Friday 30 September 2016

With spring in the air, a timely reminder of St Brigid - a woman for all seasons

Clodagh Finn

Published 02/02/2016 | 02:30

'It seems the adherents of the early church had no problem accepting that a woman could be at the top of one of the most powerful institutions of the time. Is it unfair to say that we seem to have gone backwards?'
'It seems the adherents of the early church had no problem accepting that a woman could be at the top of one of the most powerful institutions of the time. Is it unfair to say that we seem to have gone backwards?'

You won't find her name on any list of 21st-century female role models but maybe it's time to change that. St Brigid, whose feast day yesterday marked a faltering start to spring, was an awe-inspiring force of nature who deserves far more recognition.

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She had more power in the early Catholic Church than any woman alive today. She founded her own monastery in the fifth century.

She was a gifted administrator, a powerful abbess, an eloquent speaker and a revered holy woman, not to mention a prolific miracle worker.

In Cogitosus's 7th-century account of her life, there's a thrilling description of her yoking up her chariot and speeding to a king's palace to save an innocent man from certain death.

He writes of her "outstanding and innumerable miracles" and "the tumultuous applause of the multitude admiring (her) marvellous feats".

Cogitosus was writing a little over a century after Brigid's death, though it's hard to pinpoint with any accuracy when - or indeed where - she was born.

Many accounts say she was born to a chieftain and a slave in Kildare sometime around 450AD.

In some ways, the details of her life are immaterial. What is fascinating is that by the 7th century, a woman called Brigid was held in the same esteem as Ireland's two male patron saints, St Patrick and St Columba. One account of her life claims that she was, in fact, a bishop.

The story goes that Mel, the Bishop of Ardagh, was so moved by the grace of God when professing her that he mistakenly ordained her a bishop.

Flames were said to have come from her head - a symbol of divine approval.

What is more impressive, though, is the following she gained in Ireland and later across Europe. By the 12th century, more biographies - or rather hagiographies - had been written about her than any other Irish saint.

It seems the adherents of the early church had no problem accepting that a woman could be at the top of one of the most powerful institutions of the time.

Is it unfair to say that we seem to have gone backwards?

It is absolutely wearying to see that women still have to fight their way to the top of today's powerful institutions.

They are under-represented at the top level in every single area of public life - the church, business, education and politics. In some countries, they are not even represented at all.

Saudi women, for example, may have secured the vote but they are still severely restricted in their daily lives.

No wonder UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon felt the need to make women's economic empowerment a top priority at last week's World Economic Forum in Davos.

He said he was setting up a high-level panel of experts to help close the gender gap and allow half the world's population participate fully in economic activity.

It's not just about basic human rights. Here are the hard financial facts of the matter: if women in every country played an identical role in markets to men, the global economy would grow by a staggering 28 trillion dollars by 2025, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that women had a better deal in life in early Christian Ireland.

Look back through the annals of Irish history and women, if visible, are seldom seen outside the home.

However, it's hard to think of a 21st-century woman who is as powerful or as revered as Brigid clearly was during her lifetime and for many centuries afterwards.

Cogitosus runs out of adjectives to describe her virtue, her renown and her wise administration over Kildare, said to be "the safest city of refuge in the whole Ireland".

He describes her singular empathy with the poor and with nature as he details a dizzying array of miracles. There was so much more to the cult of Brigid than the cross of woven rushes that has endured as a symbol of her faith and devotion.

She made blind men see, restored speech to a dumb girl, turned water into ale, a stone into salt and cured men of their wickedness and gluttony.

There's one charming tale about how she hung her cloak on a sunbeam to dry.

That same cloak features in another well-known story: when Brigid wanted to build her monastery, she asked the King of Leinster for only as much land as that famous garment would cover.

When he agreed, four nuns held each corner of it and ran in all directions as it spread over the whole area of the Curragh.

True, the stories are fanciful and magical, though some of them provide a fascinating insight into the mores and thinking of the time.

There is a fascinating account of how Brigid "miraculously ended a pregnancy", again in the account of her life written by Cogitosus.

"A certain woman who had taken the vow of chastity fell, through youthful desire of pleasure, and her womb swelled with child," the account says.

Brigid, "exercising the most potent strength of her ineffable faith" blessed her, causing what had been conceived to disappear. The woman was returned "to health and to penance".

Let's not even try to suggest what that means but it certainly opens the way for a far more nuanced and detailed discussion on the role of women, not only in early Ireland but now.

If only Brigid herself could ride in on her chariot to join us.

Irish Independent

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