Seeking 'Wisdom's Path of Peace':
earthy spiritual journeying rooted in Christian tradition, inspired by the natural world, by the faith paths of diverse times and cultures, and by today's hunger for true peace and healing
Tuesday, 1 February 2011
ST BRIGID, FIRST WOMAN BISHOP AND MIDWIFE TO MARY
One of the things I really love about the legends of St Brigid of Kildare is the way they tease literalism and send us back to the archetypal, the world of symbol and 'deep story,' and the rich grey area where Christianity meets other spiritualities and allows itself to be enriched.
Brigid is said to have been one of the generation of Irish Christians following St Patrick, which places her in the 5th -6 th century and legitimately 'Celtic.' Accounts vary, but she is widely said to have been born of a slave woman on the doorstep of her master's house. Brigid infuriated her father-master by repeatedly giving his posessions away, and endeared herself to the people by her generosity and the miracles of healing and abundance associated with her. Refusing marriage, she entered a convent but according to legend, when the priest came to recite the necessary prayers to dedicate her as a nun, the words to consecrate a bishop slipped out instead - the priest attributed the error to the Holy Spirit, thus making Brigid the first woman bishop. She established monasteries in Ireland, most famously the one at Kildare which means 'place of the oak,' perhaps the site of a more ancient indigenous shrine.
Here, a perpetual flame was kept burning by the women - no man was allowed to approach. Why is that? We do not know, but this and the oak-grove location of her monastery is a give-away that there is more to Brigid than meets the eye - for there are as many pre-Christian legends about her as Christian (if not more); she was clearly a holy figure in the pagan faith of that time too.
But there is more... Brigid was said to have been midwife to Mary as she gave birth to Jesus, even Jesus's nurse and foster-mother ( an important role in 'Celtic' society). This of course is an anachronism, so we can't 'believe' it, but at another level it has an innate truth. The people who wove the legend into the nativity narative brought their own human care into the story - their own favourite lady there with the holy family, giving earthy, practical, kindly service, modelling love in the blood and sweat of ordinary life. Later contemplatives such as Ignatius of Loyola taught people to do similar in their devotions, imagining themselves into the gospel stories to experience them at an intuitive level. Ignatius asks us to consider, “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?”
Brigid goes further though, in her role as midwife to Mary. Midwifing is one of the images used of God in the Bible -
'Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.'
Even Eve in Genesis, declares that she has given birth to her first son 'with the help of God.' (Genesis 4:1)
It is not just a question of how we can serve God, but of how we can allow God to help us, be midwife for us, as we labour away, day in day out.