St Brigid of Kildare and other patrons

A Brigid cross

Today, February 1st, is the day St Brigid of Kildare is honoured and celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion (today because it is the day that she died in 523).There isn’t a great deal known about Brigid and in recent times there has been debate as to whether she existed at all. Some have suggested that the name and characteristics of the goddess Brigid were attached to the saint.

In a way her historicity is immaterial. What matters is what people have made of her life and what her life has come to mean. There are plenty of stories about her charity, her faith, her wisdom and her healing powers – the sort of stories that make a saint. For example, she is credited with founding a school of art, including metalwork and illumination. She is said to have been sold by her parents into slavery. It is easy to understand why she has become patron saint of babies, children with abusive parents and printers. But she is also patron saint for blacksmiths, boatmen, brewers, cattle, chicken farmers, dairy maids, fugitives, mariners, nuns, poets, poor, sailors, scholars, travellers, watermen and Ireland!

It is this reach of her legend which interests me. That long list of those to whom she is “patron” is a list of those who come under her care. They become the people she entertained with God’s blessing in her life, whether her actual life or the life as it has come to be in culture. That long list represents an enormous reach in prayer and practice and is a measure of the extent of God’s embrace.

The honouring and celebration of saints are spread liberally through our calendar. They help to make us a people of thanksgiving, and they help to make us a people of prayer. From what we have made of Brigid our prayers can stretch from children in abusive homes to midwives, from boatmen to brewers, from sailors to scholars, from fugitives to poets. All of them are taken in by God. Normally I wouldn’t give them a second thought and would pass them by. But today, thank Brigid, I think again and remember the reach of God’s love, his particular intentions and his call for us to love like him.

The photo is by Amanda Slater, showing what is known as a Brigid cross. These crosses are traditionally made on February 1st. They are made from rushes or straw and hang in many kitchens as protection from fire and evil.

PS. I asked John Bleazard, Rector of St Bridget’s West Kirby to contribute to this piece after being moved by what he was telling me about what is happening in his parish and other parishes he knows dedicated to St Bridget, or St Bride. I’m really grateful for this that he writes on how St Brigid’s tradition is kept alive. John writes:

Good to see you remembering Bridget on 1st February, David.

As rector of the 1,000 years-old St Bridget’s Church here in West Kirby, I find myself planning a patronal festival service each year and researching stories about her. Apparently she was once short of drink to offer proper hospitality to some guests, and so prayed over a bath full of dirty washing up water which happily then turned into beer. Hence Bridget becoming known as the patron saint of beer, and why of course, with that knowledge, we just had to organise a weekend beer festival here at St Bridget’s!

In my introductory notes for the patronal service order of service booklet this year, I wrote: “…it is said that Bridget was the keeper of a sacred flame in the church at Kildare that her nuns kept alight for 1,000 years. In the dark days of early February this notion of Bridget keeping an everlasting light has become entwined with that of Jesus being revealed as the light of all the nations at Candlemas, and also with the old Celtic festival of Imbolc that welcomes the return of light and warmth as Winter turns to Spring.

“Bridget is one of only a very few female saints from Celtic times, so her revered place is testimony to her outstanding leadership and holiness. It is said that when she was taking her vows as a nun a ring of fire appeared over her head. In awe of this, Bridget was ordained a bishop by mistake!”

Knowing this history, (or should I say, hagiography or is it legend?) about Bridget as a pioneer of women’s ministry in a man’s world, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the present day St Bridget’s church congregation have signed up as members of Inclusive Church and campaign for full and equal treatment of everyone within the church regardless of sex, sexuality, or other forms of discrimination.

What is more striking is how many other churches dedicated to St Bridget are also involved in the Inclusive Church movement – indeed I’m going to a meeting of Inclusive Churches next Saturday – where? St Bride’s, Liverpool of course!

How exactly does this patronage or influence remain down the centuries? Robert Warren in Healthy Churches Handbook talks about the angel of the church – and how we might better understand decision making processes and the outlooks of churches if we discovered more about the personality and identity of the church’s angel (or patron?) as first described in the letter to the churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. The letters are addressed: “to the angel of the church in…”  Warren quotes from Walter Wink’s book, The Powers That Be, who says that “The angel of the church is the coincidence of what the church is – it’s personality – and what it is called to become – it’s vocation.” We at St Bridget’s need to look back at where we have come from, but also need to look forwards to what we are becoming.

I was very struck by what Revd Dr Peter McGrail of Liverpool Hope University said to us in his Patronal Festival sermon here at our service this year about the potential impact and legacy of St Bridget on how we make decisions in our church. Peter pointed out that Bridget is this ambiguous person with stories of the Christian Abbess of Kildare mingling with the Irish Goddess Briege. He asked: “Where does one stop and the other start?”

Maybe this ambiguous hagiography is one reason why St Bridget’s church was (and is) “…a melting pot of ideas, a liminal, threshold place where human thought and action is extended and broadened.” I would add, too, that maybe the influence of the parish dedication to St Bridget is why a whole range of different views on any given topic are represented among the congregation. If that is the case, then our decision making needs to recognise this diversity.

Peter McGrail concluded his sermon: “The challenge we face is how to engage with issues around … who is the “other” as we follow Jesus who … transgressed humanity’s deepest taboos with regard to the sacred, and who set in motion a radical refusal to be bound by the barriers that humans set against other humans. Perhaps a parish dedicated to St Bridget that in it’s origins straddled boundaries between peoples and traditions might offer some insights?”

What would Jesus do? What would Bridget say? What is St Bridget’s Church here in West Kirby call to be and become under the influence of our patron, Bridget?

John Bleazard, March 2017