Sunday, February 01, 2009

The feast of St. Brigid

Today, February 1st, is the feast of St. Brigid, one of the three patron saints of Ireland — the other two being Patrick (March 17th) and Columcille (June 9th).

Very little is known of Brigid’s life, and much of what is related about her in typical biographical sketches is quite frankly unhistorical. This is due partly to the chronological distance that separates her from even her earliest biographers, and partly to the peculiar nature of Irish hagiography, which more often reflects the political conditions prevailing within the early Irish Church, with monastic paruchiae contending with one another for ecclesiastical one-upmanship, and in which the motive for writing the life of a saint was often geared towards enhancement of the social and political standing of the church founded by that saint than any concern for historical integrity or spiritual edification.

Now some readers might be tempted to cry out “modernism!”, since the modernists are well known for their cavalier approach to the lives of the saints, dismissing on the basis of higher criticism whole episodes or even entire lives as fabricated legend. But where medieval Irish hagiography is concerned, may God help us and the reputation of Holy Mother Church should even half the contents of these ‘Lives’ be true! But let us first distinguish the approach of the modernists from that of Melancholicus.

Melancholicus is a Christian, and consequently believes that miracles can happen, that they do happen, and that they have happened in the lives of the saints.

But a belief in the reality of the miraculous does not require us to give credence to every fantastic tale or to the pious fibs that abound throughout the lives of all early Irish saints. Indeed, one bemused seventeenth-century Bollandist described the contents of many such ‘Lives’ as so ridiculous that they might move the minds of those who heard them more easily to laughter and derision than to piety and devotion. This Melancholicus would not dispute, especially not after having read Whitley Stokes’ edition of the Félire Oengusso (Martyrology of Oengus) as well as Plummer’s Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae. It is a matter of sober fact that there is less edification than disedification in these outrageous narratives.

The example par excellence of the victim of such tendentious hagiography is St. Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland and the most illustrious name in the Irish calendar of the blessed. Patrick did not of course convert Ireland single-handed. He was assisted by others, and there was at least one mission, led by Palladius (who is otherwise unknown), which was commissioned directly by Celestine I, the pope of Rome. The names of such fifth-century missionary bishops as Secundinus, Isserninus and Auxilius (at least two of whom left their mark on place-names in the province of Leinster) are represented in the hagiography as having been Patrick’s suffragans. No mention of them, however, is recorded in Patrick’s own surviving writings, and O’Rahilly has argued (credibly to my mind) that they were associated with the official Roman mission rather than with St. Patrick. Their names point to an origin in Roman Gaul rather than post-Roman Britain, and it was from the latter that Patrick set out on his mission to bring the Christian faith to the heathen Irish.

We are fortunate today in having first-hand documentary evidence of St. Patrick’s life and career in the form of two documents written by the saint himself. These are his Confessio—a kind of apologia justifying his mission against criticism by his superiors in Britain—and his Epistola, a letter written in anguish to a British king named Coroticus after soldiers in the service of the latter had made a slave-raid against Ireland and had borne off into captivity many of Patrick’s recent converts. Sadly, although St. Patrick’s writings are the very earliest surviving documentary sources of Irish provenance, they contain very little information about the society and politics of the time, nor do they contain much in the way of Patrick’s own history. They do, however, touchingly reveal their author’s personality—a man of profound humility and charity, a man animated with love for almighty God and for souls, a self-effacing man, not proud, or boastful, or vaunting of his achievements, but one who was content to recognize himself as a sinner, as the least of the world’s cast-offs, even as a failure. It is Patrick’s humility and love which makes him truly great, and which has proved so attractive even to his most recent biographers. There is no doubt that the man truly was a saint.

