding houses on Inish Mor in the Aran Islands. In Ireland, the presence of Brigid both goddess and saint, continues to be a blessing: in the church, the market place and home.
Brigid’s story and presence is still enmeshed in the lives of everyday people. Countless wells dot the countryside of Ireland where people go for healing and prayer. Fire is still kindled in her name. Women in childbirth pray to her for protection. She is invoked for safe passage in travel, in prayers before sleeping and in prayers before rising.
A prayer from the Carmina Gadelica sums up her importance:
I am under the shielding
Of good Brigit each day;
I am under the shielding
Of good Brigit each night.
I am under the keeping
Of the Nurse of Mary, *
Each early and late,
Every dark, every light.
Brigit is my comrade-woman,
Brigit is my maker of song,
Brigit is my helping-woman,
My choicest of women, my guide. –Carmina Gadelica
*Legend places Brigit at the birth of Jesus as the midwife to Mary.
In his most recent book, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul, John Phillip Newell devotes an entire chapter to Brigid. Most notably he writes,
“Brigid is an icon for us today of sacred feminine strength. It is particularly the strength of faithfulness to the interrelationship of all things. What most endangers us as an earth community today is that we have neglected our interrelationships as countries, faiths and races. The reality is that we need one another. Awareness of the sacred feminine enables us to protect one another’s well-being, not simply the wellbeing of our people, our community or our species.”
We need the witness and presence of St. Brigid in our lives, specifically because of the deep divisions that govern our world at the moment. Her life and also her spirit which continues to enliven so many has a message for us today. She invites us to build bridges by seeing the divine; humanity and creation as being sacred and a blessing. She shows us how to manifest the compassion of Jesus by being in right relationship with our neighbors, strangers and the Earth. She calls us to pray but to also see our lives as an act of prayer by loving, caring for, and sharing all the gifts that God has given us.
Brigid the saint and Brigit the goddess embodies and personifies the beauty of shalom, God’s vision of wholeness and peace for the Earth and humanity. It is a right and joyful thing to celebrate her life and legacy this day!
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Celtic Prayer Cards include 10 prayers inspired by ancient Celtic saints like Patrick or contemporary Celtic writers like John O’Donohue. A short reflection on the back of each card will introduce you to the Celtic Christian tradition, along with prayers by Christine Sine and beautiful imagery crafted by Hilary Horn. Celtic Prayer Cards can be used year-round or incorporated into various holidays. Available in a single set of 10 cards, three sets, or to download.