Orthodox America


A Gift of Hospitality - Saint Brigid, Abbess of Kildare


The life of Saint Brigid of Ireland offers us new insight into the virtue of hospitality, the cheerful, generous giving of food and shelter. We know that this virtue is praised throughout the Scriptures. The hospitality of Abraham to three young men who visited him was revealed to be offered to none other than the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it is in the forms of these three young visitors that the Holy Trinity is most often represented in iconography. Our Lord Jesus Christ commanded us to offer hospitality when He said:

For I was hungry and ye gave Me meat:
I was thirsty and ye gave Me drink:
I was a stranger and ye took Me in....

                                                 (Matt. 26:35, 40)

Of course, the law of nature also urges us to generously provide for the traveller who has no place to lay his head, and so hospitality, even without the love of Christ, has become an important facet of civilized culture. In pre-Christian Ireland every freeman was required by secular law to provide hospitality to anyone of or below his own class who asked it of him. The type and quality of food and shelter he was obliged to offer varied depending on the class of his guest, but he was expected to provide well for noble and low-born alike, or be subjected to heavy fines as well as social ostracism. Saint Brigid took this legal and social obligation of her people and, by infusing it with the love of Christ, transformed it into a holy rule and a godly art.

Brigid was born at Faughart in County Down in 452, less than fifty years after the beginning of Saint Patrick's widespread missionary efforts among the Irish. At the time of her birth, the faith was just starting to grow great in the hearts of the Irish people. But by the end of her life, and partly through her efforts, her land would become holy Ireland, a land of saints and scholars, a land of monasteries from which missionaries would go forth to all of Europe and beyond.

As if to ensure that she would understand and care for all people both law-born and high, Brigid was born the daughter of a king and a slave. Her father was Dubtach a pagan chieftain, and her mother was his Christian bondswoman. Brigid was raised to be, as her mother, a servant and a Christian. Dubtach's jealous wife forced him to sell Brigid's mother before the babe was born, and so Brigid was raised in the household of a druid of Faughart. This druid had a Christian uncle who recognized and supported the piety of the young Brigid. Although she often suffered want, she was kind to both people and animals, and especially to the poor, for whom she provided as best she could from her own humble circumstances. At the age of about ten she chose to return to her father's house, where she lived well and acquired a nobility of bearing which no doubt was an asset to her in her later position of leadership, for the Irish of her time were a people acutely aware of social status.

Brigid's truest nobility, however, was in her generosity. At her father's home, she shocked the household by distributing to the poor most of the food at her disposal. Furthermore, she later decided to return to a life of slavery in order to help her mother who had become ill. Taking over her mother's work in the dairy, Brigid would divide the butter she churned into thirteen parts, one for each of the twelve apostles and one larger part of Our Lord, which she would distribute to the poor. When her druid master discovered her generosity with hisgoods, he came to the dairy to confront her. She welcomed him, washed his feet, and prepared food for him. The druid could see nothing amiss, yet he determined to test Brigid and commanded her to fill a great vessel with butter Finding that she did not have enough butter to fulfill his request (because she had given so much to the needy), Brigid began to pray:

O my Prince
Who canst do all these things,
Bless O God... My kitchen with thy right hand:

My kitchen, the kitchen of the white God.
A kitchen which my King hath blessed,
A kitchen that hath butter.

Mary's son, my Friend, cometh
To bless my kitchen.
The Prince of the world to the border,
May we have abundance with him.1

                                     

Abundance is indeed what she received. Through her prayers the butter multiplied in such large amounts that her druid master was brought to believe in Christ through the miracle. He freed her mother, and served Brigid for the rest of his life. He also heaped gifts upon Brigid, including the butter and all his cows, but she had prayed for abundance not for herself but for others, so she distributed her own wealth among the poor even more freely than she had distributed his.

In fact, many of the incidents of Brigid's life involve her being blessed with plenty so that she could give it away. So it was even with the blessing of her legendary beauty. Brigid was tall and regal of stature, with fair white skin and golden hair, a true celtic beauty. So when her father, irate at what he considered her irresponsible generosity with his goods, determined to marry her off, he had no trouble finding a good match. But Brigid refused not only the young poet her father chose for her but the idea of marriage altogether, insisting that she must belong only to God. When her father tried to force her to marry, she disfigured her face so that no man would want her. At this Dubtach acquiesced, and Brigid was tonsured a nun at about the age of eighteen by Moel, bishop of Armagh. When she was allowed thus to give herself to Christ, her face was restored to its former beauty.

