Sunday, May 29, 2016

A High and Exalted Woman

So far, in examining the key figures of Christianity, we have passed over women, whose role in society had been largely as subjects of their fathers, brothers and husbands until they devised their escape through faith.

In the early Church there are the women who accompanied Jesus and were the first to see him risen. Then there were the women who served in various auxiliary roles to apostles, such as the deaconesses Priscilla and Phoebe (Romans 16:1-3), and among the martyrs, Perpetua and Felicity, still recalled in the longer Eucharistic canons of the universal Church. Finally, some women preferred to remain tethered only to Christ rather than to a man, such as the dramatic St. Lucy, who reputedly ripped out her eyes and gave them to her betrothed, who had always remarked how much he liked them.

Medieval women offer a different template.

One of the earliest is Brigid of Kildare (450-525), one of Ireland’s patron saints, along with Patrick and Columba, an early nun, abbess and founder of several communities of nuns and of monks, as well as local churches.

Brigid, derived from a Celtic name meaning “high and exalted,” was born the child of a Christian slave, Broicsech, and her pagan master, the chieftain Dubthach of Leinster. She was sold as a child and raised by a Druid but returned to her father’s house, where she was acknowledged as a daughter. In her new position, she rejected the offer of marriage, instead persuading her father to support her decision to take religious vows.

St. Mel of Ardagh, who had been appointed bishop there by St. Patrick himself, witnessed her vows with seven devout women companions. Seeing leadership qualities in Brigid, he appointed her abbess—a position that then carried quasi-episcopal powers and she is believed to have selected at least one bishop in her lifetime.

Brigid began a religious community called Kildare (in Gaelic, Cill Dara or church of the oak), which shared a church with an associated house she founded for men, run by Colleth, a notable hermit. This is said to have been the only connected convent-monastery in Ireland at the time. For centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and abbesses; the Abbess of Kildare was regarded as the superior general of all convents in Ireland.

Brigid also traveled throughout Ireland founding churches and convents and, according to some sources, working miracles involving mostly finding food or taming animals. She is also credited with founding a school of art, including metal work and manuscript illumination. The Kildare scriptorium made the once-renowned illuminated Book of Kildare, described by Gerald of Wales, a monk, as “the work of angelic, and not human skill.” The book disappeared during the Reformation, possibly during the invasion of Ireland by the Puritan troops of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s.

She was quickly venerated as a saint after she died Feb. 1, 525, particularly in Wales and Germany, aside from her native Ireland, and became famous throughout Christian Europe. In the next few centuries at least six biographies of her were penned, affirming her significance, but also introducing variant stories about her that still cannot be resolved.

Her feast day, February 1, is observed by the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communions, often accompanied by the making of crosses from straw, as she did. Notably, and recently controversially, the date coincides with the pre-Christian Celtic spring festival of Imbolc, curiously enough associated with the pagan goddess Brigid.

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