Known as a medieval mystic, patron saint of Sweden, one of several patron saints of Europe and founder of the Brigittine Order, St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden is not to be confused with the Irish St. Brigid of Kildare, whom we just reviewed. Despite several centuries that separated them, their similar names invite taking a look.
Bridget was born about 1303 to Birger Persson, governor and provincial judge of Uppland and one of the wealthiest landholders of the country, and Ingeborg Bengtsdotter, a woman of some renown in her time for her great piety. The family was also distantly related to the deceased St. Ingrid, who in 1272 had founded the first Dominican cloister in Sweden.
As a young girl, starting at the age of 7, Bridget had visions of Christ crucified. She initially wanted to enter a convent as a result of her mystical experiences, but her father prevailed on her to marry instead. At the age of 14 she married Ulf Gudmarsson, son of the lord of Närke, who was himself only 16; they had eight children—four daughters and four sons—of whom six survived infancy, a rarity at the time. One daughter is now honored as St. Catherine of Sweden.
As a young noblewoman wife, Bridget became known for her works of charity toward Östergötland's unwed mothers and their children. In her early 30s, she was called to court to be lady-in-waiting to the new queen of Sweden, Blanche of Namur. In this period she became an acquaintance of notable theologians of her time and country, among them Nicolaus Hermanni, later bishop of Linköping; the canon of Linköping, Matthias, who became her confessor; and Peter Magister, her confessor after Matthias.
In 1341 she and her husband went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, shortly after which Ulf died. After this loss, Bridget became a member of the lay Third Order of St. Francis, devoting herself entirely to prayer and caring for the poor and sick.
The visions she is believed to have had from early childhood now became more frequent and pronounced. She believed that Christ, and sometimes Mary, saints and her guardian angel appeared to her, and she wrote down the revelations, later translated into Latin by Matthias and Prior Peter of Alvastrâ, the Cistercian monastery where her husband had died. The writings, collected as The Revelations of Saint Birgitta, gained great popularity during the Middle Ages after she died.
In one of her first visions, Christ says, in part:
“Your soul will be filled with me and I will be in you … There the soul, both inwardly and outwardly delighted, is full of joy, thinking of nothing and desiring nothing but the joy that it possesses. So love me alone, and you will have all the things you wish, and you will have them in abundance. … If you believe my words and fulfill them, oil and joy and exultation will never fail you for all eternity.”
At about this time she developed the idea of establishing a religious community. In 1350, a jubilee year, Bridget braved a journey across plague-stricken Europe to Rome, accompanied by her daughter Catherine, son Birger and a small party of priests and followers, to obtain papal authorization for the new order.
The Order of the Most Holy Savior (which included both monks and nuns), also known as the Brigittines, started at a house in Vadstena, Sweden, and was later richly endowed by King Magnus IV and his queen. As with Brigid of Ireland’s communities, the order’s houses were double monasteries, with men and women forming a joint community, with separate cloisters. Their life included poverty, self-sufficiency for the community and giving all surplus income to the poor; however, they were allowed to have books without limit. The original house, still at Vadstena, has a website at http://birgittaskloster.se/en. The order now has several branches, one of which has a men’s house in Amity, Oregon, which makes confectionary.
The trip to Rome shocked Bridget, given the moral decay of the continent in the late Middle Ages, and she stayed in the Eternal City the rest of her life—save for pilgrimages, including one to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 1373—with the aim of uplifting Europe. She did not neglect the order, sending what were described as “precise instructions for the construction of the monastery” (now known as the Blue Church because of the color of its granite). She also insisted that an “abbess, signifying the Virgin Mary, should preside over both nuns and monks.”
In Rome, Bridget displayed what observers called a constantly smiling face and went to communion every day. Perhaps because of her charitable work, she herself experienced financial straits and was troubled by news of some of her children, whose behavior as adults was far from saintly.
Moreover, she was living at a time of grave abuses within the Church, including the pope’s virtual imprisonment in Avignon, and fought for his return to Rome and an end to corruption. Some of her visions reflect these concerns.
Her final pilgrimage to the Holy Land was disrupted by shipwreck and the death of her son Charles, all of which led to her death in 1373, on July 23, which is now her feast day. She was buried in Italy at first; her remains were later returned to Vadstena. Bridget was canonized in 1391.
Bridget has been the subject of some controversy.
She is revered by Catholics and Lutherans, even though Martin Luther called her “crazy Bridget,” and Swedish Reformation figure Olaus Petri called her revelations “daydreams.” Queen Christina of Sweden, a 17th century woman also drawn to faith and to Rome, was referring to Bridget when she said she preferred to be counted “among the sensible rather than among the saints.”
A modern history of the Swedish monarchy also suggests that Bridget did not endear herself to her patrons King Magnus and Queen Blanche when she accused them of “erotic deviations, extravagance and murderous plots.” Clearly, she is a very contemporary saint who saw no contradiction between mystical experience and active secular work—leading a holy life in the marketplace.
In sum, Bridget was without doubt a holy woman to be reckoned with, not lightly dismissed.