Brigid, Ever-excellent Woman
The first of February is an ancient holy day when Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican Christians celebrate the feast day of St. Brigid of Kildare. The most ancient surviving record of St Brigid is from an Old Irish hymn by St Ultan of Ardbraccan (d. 657), called “Brigid ever-excellent woman.”
Brigid was born in the year 451 in County Louth, Ireland. Her mother was a Pict slave who had been baptised by Saint Patrick. Her father was the pagan chieftain of Leinster. Brigid was raised as a slave in her father’s house but even as a child she was known for healing the sick and feeding the poor. She once gave away her mother's entire store of butter which was then replenished after Brigid's prayers. One day her father became so angry with Brigid that he intended to sell her as a slave to the King of Leinster. While he was talking to the King, Brigid gave away her father's sword to a beggar so that he could trade it to feed his family. The king recognised Brigid’s holiness and convinced her father to allow his daughter to freedom.
Brigid was "veiled" as consecrated monastic by Saint Mél of Ardagh. While Saint Mel was preforming the consecration, he became “intoxicated with the Spirit of God” and preformed the rite of consecrating a bishop. Mél’s assistant, MacCaille, objected insisting “a bishop’s order should not be conferred on a woman”. But Mél replied, “No power have I in this matter. That dignity has been given by God to Brigid, beyond every woman.” Around 480 Brigid founded a monastery at Kildare (Cill Dara, "church of the oak"), on the site of a shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid, served by a group of young women who tended an eternal flame. The site was under a large oak tree. Brigid’s monastery included both men and women. She invited Conláed, a hermit monk, to became the first Bishop of Kildare. For centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, with the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as Mother Superior of all the monasteries in Ireland. Her successors were given the honour usually reserved for bishops.
Tradition holds that Brigid’s closest disciple was her anamacara (soul friend), a woman named Dar Lugdach. The two were so intimately connected that Dar Lugdach prayed to die alongside her beloved Brigid. On her death bed, Brigid told Dar Lugdach that she would join her in Paradise the following year. Dar Lugdach became Kildare’s second abbess, and the first to share Brigid’s status as bishop-abbess. She fell asleep in Christ one year to the day after Brigid. Both women are celebrated on this ancient holy day.
There are many legends about Saint Brigid that link her to the Celtic Goddess Brigid. Early Celtic Christians were able to synthesize and harmonize their ancient religion with the Gospel of Incarnate God and the Holy Trinity. Saint Columba of Iona is quoted as saying “My Druid is Christ, the son of God, Christ, Son of Mary, the Great Abbot, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Christians have strayed a long way from imitating Christ, who cared for the poor and the oppressed, who “has cast down the mighty from their thrones… and sent the rich away empty.” Many Christians have ceased to recognize the intrinsic holiness and value of each individual person created in the image and likeness of God. In Oklahoma, our legislators, who claim to be Christians, are actively working to oppress and dehumanize our trans brothers and sisters, rejecting Christ’s vision of a shared humanity united as one body.
Unlike Christ, Christianity has embraced patriarchal systems of power rather than standing up to them.
Remembering and reclaiming what is good and beautiful about our tradition, remembering and reclaiming Saints like Brigid and Dar Lugdach, women who were equal to bishops in the fifth century, completely rejecting the gender norms of the age, is a step toward Christ.
My hope is that in discovering and reclaiming our history, Christians will once again strive to be the defenders of all the marginalized. My hope is that Christians may be known for acting and voting in a way that defends the poor and the oppressed. That we would be known for bringing love and kindness - not judgment and condemnation. Let us embrace what is good and beautiful in our tradition. Let us seek and serve the image and likeness of God in each person we meet. And let us, like Saint Brigid, stand up to patriarchal systems of power. Let us be the Body of Christ, the body of love and compassion in the world.