Patrick died some time around the year 500. The precise year is unknown. The ‘official’ dates (for there are two) of his obituary are A.D. 461 and 493. In the course of the turbulent sixth century—a time of wars, epidemics, climatic upheaval and rapid social change—Patrick’s mission was largely forgotten, and his legacy was in danger of being eclipsed by the reputation of more recent rising stars, particularly Ciarán of Clonmacnoise (†549), Columcille (†597), Comgall of Bangor († c. 600) and the latter’s famous alumnus Columbanus (†615). In the course of the seventh century, the church of Armagh—originally established by Patrick as a diocese and now re-modelled along monastic lines—made its first bid for primacy over the other Irish churches, and began producing hagiography to that effect. The first victim of this propaganda was Patrick himself, and in effect the memory of the historical St. Patrick who so edifies us from the pages of his Confessio was effaced in favour of a literary construct modelled on the heroes of contemporary secular saga, and just as violent, vindictive, and ultimately disedifying. Readers who are interested may care to read Patrick’s own works and compare their author with the baleful figure who emerges from the seventh-century biographies by Muirchú and Tírechán.

So now, back to St. Brigid.

Quid Patricius cum Brigita? In a word, everything! The same cautionary remarks made about Patrician hagiography can also be applied to Brigid, save that while we have Patrick’s own writings to warn us against the excesses of his seventh-century biographers, we have no such check in the case of Brigid. If she wrote anything, it has not survived, and what has been written about her in the centuries immediately following her death has more to do with enhancing the political standing of the church of Kildare than with concern for the historical record.

Brigid died (at least according to the annals) in 524. The same annals also record the year of her birth—variously 452 or 456—showing that the Brigidine material was entered retrospectively at a much later date, probably as late as the ninth century. There is no contemporary witness to her life or her career, and much of what is related about her in the medieval biographies composed long after her death is freely invented—frei erfunden, as our German friends might say.

Melancholicus remembers reading Donncha Ó hAodha’s edition of Bethu Brigte in the original for his B.A. in Early Irish many years ago. This vita, which is the earliest surviving saint’s Life written mostly in Irish, may be dated to the ninth century, and hence to the Old Irish period. The pious reader who cares to read through the translation of this work will notice many unedifying features of the conduct and presentation of Brigid’s character which are hardly compatible with charity and great sanctity. There are also episodes which quite simply cannot have happened, since they contain violations of either faith or morals on the part of our saint, or reveal their spurious nature by their blatantly political overtones.

The actions attributed to our saint by the hagiographer are often too crude to be even remotely credible. In Bethu Brigte, §15, we see Brigid’s brothers displeased at her for her refusal to wed, thus depriving them of the bride-price they would get from her prospective husband. One of the brothers, Bacéne, taunts his sister, telling her that “the beautiful eye that is in your head will be betrothed to a man though you like it not”. The reaction of the genuine St. Brigid to such familial pressure would be to bear patiently her brother’s displeasure and to pray to God for him and for them all. But the response of the Brigid created by the hagiographer is utterly revolting: she gouges out her own eye and hands it to Bacéne, with the words “here is that beautiful eye for you. I deem it unlikely that anyone will ask for a blind girl”, a telling episode which reveals something of the undercurrents of Manichaeism which could be found in certain corners of the early Irish Church. As if this horrifying self-mutilation were not enough, Brigid then curses Bacéne (and his descendants!), saying without a trace of love or pity, “soon your two eyes will burst in your head”. And the childish hagiographer rounds off this ignoble paragraph with vindicated relish: et sic factum est.

Sometimes, even today, the ridiculous content of these ‘Lives’ can come back to haunt us in unexpected ways. For instance, an episode in the earliest Latin life—that by Cogitosus, which may be as early as the seventh century—sees a young woman vowed to chastity falling prey to a seducer and conceiving a child in the process. Brigid, we are told, placed her hands on the swollen belly, causing the foetus to “disappear”, after which everyone is happy again. This matter is no less fictitious than it is distasteful. In the run-up to that disastrous referendum on the protection of human life in pregnancy in March 2002, a silly woman writing in The Irish Times—without any regard to the facts of history or any understanding of the nature of early Irish hagiography—used this same fictitious nonsense to argue that in this instance, St. Brigid had “performed an abortion”. This was in order to co-opt the figure of St. Brigid for the pro-abort cadre and at the same time to undercut the authority of the Irish bishops’ conference, which was calling for a yes vote in the referendum.

