St. Brigit was the abbess of a large double monastery in Kildare, Ireland. She lived during the middle fifth to the early sixth centuries. Like many saints from the early Middle Ages, there is a large body of popular writing regarding her life. Many amazing anecdotal stories have been ascribed to her. We can remain confident, however, that whatever the whole story may be about her life, she must have been quite a remarkable woman.
St. Brigit was not known to be passive. She has been extolled by her biographers as a person who was sometimes unpredictable by human standards and always full of life. She was well known as an advocate of the lowly. In many of the miraculous stories about her, St. Brigit is depicted as being "a personification of compassion." From her youth, there are numerous accounts describing her unusual generosity and concern for the poor. She was also deeply revered as a wise "soul friend" to many. People from all walks of life came to her for spiritual advice and intercession, including men and women, clergy and laypersons, rich and poor, the powerful and the oppressed. She was even known to befriend wild animals.
Brigit was particularly renowned for her psychological wholeness, her clarity of mind and a radical grounding in God. This foundation allowed her to rise above the apparent constrictions of the day. The many hagiographical stories about her cause us to call her "a person of the Light" as her good works clearly shone before others. Brigit was more than this, however, as it is her inner spiritual integrity for which she is most remembered.
In one of the biographies about her, it is written that, "her heart and mind were a throne of rest for the Holy Spirit." From the very depths of her being, Brigit endeavored to grow in an authentic relationship with the living God. This takes our understanding of "light" to a different level, as Brigit had fulfilled the Christian vocation of becoming a "Spirit-bearer" or pneumatoforos. She was not only a psychologically whole person, she had also indeed, become a holy human being.
As a Spirit-bearer, St. Brigit was obviously a person of prayer and a "friend of God" or philotheos. This is further evidenced by a recurrent theme in the hagiographical stories about her. These stories include numerous reports which associate the saint with "a fiery pillar" rising "from her head to the roof of the Church," or of a "flame which reached from earth to heaven." Other accounts describing events related to her birth and her early years depict instances when the dwelling in which she lived was "ablaze" with fire or light. One rendition went so far as to depict the neighbors running to her home in order to put the fire out and rescue the occupants. Curiously, these good-willed neighbors would find that the fire had disappeared by the time they arrived, and they would find the saint at peace alone with her mother. In any case, these stories perhaps indicate to us that even from her childhood, St. Brigit was known to be a person dedicated to God.
Whatever the case may be regarding the accounts chronicling her early years, these reports may have been influenced by an event which apparently did occur in her adulthood. On the day that she was to be received into monastic life, something remarkable occurred. It seems that even by then, she enjoyed a rich relationship with God. It was perhaps because of the great humility born out of her deep communion with God, that Brigit quietly placed herself at the end of the line of the sisters being received. The bishop who was about to confer the monastic tonsure, was also revered as a holy man. Her hagiographers relate that as happy as he was to see all of the sisters that day, on seeing Brigit, he witnessed that, "a fiery pillar rose from her head to the roof of the church."
We in the Eastern Christian tradition would recognize these words as referring to someone who was in a state of glorification, or theosis. It is about these holy persons the Apostle Paul wrote when he said, "for the spiritual person examines all, but he is examined by no one" (1 Cor. 3:15). Being participants in what we Orthodox call "the uncreated glory of God in Christ" they become "the only authorities within the Orthodox Church." In other words, those human persons who have the final authority in the Church are those who have been glorified, the saints.
This reality is at the heart of Orthodox theology. This has been studied in great depth by numerous Orthodox scholars, not the least of whom is the eminent Orthodox theologian, Father John Romanides. Father John stresses this is precisely the essential difference between Orthodox and other approaches to theology. It is the saints, those holy people who "know God" and have experienced glorification, who are the real authorities in the Church. It is these persons who traditionally "produce the doctrinal formulations."
Theology, while academically accountable, is essentially pastoral or therapeutic in nature. The purpose of good theology concerns far more than an accurate articulation of belief, vital as this is. At the same time, faithful articulation of theology is quite literally, vital. This is because authentic doctrinal formulations, "serve as guides to the cure of the centre of the human personality and as warning signs to stay away from quack doctors who promise much and have nothing to give in preparation for the experience of God's glory in Christ . . ."
