St. Brigid of Kildare did not get to tell her own story. She was most likely illiterate, as were most people in 5th century Ireland. But stories about her circulated after her death and were eventually written down. By men. Men in the Church. And because each of her hagiographies (called “Lives” in the tradition) draws from this same oral tradition, we can see how they have been shaped by the needs of those men in the Church of their time and place. They choose slightly different stories to convey and tell them in slightly different ways. As they tell the story, Brigid found God’s favor because she was a virgin, perfectly chaste – a narrative that sustains the patriarchy. But the stories themselves, well, tell a different story.
Brigid was a saint because she lived deeply into her values of abundance, hospitality, and justice. Most of her miracles involved the multiplication of food and drink. She did this to feed the hungry or to entertain unexpected guests. She had a habit of giving away other people’s things. She gave away her father’s sword. She gave someone else’s bacon to a dog. But these things were always replaced. She had complete confidence in God’s provision, so that she never worried about what belonged to who. Her concern was always for the hungry, the impoverished, and the marginalized, so she tricked the powerful out of their possessions to shame them and to provide for those in need. Brigid’s hagiographers painted a portrait of a servant of a patriarchal church, but she was her own woman guided by God’s sense of justice, often in direct opposition to the patriarchy that would tame her.
She was the child of an Irish king and his slave. The king sold her mother, but kept her because a wizard said she would be special. Like all women of the time, she was at the mercy of men, property to be traded among men. It was an act of rebellion when she decided to take the veil, a refusal to marry, which deprived her brothers of the dowry. When one of her brothers groused about it, she plucked out her own eye and said, “I guess no man will want me now.” Then she made his eye explode in his head. She replaced her own, washed it in a well, and it was completely restored. Though a dramatic example, her response to the possibility of marriage was not unlike many other women who joined convents as a means to claim their own agency.
It is possible that Brigid no only rejected men, but loved women. As with all hagiographies, the evidence is not great either way. The story at the core of it is that Brigid shared a bed with her favorite nun, Darlugdach. Darlugdach also had eyes for a man, so she planned to sneak out one night after Brigid had fallen asleep. Brigid, whether through the gift of prophecy or by reading the rumor mill, knew of the tryst, so she put hot coals in Durlugdach’s wooden shoes. Darlugdach was burned and decided to return to bed. Because of her repentance, Brigid made the burns disappear.
The evidence that they were lovers is scant. The story was first written down in the 8th century, two hundred years after Brigid’s death, and it frames Brigid’s actions in terms of her commitment to purity. Peter Beresford Ellis claims that Brigid was jealous. While that’s not what the story says, the argument that they could not possibly be lovers is extremely weak. The argument put forward by Catherine Harrington has three points: 1) the story does, in fact, say that Brigid was pious, not jealous; 2) there is a tradition in Irish legend of servants longing to be the favorite of the king and earn a place in the king’s bed; 3) same-sex relations were known and forbidden.
While the first point is true on its face, it ignores a lot of context. It was written in the 8th century when there were indeed rules about same-sex relations in convents and monasteries. But that says nothing about what the rules were in 5th century Ireland. What if a story of Brigid and Darlugdach as lovers had persisted in the oral tradition, but, when written down by men three centuries later, the story is shifted to support the values of the Church of the time? It’s interesting that Darlugdach takes over leadership of Kildare after Brigid’s death. Those positions were typically inherited within family.
The second argument is patently absurd. Harrington states flatly that sharing the king’s bed was completely non-sexual. However, Brigid’s own mother was the favorite of the king and here we have Brigid.
The third is similarly naive. The reason rules are made is to control behavior that is actually happening. Given the time gap between Brigid and the writing of the story, it seems plausible that rules in effect in the 8th century were developed to address ongoing behavior, perhaps as far back as Brigid. It is quite possible that female lovers were acceptable – or, more likely, completely invisible – in Brigid’s time, but a shifting political and religious climate made it unacceptable later.
Brigid also fought the patriarchy in another way that speaks into our current moment: abortion. I’ll skip my diatribe from Sunday, but one of Brigid’s miracles was terminating the pregnancy of a nun who had violated her vow of celibacy. Such pregnancies were not unusual. Women joined the convent to claim their own agency, but they were not always ultimately disinterested in men. The Church was always on guard against the sin of lust, though they failed pretty badly at preventing it. Typically, the offending nuns were welcomed back into the convent without punishment. The child would be born and either raised in the convent or adopted out. But Brigid took the step of terminating the pregnancy. Think about that: one of the miracles that qualified Brigid as a saint in the Catholic Church is performing an abortion!
Brigid’s hagiography is a testament that the things we think are necessarily true of Christendom have shifted along with cultural values. There was a time when the Church performed same-sex weddings. It at one time was not scandalized by same-sex lovers among the religious. It affirmed abortion as a valid option for people of faith. So when we look at the current culture war over homosexuality and abortion, we should not believe for a second that these are necessary parts of our faith. They are constructed to support a political agenda that, just like the writings of Brigid’s hagiographers, overwhelmingly benefits men – straight, white men. Instead, we should point back to Brigid’s real values.
She is probably best known for her image of heaven as a lake of beer. Full disclosure: this was not written by her; it’s an 11th century poem attributed to her. However, I think it encapsulates her values, the values to which those who venerate her should aspire:
I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings;
I should like the family of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like the viands of belief and pure piety;
I should like flails of penance at my house.
I should like the people of Heaven in my own house;
I should like big tubs of peace to be at their disposal.
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like caves of mercy for their company.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking;
I should like Jesus, too, to be here among them.
I should like all three Marys of illustrious renown;
I should like the people of Heaven there from all parts.
I should like that I be a rent-payer to God;
That, should I suffer distress, God would bestow upon me a good blessing.
This is not just a feast for feast’s sake, but a means of reconciliation of all people to one another and to God. Before she fed people, she always insisted that her guests take spiritual sustenance first. And here in heaven, those two are fused together, drinking cheerfulness and tubs of peace like butter. It’s a broad family of God brought together through an eternal feast. This has been the most consistent feature of Church in the Cliff, gathering around a table for physical and spiritual sustenance. The spirit of St. Brigid dwells with us. Amen.