At this time no monasteries for women existed in Ireland, and only a few for men. Women who were consecrated as nuns had to struggle to live their monastic calling while in secular households. But Brigid determined to offer these women a place of refuge and, in the same year of her tonsure, 470 A.D., she gathered together seven other nuns and approached the local king to petition a piece of land upon which to build a monastery. It is told that, when he refused, she said that she would be content with whatever her mantle would cover. He in whose name Brigid provided for others again provided for her, causing her mantle to spread out until it covered the Curragh, a huge expanse of open, fertile land which can be seen in County Kildare to this day. There Brigid founded Kildare monastery, Ireland's first monastery for women, which became a great center of piety, learning, craftsmanship, and, of course, hospitality.

The virtue of hospitality aflame with the love of Christ was one especially important to Saint Brigid as Abbes of Kildare. From the fifth to the ninth century in Ireland, monasteries were not only places where men and women turned their hearts away from the world and toward the things of God. They were also centers, heart centers if you will, for both the spritual and cultural lives of those pious people living in the world. The early Celtic Church was administered not through the Roman form of the diocese, but through the eastern form of the monastic family or parish. (Of course, since the Great Schism had not yet occurred, all of Christendom both western and eastern belonged to the one, holy, catholic and orthodox Church.) The Celtic Church was a monastic Church. Throughout the Celtic countries were scattered monasteries, increasingly more as Christianity grew stronger, which were the center of commerce, learning, and cultural life as well as of spritual life. The governing head of the monastery was the abbot or abbess, while sometimes an additional bishop cared for the sacramental needs of the people.

Because neither cities nor hotels existed, these monasteries were important stopping places for travellers. In fact, they were usually situated on or near main routes, and so were convenient places of rest.2 As in a secular home the kitchen or hearth is the heart-center, where a virtuous woman offers warmth and nourishment to the weary laborer or traveller, so the monastery was a heavenly heart-center, where men and women of God received their world-weary brethren and fed them with both the food of heaven and the good things of the earth in Christ's name. The words "heart" and "hearth" are almost identical, as are their Anglo-Saxon root words, "heort" and "heroth". The welcoming hearth of the monastery was truly the heart of Ireland in both a spiritual and a material sense. And so Mother Brigid was both nun and dairy-maid, both abbess and hostess, and is venerated today in all of these capacities.

Only a few facts regarding Kildare monastery remain to us today. We know that it began as a small monastic house for women only, but that, as all that Brigid put her hand to, it quickly grew great. Soon it was a large double monastery for both men and women, and Abbess Brigid asked a bishop, Saint Conleth, to reside there to minister to their sacramental needs. Saint Conleth was a metal craftsman who taught the monks the fine art of metallurgy, and Kildare became known for its exquisite chalices, missal covers, and other sacramental objects. In addition, beautiful illuminated manuscripts and books were produced there.

Both the women and the men participated in hard manual labor, caring for cows and sheep, tending the dairy, and raising vegetables. The women spun and wove the material for the simple monastic clothing as well as for the fine vestments and altar cloths. Abbess Brigid provided an example for them by tending her own cows and sheep, churning, spinning, and weaving. Their own diet was most probably a very simple one consisting of bread, milk products, vegetables and occasionally fish, but for guests it was an established practice to prepare the finest and tastiest dishes that they were able.

From our knowldge of other monasteries of their time, we can assume that Kildare's monks and nuns kept the hours of prayer, which centered on the chanting of the Psalms, and that they spent much time in study not only of the Scriptures but also of uplifting literature in Gaelic, Latin, and Greek, so that the atmosphere into which a guest was received was scholarly and cultured as well as holy.

We also know something about Kildare and, by inference, about Brigid herself, from what her seventh-century biographer Cogitosus wrote about the church that she erected there. He describes it as many-windowed building of generous proportions whose walls were covered with beautiful paintings (which most certainly were icons). Its iconostasis was adorned with linen hangings; fine objects of gold and silver also beautified this house of God. Such spaciousness and lavish decorations were not at all typical of the churches of this period. Katherine Scherman, in The Flowering of Ireland, notes that no other churches of its time compare to it, and suggests that its largeness and ornateness are a monument to the generosity and fervor of Brigid's nature.