Since the foundation of the Church (Acts 1:1-2:47), those holy persons who have been "subsequently glorified...are equal to the Apostles in their participation in Pentecost because they too have been guided into all the Truth" (Acts 10:47-11:18). Of the various charismata given by the Holy Spirit, Father John stresses that those who express authority in its fullness are the Apostles and the Prophets, as they have been glorified. He states: "At the head of the local Church are the Prophets in second place, who have received the same revelation as the Apostles (Eph. 3:5) in first place, and are together with them the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20). Apostles and Prophets are the foundation of the Church in a way similar to doctors being the foundation of hospitals. This foundation includes women prophets (Acts 2:17, 21:9, 1 Cor. 11:5) and is the context of Paul's statement that "in Christ there is neither male nor female" (Gal. 3:28).
With this in mind, we can appreciate how Brigit's Godly bishop, through Divine inspiration, recognized that she had already become a "temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 6:19). He bid her to come forward from her last place in line in order to be admitted into monastic life first. Then, in response to the Holy Spirit, he received her, not with the invocation for the tonsuring of a nun or monk, but with the ordination prayer of a bishop. "Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, the form of ordaining a bishop was read over Brigit."
The bishop's assistant was shocked and enraged by this. He stressed that "a bishop's rank should not be conferred on a woman." To this, the discerning bishop replied, "But I do not have any power in this matter. That dignity has been given by God to Brigit." And from that time on "episcopal honor" was given to her successors in the monastery.
While it is unusual, we Orthodox today would not be too surprised that the ancient Church recognized Brigit as a living saint in this way. The unique manner she was received into monastic life signifies the public recognition that Brigit was among the glorified. She expressed the fullness of prophetic authority in the Church as she "knew God" (had the experience of God). From that time on St. Brigit was highly revered by the Christian community as a holy person, a "friend of God" or philotheos. There is no more important or higher a vocation in the Church than this. It is a vocation to which everyone is called.
The actions of St. Brigit's holy bishop also serve as a powerful example to us. Through spiritual discernment, he felt compelled to respond to the will of God. Furthermore, his part in the story demonstrates that we must strive to avoid distractions when seeking "the one thing necessary" (Lk.10:42). The manner by which this man of God peacefully supported his actions in the face of angry opposition is an invitation for many of us to do likewise.
The humble confession of Brigit's discerning bishop, "I do not have any power in this matter," furthermore indicates that the unceasing prayer which beat in his heart may have been, "not my will, but Your will, be done" (Mt. 26:39). Today, this prayer also bids us to faithfully respond to the presence of God in our own lives and in relationship with others. Furthermore, as believers, it is our responsibility, or perhaps more precisely, our privilege, to faithfully search, test, recognize, and affirm "that dignity which has been given by God" to all His holy servants, both male and female.
Immediately after her reception, the bishop sought to assist her in establishing her own monastic community and they developed a lifelong friendship. At the monastery, St. Brigit served as abbess and gained a reputation as a wise spiritual mother. She would minister to men and to women, especially those whom we today would consider untouchable. She was soon to become renowned as a healer and a wonderworker, rejecting no one who sincerely sought the love of God.
Many years later, her death was marked by miracles of healing and other wonderful events. Often called "the other patron saint of Ireland," St. Brigit has been typically depicted in western iconography and religious art wearing episcopal clothing, with a fiery pillar above her head, often holding the Gospel. Her feast day is celebrated on 1 February.
From the days of the ancient, undivided Church, St. Brigit has been celebrated in the western calendar on the first of February. There are some medieval and contemporary scholars who diminish her witness by suggesting that she may not have ever existed. This kind of doubt has been raised for a certain number of other saints from the early Eastern and Western Church as well. It has been the Eastern Christian custom, nevertheless, to boldly seek the intercession of these saints. The Orthodox tend to appreciate that there is much living truth to be discerned from the story of the saint, whether legendary or factual.
Dr. FitzGerald is a representative of the Patriarchate of Constantinople at a number of interchurch meetings. She is Visiting Professor of Orthodox Theology at the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches, as well as a theological consultant.