….As if St. Brigid once more
Had rigged up a ray of sun
Like the one she’d strung on air
To dry her own cloak on
(Hard-pressed Brigid, so
Unstoppably on the go)-
The damp and slump and unfair
Drag of the workday
Made light of and got through
As usual, brilliantly.
—Seamus Heaney, “Clothes Shrine”
(listen to Seamus Heaney read the entire poem here.)
The first of February is the feast day of St. Brigid, 5th century Celtic saint and Abbess of Kildare. Her origins are wrapped in mythology and legend, with stories most likely woven from pre-Christian traditions of the sun goddess Brigid. The stories surrounding her celebrate generosity and kindness, with common themes of strength and determination, perhaps even a bit of holy stubbornness! As the saying goes, many of the stories surrounding St. Brigid are true, and some of them actually happened.
One legend tells that Brigid was the child of a pagan chieftain and his slave wife, Broicsech, who was a Christian. Her mother worked with the dairy cows of the chief, and at dawn on February 1 as she was stepping across the doorway threshold into the barn, she gave birth to Brigid. Thresholds become an important part of traditions surrounding Brigid, including the placing of a woven cross at the entrance to the home.
Raised in the Christian faith of her mother, her generosity became stuff of legend. She would give food or milk to any poor person who came to her door. Her tendency to give so extravagantly angered her father so much he tried to put an end to her charity. One day she was cooking bacon , a hungry dog stuck its head inside the door. Of course the soft-hearted Brigid gave the poor hound pieces of the bacon to eat. Worried about what her father would say, she prayed over the bacon still in the pan. And when the group was being served, there was more bacon than before, enough for everyone.
Eventually her father hoped to have the young Brigid married off, ridding his household of the girl who kept giving so much of his possessions away to the poor. Brigid had other ideas, and eventually he relented. Brigid left home to follow the religious life.
She would found the Abbey of Kildare, (Abbey of the Oak) a double monastery for nuns and monks. The story goes that when the bishop came to ordain her as Abbess, he was so “intoxicated with the grace of God” he instead prayed the prayer of blessing for a bishop over her. The abbey also contained a school of art, for metal work and for manuscript illumination.
I stumbled across stories of St. Brigid as I was learning about the histories of Celtic Christianity. She is an intriguing bridge figure between the ancient indigenous traditions of Ireland and the growing Christian presence on the island. She is the patron saint of many traditions—of midwives (there’s a marvelous legend of angels carrying her back to Bethlehem to attend to Mary at the birth of Jesus); of artists; and yes, of brewers. There are several stories of Brigid performing miracles with water, milk, and even ale. The story goes that she supplied ale out of her barrel to eighteen churches in the area, enough to carry the churches through from Maundy Thursday to the end of Easter. One 10th century song to Brigid imagines her gift to God in heaven to be a lake of beer with all the faithful gathered round:
“I'd sit with the men, the women and God, there by the lake of beer. We'd be drinking good health forever, and every drop would be a prayer.”
From the stories of St. Brigid we find inspiration for generous living, for an attention to the presence of the sacred in the everyday-ness of our lives, and a joyous embrace of living in the ways of Jesus. Seamus Heaney’s lovely poem “Clothes Shrine” elevates the ordinariness of hanging up laundry with an awareness of the Holy in the mundane. On this February 1, may the welcoming ways of St. Brigid be an inspiration to us.
and always be the church where you are.
A native of Illinois, Rev. Nancy Gowler lived for 26 years in the Pacific Northwest. She joined the ministry of First Christian Church in Morehead, KY, in July of 2020.