St. Brigid of Kildare

Over the next couple months, you're going to notice a bias towards Irish saints, and Saint Brigid of Kildare is to blame. Her story inspired in me a fervent interest in Celtic Christianity, and when I converted to the Catholic faith (in large part due to the influence Brigid and the other Celts had on my own spirituality), I chose her for my patron saint.

There's so many stories and legends about St. Brigid that it's hard to know where to start: druidic prophecy, time travel to the nativity, and reclaiming the miracles of a Celtic goddess all make for a pretty compelling narrative, but since I'm taking pictures of kids' toys, I think I'll focus on her childhood for today.

Happy Imbolc! Let me know if the hedgehog sees its shadow!

Lifetime: 451 to 525
Region: Ireland
Patronages: Ireland; Dairy maids; Midwives
Iconograpy: Reed cross; Open flame; Green habit
Feast Day: February 1

Brigid's father was Dubthach, a wealthy chieftain, but she wasn't raised as a princess, for her mother was one of Dubthach's slaves and Brigid was therefore a slave herself. She was named after a Celtic goddess because she was born shortly after the time of St. Patrick, before Christianity had spread to all of Ireland. According to legend, Brigid (or her mother) may have been baptized by St. Patrick himself.

While pregnant with her, Brigid's mother was sold to a different farm. Because he was a Druid, Brigid couldn't eat anything her new master gave her, so she was fed only by the milk of a special white cow with red ears until she could eat solid food. Later in her life, this cow would travel with her, using its holy milk to help Brigid feed the poor across Ireland. Imbolc tradition (that's the Irish name of St. Brigid's feast day) encourages kids to leave out grain for this cow, much like kids today leave carrots for Santa's reindeer.

Brigid was raised on the druid's farm until she was ten, then came back to her father Dubthach's home, but her mother was left behind. Young Brigid was put in charge of churning the milk that was produced by Dubthach's cows into tasty butter.

Dubthach was rich and had plenty of food to eat, but many others in the nearby land did not, and hungry people would often come by, begging for food. Whenever Brigid met one, she always gave them all she could, sometimes even giving away some of Dubthach's dishes along with it. One time she gave a beggar Dubthach's entire store of butter without even thinking about what it would mean for her as his slave.

When she realized how badly she might be punished, St. Brigid prayed to God to spare her from Dubthach's wrath. She only wanted to be generous like the scriptures commanded her to, but Dubthach wasn't Christian and would have no respect for her charity. In answer to her prayers, God miraculously restored the entire store of butter, plus a little extra. Brigid then knew she was doing the right thing.

But even though he had all the butter that was rightfully his and then some, Dubthach was irate when he heard about how his slave Brigid had given away his own goods. He thought she should be using her miracles to increase his profits, not giving it away for free to the poor.

So Dubthach took her to the nearby king to be sold. Dubthach met with the king privately, and Brigid, as a slave was seen as unworthy to enter his house so she was left outside in the cart. While she was alone, a starving man came to her, asking for money so he could feed his family. Brigid wanted to help him, but she hadn't brought any food and didn't have any money.

She looked around in the cart and saw that her father had left his jeweled sword, one of his most valuable possessions and a symbol of his title as chieftain. She gave it to the beggar without a second thought.

Soon, Dubthach and the king emerged from the king's house, having agreed upon a price for the king to buy Brigid. But when Dubthach saw that his sword was gone, he went back to the king asking for a price increase because he had been so put out. The king, who was a Christian himself, refused to go forward with either the new price, or the former contract.

Impressed by her charity, the king declared her too holy to be owned. He freed her on the spot and Dubthach didn't receive a penny for her, nor any reimbursement for his sword. Dubthach was livid, but couldn't challenge the king's decree, and he was relieved to be free of young Brigid's unending charity of his own goods.

Brigid would later return to this king to ask him for land to establish her first monastery. That monastery would then become a school for copying sacred texts so that others could read the scriptures. It would also help establish the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, beautiful drawings that illustrated the scripture passages, so that those who can't read could also learn the story of Jesus.

The stories of Brigid's many miracles and other legends attributed to her could (and do) fill many books. I've even read several of them! I love the story of St. Brigid for her charity, her love of art and writing, and her respect for the traditions of the culture around her while remaining unwaveringly committed to her own faith. Like many Celts, Brigid loved nature and animals, but she also freed slaves and fed the poor and spoke truth to power.

Her story and ministry became so influential in Ireland that Brigid is also known as "Mary of the Gaels". With their fervent copying of scripture, the monasteries she established helped keep the ancient texts maintained through the dark ages, when illiteracy spread throughout much of the rest of Europe. And even today, her story helps to share a liberating and charitable Christianity that calls people to convert - even people like me.

Prayer to St. Brigid
Dear St. Brigid,
brilliant star of sanctity in the early days of our Irish faith
and love for the omnipotent God Who has never forsaken us,
we look up to you now in earnest, hopeful prayer.
By your glorious sacrifice of earthly riches, joys and affections
obtain for us grace to "seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice"
with constant trust in His fatherly care.
By your life of laborious charity to the poor, the sick, the many seekers for light and comfort,
obtain for us grace to be God's helpers
to the utmost of our power during our stay on earth,
looking forward, as you did, to our life with Him during eternity.
By the sanctified peace of your death-bed,
obtain for us that we may receive the fullness of pardon and peace
when the hour comes that will summon us
to the judgment seat of our just and most merciful Lord.

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