Friday, January 31, 2014

ST. BRIGID OF KILDARE AND IRISH OAT CAKES


St. Brigid was born around 453 A.D. in Fauchart, Ireland, within a Celtic pagan culture. She became a Christian, a nun, the Abbess of Kildare, one of the “Pillars of the Irish people,” and one of the Patron Saints of Ireland (along with St. Patrick and St. Columba). She died around 523 A.D. Her feast day is February 1 and she is honored in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican (including Episcopal) Churches. Beloved in Ireland, she is remembered as the “Mary of Gael” and in the naming of baby girls “Brigid” in her honor.

The actual date of her death is unknown, as are a great many facts about her life due to the ancient Celtic culture of storytelling. The first hagiographers of St. Brigid, those writing within the first few centuries of her death, didn’t set out to write an actual biography. Their mission was to write about the saint’s glorious miracles and wondrous attributes in the form of a spiritual guidebook. To write about the saint’s day-to-day events which showed her humanity was considered too personal and disrespectful. Also that kind of biography would be boring and wouldn’t sell.

This type of Celtic hagiography gave us the heroic stories of St. Patrick battling the snakelike druids and banishing them all from Ireland. We know that it didn’t happen that way because St. Patrick wrote a Confession about his life that survived through the ages. For my post on his life see St. Patrick of Ireland. 

Thankfully, we do have some historical evidence of the existence of St. Brigid in the Roman/Latin biographies of other saints from her time. She was definitely the abbess of a joint convent and monastery called Kildare in Ireland. She was a child during the time of St. Patrick’s old age and she was influenced by his preaching, if not actually baptized by him and maybe even acquainted with him during her childhood.

Somewhere within this story is the truth, and in this case, a little dancing about the truth won’t really hurt.

St. Brigid was named after a Celtic pagan goddess of spring, fire, and fertility. Whether she was named Brigid as an infant or later changed her name is unknown. The name is based on brigh meaning "strength" in the Celtic language. Brigid (Bridget, Bridgit, Brid, Briddie,) means “bride” in English. So this may be a case of taking on the name of one’s occupation – the bride of Jesus.  

Brigid was born to Dubhthach, a pagan landowner, and his slave Brocca, a Christian. This was a common condition in Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. Some slaves were already Christian when they were captured by boarder raiders and sold to landowners or clan leaders. Others were converted by St. Patrick who traveled around preaching, teaching, converting, baptizing, and ordaining priests and bishops. He felt a particular calling to serve the slaves as he suffered their same fate for six years before he escaped.

Since early Christians were taught to work hard and obey their masters for their reward is in Heaven, the landowners allowed their slaves to practice Christianity. It’s quite possible that Brigid’s father allowed her to be baptized as a Christian and may even have become a Christian himself. It’s also possible that Brigid was baptized by St. Patrick along with thousands of others over his long life.

Brigid grew into a beautiful girl who had a certain flair as a milkmaid. Somehow, the cows gave more buckets of milk for her than they did for the other maids. Brigid also churned this milk into more butter than the other maids could. In this miraculous way, Brigid was able to give food to the poor while still having plenty of food for the master’s table.

Perhaps as a young girl, Brigid traveled with other Christians to hear St. Patrick preach. Maybe she even shared a conversation or two with him. One way or another, before Patrick died, he influenced Brigid who focused her desire to serve her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

As Brigid grew, so did her calling to serve the poor. Very much like young St. Francis of Assisi, she had no trouble sharing her father’s/master’s wealth with the poor as they simply needed it more. One can imagine that Dubhthach was not happy watching his wealth being shared so liberally with all who came to Brigid. Even though a great many of the miracles attributed to St. Brigid were based on multiplications of foods like Jesus and the loaves and fishes, Dubhthach finally had enough of Brigid giving away his stuff.

He tried to pass her off to their King Loeghaire as a gift. While Brigid waited in the wagon for Dubhthach to arrange an audience, Brigid gave away her father’s fine sword, an earlier gift from the king, to a beggar because there was no food in the wagon. When the king questioned why she would do such a thing, she said the beggar needed the sword more than her father did. King Loeghaire laughed and granted Brigid her freedom.

