In 2009 I published the text of the homily for the feast of Saint Brigid from the Leabhar Breac here and here. I found as an interesting contrast a meditation on the life of Saint Brigid by a nineteenth-century priest, written as one of a series of model homilies for the use of priests and seminarians. The view of Saint Brigid here is that of an exemplar of purity, charity and the religious life, this is Brigid the saint not Brigid the social worker. It is deliciously politically incorrect, the author considers that God's glory is revealed by the choice of a weak woman to be a tower of strength. Our patroness embodies the innocence of Eve before the Fall with the strength of Judith and the perfection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I find it particularly interesting to see how the writer perceived Saint Brigid's role as a national patron, although the idea of Ireland being under the triple patronage of Ss. Patrick, Brigid and Columbcille had been established after the Norman conquest, here Patrick's primacy is re-asserted and Brigid assigned the role of female auxiliary. What he is to the entire Irish Church, she is to Irish women in particular. Inevitably though, as this is a priest writing for other priests, the author is most concerned with Saint Brigid as a nun and he concludes with a prayer asking her to act not only as a patroness to the people but as a special intercessor for the clergy.
ON ST. BRIGID, PATRONESS OF IRELAND.
"Tu gloria Jerusalem, tu laetitia Israel, tu honorificentia populi nostri."— Judith, Xv, 10.
ST. Brigid, one of the first of our saints, and the queen of our virgins, shed a lustre and a purity on the ancient Church of Ireland. Innocent like Eve in the garden before her fall, animated with strength and fortitude such as Judith had when God nerved her arm and made her the protection of Israel, endowed with the greatest perfections like the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the refuge of all sinners and the mother of many virtues, St. Brigid was the light and glory of the infant Church, and contributed in no small degree to the spread of the faith, and to the observance of virtue among the people.
What St. Patrick was to the whole Church generally, St. Brigid was to those of her own sex in particular, instructing and infusing into them the spirit of true religion, and leaving them the example of perfect virtue. Though St. Patrick was the great founder and apostle of the Church in this country— though his labours were great and unceasing—though his missionaries went on all sides, and he himself "exultavit ut gigas ad currendam viam" still it was impossible for him to do everything required. The special need which the Church then had, the Almighty God supplied by raising up St. Brigid, who not only greatly contributed to the conversion of the people, and to the practice of piety amongst them, but also infused into many of the women of Ireland the love of the religious life, and the devotion to the virtues and perfections of the cloister, which have never since passed away. This was the flame which St. Brigid lighted up in faithful hearts, which was symbolised by that perpetual fire burning for many ages at her shrine, which has survived the change of manners and the lapse of time, and the spirit of which is to-day as rife among the people as when St. Brigid laboured at her noble mission with so much success, when God spoke through the wonders of her power, and through the works of her hands.
1. Her virtues and her miracles.
Consider and admire the inscrutable ways of that God who is "wonderful in his saints" and who chose a weak woman to be a tower of strength and a prodigy of virtue. No flesh should glory in his sight, for he has made the weak to confound the strong, he has selected a poor virgin, who was an outcast and a wanderer, not only to be an example of the greatest perfection by the subjugation of her passions, and to reflect in her life the virtues of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also to exercise a wonderful influence in leading souls to God, and in bringing them to the observance of the counsels of the Gospel, and to the highest practice of religious discipline.
St. Brigid not only excelled in the ordinary Christian virtues in an uncommon degree, but God gave her gifts and powers which are bestowed on few. St. Brigid had great humility; she had a heart full of kindness and compassion; she had the open and melting hand of charity. Her purity shone above all her other virtues, shunning and flying from every thing which could wound it in the slightest degree. In this she most resembled the Blessed Virgin Mary, and hence was she truly called "the Mary of Erin," because of her angelic purity, and of the perfection of her divine love.
This holy soul, so full of God's grace and such a vessel of election, God did not suffer to pass her tranquil years in the quiet and innocence of her cloister life, and in the strict observance of holy discipline. God had other designs, and for their accomplishment in his Church he gave to St. Brigid extraordinary gifts, and mysterious power. Accordingly, like her Divine Saviour she went about in signs and wonders. Wherever she went she left the evidence of her merciful compassion, and she spread around her the gifts and the blessings of God. She made the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, the blind to see, and the dead she restored to life, until all confessed that God spoke through the mouth of his servant, and that his power was in her hands.
As our Divine Saviour went through Palestine, visiting different places, so St. Brigid went about doing good in different parts of Ireland. She passed her early youth and made the vows of her religious life at Ussny, under the care of St. Maccaille. She visited the sainted prelate of Ardagh—St. Mel, who was rich in faith and in many virtues. St. Patrick, who was her great and sainted friend, she saw on his death bed, hearing his last prayer, and receiving his last sigh. Many years of her life she passed in the South, founding, wherever she went, houses of religion, and maintaining in them the observance of discipline and the practice of virtue, but it was on the vast plain of Kildare, by the Cell of the Oak, that she fixed her permanent home, and at the foot of that tower which even now exists, and which is the memorial of the ancient days and the mystery of our own, she lighted up the fire of true religion, and spread around far and near the faith and the love of Jesus Christ in the hearts of the people.
2. Her special mission.
Consider also the noble work and special mission which God called on her to fulfil. Even at that early period of the conversion of the island, the Christian religion took such hold, and made such progress in the hearts of many, that they not only observed the precepts of the Gospel, but they were also anxious to practise and to observe the evangelical counsels. Men and women with holy enthusiasm went to the altar, to give their lives to God as a perpetual sacrifice, and it was in the religious life, which regulates and sustains this divine ardour, that they found the fullest gratification of their hopes and wishes.
Inspired by God, St. Brigid continued, if she did not commence, the conventual institution in Ireland, and brought it, even in her own time, to a most happy issue, and made it produce the most wonderful results. Communities of holy virgins, overcoming the weakness of their sex, and the temptations of the world, sprung up under the hand of St. Brigid, and living under the rule which she prescribed, served God in holiness and fear, and made their lives the practice of the perfection and of the praise of God. This was the seed which St. Brigid sowed in Ireland, which even in the worst of times has produced the most happy fruits, and which, thanks be to the Almighty God, the Father of mercies and the giver of every good gift, is reviving to-day with a strength and power which are worthy of the best and most noble ages of the faith.
O holy St. Brigid, thou who art the light, the ornament, and the glory of the Church of Ireland, be the heavenly patron of its people, and be the especial friend and the protectress of the priests of the sanctuary. Let those who offer sacrifice to the name of God, be worthy of their exalted duties. Shew forth in their lives the form of all perfection and cover them with the robe of holiness. Let them love justice and hate iniquity. Let their prayer be like incense in the sight of heaven. Let their doctrine be saving and salutary to the people, and let the odour of their lives be the delight of the Church of God.
Ecclesiastical Meditations Suitable for Priests on the Mission and Students in Diocesan Seminaries by a Catholic Clergyman (Dublin, 1866), 250-255.
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