In addition to the facts which come down to us about Saint Brigid and the monastery she founded, we have a rich store of pious legend passed on through the centuries by those who have loved and venerated her. Many of these stories bear witness to Brigid's largeness of heart and openness of hand. It is told, for example, how, when seven bishops came to Kildare to visit her, she was shamed to discover that she had no food with which to receive them. When she prayed hard for help, angels visited her and bade her to milk her cows for the third time that day. Ordinarily a third milking would yield next to no milk, but when Brigid obediently milked her cows the vessels overflowed with milk and she had more than plenty for her guests.

A wonderful poem attributed to Saint Brigid tells of the things she most wished for. If it was not composed by the Saint herself, than surely by someone who loved her and knew well her nature:

I would wish a great lake of ale for the King of Kings;
I would wish the family of heaven to be drinking it throughout life and time.
I would wish the men of Heaven in my own house;
I would wish vessels of peace to be given to them.
I would wish joy to be in their drinking;
I would wish Jesu to be here among them.
I would wish the three Marys of great name;
I would wish the people of heaven from every side.
I would wish to be a rent-payer to the Prince; the way if I was in trouble He would give me a good blessing.3

It is said that the Lord would grant Brigid anything she would ask, and that what she desired was always the same-"to satisfy the poor, to banish every hardship, and to save every sorrowful man."4 It seems that in her love for others Saint Brigid truly forgot herself and allowed the loving providence of God to sustain her.

The ancient Book of Lismore records that Saint Brigid was "abstinent, she was innocent, she was prayerful, she was paitent: she was glad in God's commandments: she was firm, she was loving: she was a consecrated casket for keeping Christ's body and His blood: she was a temple of God, her heart and mind were a throne of rest for the Holy Ghost."5 Surely such fervent love for God was the first cause and sustaining power of her love for others and the Christian hospitality she gave them. This is what makes the difference between a philanthropist and a saint, for it was not only food, drink, and lodging which Brigid provided, but the blessings of God upon all who came to her door. And, conversely, it was Christ that she saw and loved and provided for in everyone. She is quoted as saying: "It is in the name of Christ that I feed the poor, for Christ is in the body of every poor man."6

The hospitality of Saint Brigid, a giving in and of Christian charity, offered such a powerful example that it set the standard for the hospitality of the Irish people, as is reflected in the Irish Rune of Hospitality:

I saw a stranger yestreen;
I put food in the eating place,
drink in the drinking place,
music in the listening place,
and in the name of the Triune
he blessed myself and my house,
my cattle and my dear ones, and the lark said in her song
often, often, often,
goes the Christ in the stranger's guise,
often, often, often,
goes the Christ in the stranger's guise
.

May we follow Saint Brigid's example and receive the Christ in the stranger's guise. Saint Brigid, pray to God for us.


(Troparion, tone 1 )

O holy Brigid, thou didst become sublime through thy humility/ and didst fly on the wings of thy longing for God. /When thou didst arrive in the Eternal City and appear before thy Divine Spouse, wearing the crown of virginity,/ thou didst keep thy promise to remember those who have recourse to thee. / Thou dost shower grace upon the world, and dost multiply miracles./ Intercede with Christ our God that He may save our souls


Mary Dugan Doss
The author is of Irish descent, a convert to Orthodoxy


Notes: 1. Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore, edited and translated by Whitley Stokes, in The Flowering of Ireland by Katherine Scherman; Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown and Company, 1981, p. 112. 2. Celtic Monasticism by Kathleen Highes and Ann Hamlin; New York, Seabury Press, 1981, pp. 14-15. 3. The Blessed Trinity of Ireland, collected by Lady Gregory; Gerrard's Cross, Colin Smythe, 1985; p. 14. 4. Ibid. 5. The Book of Lismore in Saints of the British Isles by A. Bond and N. Mabin; Bognor Regis, W. Sussex, New Horizon, 1979, p. 54. 6. The Blessed Trinity of Ireland, p. 10.

 

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