She traveled with other Christians to Bishop Macaile of Wesmeath to be blessed as a nun. Several miracle stories are connected with this event. The first is that between the time she made her decision to become a bride of Christ and her trip to Wesmeath, she prayed that no man desire her as a wife. Overnight, an infection occurred in her eye which swelled and disfigured her face.

Later, as she knelt to receive the nun’s veil from the bishop, a fire appeared above her head much like the apostles at Pentecost. Then the bishop ordained her as a full-fledged bishop, which created an uproar from the attending priests to which he responded, “Are ye daft? Did ye not see the Holy Flame above the lass's head?” Or something like that.

When Brigid stood up, the disfigurement was completely gone and she radiated the spiritual beauty of a bride of Christ.

Perhaps it's more likely that Brigid was ordained with the Episcopal orders of an abbess. Either way, in the early centuries of Roman Catholicism, women, especially in Ireland, could hold positions of authority in the Church.

Brigid returned to King Loeghaire to petition for a plot of land for a convent. The size of the convent’s plot is believed to be the size of Brigid’s cloak when it was tossed into the air and miraculously multiplied in size. The king had to grant her all that vast landscape because he had promised.

Brigid and a group of nuns founded this convent at Kildare which translates to “Church of the Oak.” The land contained a former shrine to the goddess Brigid with a perpetual fire kept lit to honor her. Brigid said, “We’ll keep the fire burning, but we rededicate it to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the One True God.”

The people said, “Sounds good to us.” 

Some druids may have tried to convince the people that they’d be cursed if they didn’t honor their gods, but in time the people stopped listening to them and those druids faded away. Other druids realized that Jesus was the One True God and converted because it made sense to them as the next level of their own beliefs.

Indeed, St. Patrick and the early Christian leaders incorporated Celtic pagan beliefs into Irish Christianity. It seems like it was the polite way to do it. Plus it worked. It’s also why Celtic Christianity has its own charming personality and traditions.

Brigid invited the anchorite Conlaed to bring his monks and build a monastery on the same grounds. Conlaed served as priest to both the nuns and the monks while Brigid ran the whole show as abbess and represented the abbey at Church conventions.

It’s likely that Brocca joined her daughter at the abbey and helped provide food and other necessities to the poor. Other laypeople also helped do the work necessary to share God’s message in a loaf of bread or a warm piece of clothing.

Brigid enjoyed tending sheep in the field overnight, milking cows, churning butter, scribing the Gospel with the monks by the day’s beautiful sunlight, giving to the poor, and performing miracles of healing or abundance as needed. How did she find the hours and the strength to be such a blessing of caretaking and homemaking? It’s said that the entire Divine Office from Matins to Compline ran through her head throughout the day and in between she spoke directly to God.

One hot summer day while traveling, Brigid came upon a family driving their herd of cattle in search of water. Brigid could see the desperate thirst of all the people and their animals. She told the nuns who traveled with her to dig while she prayed. Soon a fountain of the purest water sprang up giving all a blessed drink. It’s said that at this spot a holy well was built that serves also as a shrine to St. Brigid to this day. The waters have healing powers and, miraculously, there are right many of these same wells across the lands of Ireland, Britain, and Scotland.

She also founded an art school with the monks specializing in metal work and illumination of the sacred Gospel texts. (Most of these works were destroyed centuries later during the Reformation.) There was a wayward art student named Nennidh, who loafed around instead of studying. Brigid had a heart-to-heart conversation with him one day in which she predicted that he would be the one to administer the sacraments of Last Rites to her. He became more focused on his studies and later became a priest.

Around age 70, Brigid realized her time on Earth was nearing it end. She sent for the priest Nennidh to come back to Kildare and administer the Last Rites to her before she passed away to be with her Beloved.

Although recorded facts are few, Brigid’s gifts to the people of Ireland and other early Christians were so plentiful as to be absorbed heart and soul by generations of God’s children without the need for documented evidence.

