On Feb. 1, we celebrate the life of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. She is one of the early Christians who stood at the intersection of Christianity, Druidism and the other pagan religions of Ireland. She is also one of those extraordinary women who did amazing things, despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived.
Like so many of our early Christian church mothers, she felt called by God from a very early age. She resisted attempts to get her married: One account has her scooping out her diseased eye in protest of an impending marriage — and later, healing her dangling eyeball by putting it back in her head.
When we go back to read about the lives of women in medieval times, it’s amazing that more women didn’t fight harder to join the cloistered life. Perhaps Brigid’s story explains why: It took a lot of resistance to be allowed to escape the marriage that the family felt was best.
Brigid is famous for her generosity, especially to the poor. She showed this compassion early on, giving away all of her mother’s butter to a poor person — and then, by her prayers, the butter was restored. Throughout her life, she continued to show this kind of compassion and generosity. She’s also linked to butter throughout her life and miracles: A later story has a poor beggar woman coming to St. Brigid to ask for food. Brigid tells the beggar that she only has a bit of butter, and the beggar says that will be enough. When Brigid goes to get the butter, she finds the butter has multiplied into three dishes.
Many of the stories of Brigid revolve around her providing sustenance, not only for beggars but for all of the countryside. She’s associated with lakes of milk and abundant baskets of butter. Like Christ, she transformed water into nourishment; she’s legendary for transforming water into milk and water into beer.
St. Brigid founded some of the first Christian monasteries in Ireland, most famously the legendary one in Kildare. She also founded a school of art that focuses on metal working and illumination. The illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kildare, was created under her auspices. Unfortunately, it’s been lost since the Reformation, so we know it by its reputation only.
As a 21st-century woman, I’m amazed at what she was able to accomplish, during times that are much more difficult than mine. Founding numerous religious orders, motivating artists, showing compassion to the poor, devotion to God — she seemed to have had no trouble leading an authentic, integrated life. Why does it seem so hard to me?
Of course, I know Brigid across a space of centuries, through the gauze of hagiography and legend. If Brigid could speak, what would she say? Would she tell us of the sleepless nights where she wondered how she was going to find enough food, enough contributions, to keep her religious orders afloat? Would she bemoan all her administrative duties, which sucked away so much energy, when all she really wanted to do was to illuminate manuscripts?
What do our lives say about our beliefs? Are we leading authentic, integrated lives? Are we building concrete institutions that will outlast us? Are we helping to create an abundance that mirrors God’s? How do we want to be remembered?
If centuries from now a middle-aged woman read about your life as you’re living it, would she be inspired?
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.