Another potentially embarrassing episode occurs in Bethu Brigte, a text to which we have already referred. In §19, St. Mel of Ardagh († c. 488), being “intoxicated with the Holy Spirit”, consecrates Brigid to the episcopate, and we are told that during her “consecration” that a “fiery column ascended from her head”. This can only be recognized for what it is, namely a breathtakingly cynical attempt by the church of Kildare to make up for its embarrassment at having a woman for its founder, or at least one not in sacred orders. Though this episode is without the slightest doubt fictitious, I am surprised it has not been used by our liberal enemies as a stick wherewith to beat the Church for denying that there were “women bishops” in the early centuries of Christianity. Perhaps Melancholicus should not speak so loudly; he doesn’t want to give them any juicy ideas.


February 1st is also the Celtic feast of Imbolc, associated with veneration of the goddess Brigantia, tutelary deity of the Brigantes, a people who in the Iron Age occupied what is now northern England, a branch of whom also existed in county Wexford in Ireland, at least according to the map of prehistoric Ireland drawn up in the second century by the geographer and astronomer Ptolemy of Alexandria.

The discerning reader will notice a startling similarity between the names of the pagan goddess Brigantia and the Christian saint Brigid. In these days of weak faith it is fashionable for the figure of the latter to be subsumed into the former; in effect, ‘St. Brigid’ is merely a euhemerized version of Brigantia, not a real person who enjoyed independent historical existence. One can only conclude that the feminazis feel more empowered fantasizing about goddesses than about nuns. Scandalously, an elderly Benedictine monk from that slightly barmy community in Glenstal, county Limerick, appeared on RTÉ television some years ago and waxed lyrical about Brigantia, not at all rebutting the sexy notion that the St. Brigid venerated in Catholic tradition is ‘based’ on the pagan goddess.

If Brigid really were ‘based’ on Brigantia, how come that in the early Christian period we find her cultus in Kildare, and not in Wexford? Just a thought.

Say again brother, how many vocations do you guys get in Glenstal these days?

Imbolc is one of four feasts at three monthly intervals throughout the year, the others being Beltaine (1st May), Lugnasad (1st August) and Samain (1st November).

The neo-pagans love these festivals, even though precious little is known of their actual significance in pre-Christian Ireland. Melancholicus might add that as the Catholic religion in this country continues to wither, the vacuum left in its place is gradually being filled by ‘alternative’ spiritualities. There is even an association of some sort devoted to ancient ‘pagan’ and ‘druidic’ practices. Melancholicus remembers seeing these idiots on an RTÉ news report at Imbolc in 2002, running around a wet field with twigs and foliage tied to their bodies. There was a fire lit in the centre of the field, giving off a great cloud of grey smoke and the be-twigged gobshites were taking turns leaping through it. Heaven knows what they thought they were doing, or what they could thereby accomplish.

St. Brigid, pray for us!


Lioness said...

Thank you for discrediting the story that Brigid performed an "abortion". I have not words to express the dismay and sorrow I felt when I first encountered this "story". But on considering it, indeed many tales of the saints must be made up (of course some can be true), and what's more, miracles performed by a saint are *acts of God*, God working through a saint. Therefore, one can rightly conclude that God would never, not ever, cause an abortion or miscarriage in someone through a saint. It goes against His very nature. Besides, Brigid is patroness of babies, children, midwives, etc. This absurd story, however old it may be, doesn't jive with that.

Brigid is my own beloved patroness and it moves me to tears and anger to think of how she has been co-opted by the leftists and modernists and radical feminists, blasphemed and defamed. :( I guess it's no different than the tripe and blasphemy spouted off about Jesus, His Mother, or any other saint. May God have mercy on them and forgive them. Saint Brigid, pray for us and for an end to abortion!

Melancholicus said...

Thank you, Lioness, for your feedback. Since my blog is no longer active, I have sometimes thought of deleting it; but the fact that you have found this post profitable indicates there is still some value in it.