Brigid was named a saint soon after her death and along with St. Patrick and St. Columba, is a Patron Saint of Ireland and a “Pillar of the Irish people.” It’s believed that relics of St. Brigid, St. Patrick and St. Columba have been recovered and reinterred together at  Patrick's Tomb at Down Catherdral in Northern Ireland.

St. Brigid is honored with a feast day on February 1, formally known as Imbolc, a pagan celebration marking the beginning of spring. (We refer to it as Groundhog Day in the United States where we await the awaking of Punxsutawney Phil in the morning of February 2.) 

Everliving God, we rejoice today in the fellowship of your blessed servant Brigid, and give you thanks for her life of devoted service. Inspire us with life and light, and give us perseverance to serve you all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 
                                  Collect, HOLY WOMEN, HOLY MEN, CELEBRATING THE SAINTS

Sources:

ST. BRIGID: PATRONESS OF IRELAND by Joseph A. Knowles
BRIGID OF IRELAND by Cindy Thomson
THE RITES OF BRIGID: GODDESS AND SAINT by Seán Ó Duinn, OSB
HOLY WOMEN, HOLY MEN: CELEBRATING THE SAINTS
LIVES OF THE SAINTS, VOL. I by Alban Butler
ALL SAINTS: DAILY REFLECTIONS ON SAINTS, PROPHETS, AND WITNESSES FOR OUR TIME by Robert Ellsbert
BRIGHTEST AND BEST: A COMPANION TO THE LESSER FEASTS AND FASTS by Sam Portaro
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The celebration of St. Brigid’s Feast Day can include the making of St. Brigid crosses which she shaped while praying with laboring mothers, the infirm, or the dying. They are created with bundles of wheat, palm fronds, river reeds, or even pipe cleaners.



Check out The Women and the Wheat, a blog by Jane G. Meyer, author of picture book, THE LIFE OF ST. BRIGID: ABBESS OF KILDARE, for lots of cool ways to celebrate the feast day of St. Brigid.
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Some people celebrate St. Brigid’s Day with Irish Tea Barmbrack which is also baked to celebrate Halloween or New Year’s Day in Ireland. In other countries, a similar bread called Three King’s Bread is baked to celebrate Epiphany. Although differently shaped, both breads contain dried fruit and surprise tiny toys.

St. Brigid’s Day is also celebrated with a big meal and in many cases a special dish of mashed potatoes called Champ or Brúitín in Irish.

I believe Irish Oat Cakes to be the most likely type of bread that St. Brigid would have eaten and served to all those around her. Also, it doesn’t contain yeast, so it’s really easy to make. And it’s spiritually delicious!
 
IRISH OAT CAKES (THREE CORNER BREAD)



Notice the Cross in the center creating four sections of farls with three corners representing the Holy Trinity. 



Ingredients:

2 cups uncooked, old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
1-1/4 cups buttermilk
1-1/2 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1-teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil spray

Instructions:

 1. A day ahead, combine the oats and buttermilk in a small bowl. Stir thoroughly with spoon, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

 2. The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, remove the oat mixture from the refrigerator, and spray a baking sheet with oil.
 3. Combine the bread flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
 4. Add the oat mixture and mix with your clean hands until smooth.
 5. Turn the dough onto the baking sheet, and form a round cake-shaped loaf about 1-inch thick.
 6. Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into four quarters.
 7. Move the quarters apart slightly, but keep them in the original round shape.
 8. Bake until the cakes are light golden brown and firm to the touch, 30 to 35 minutes.
 9. Cool slightly on a rack.
10. Serve with butter or jam. Or better yet, butter and jam.



Sláinte! (Cheers!)

2 comments:

Rebecca Petruck said...

She seems like such a lovely and approachable saint! Thanks for writing about her.

Beth Pottle said...

I finally had time to read about Brigid. She relates well to the "Finding God in a Bag of Groceries" book. It is all very thought-provoking! Now to soak my oats to make the cakes.