A Habit of the Wildest Bounty: Feast of St. Brigid

Saint Brigid © Jan L. Richardson

Tomorrow brings one of my favorite days of celebration: the Feast of Saint Brigid of Kildare, beloved holy woman of Ireland. Born in the middle of the fifth century, Brigid became a pivotal figure in the development of Irish Christianity. We know few concrete details of her life, but the surviving stories offer a compelling depiction of a woman renowned for her hospitality and for the monasteries she established, the most famous being the one at Cill Dara (Kildare), the Church of the Oak.

Many of the tales of Brigid’s life read much like those of other female saints: her saintly qualities were evident from an early age; she forsook marriage in order to follow Christ in a monastic way of life (she even caused her eye to burst in order to avoid being married off; don’t try this at home!); she was a wonder-worker who brought healing and justice; she exercised miraculous influence over the weather, animals, and the landscape. “She stilled the rain and wind,” the final line of the Bethu Brigte, a medieval account of Brigid’s life, tells us.

In her charming book St. Brigid of Ireland, Alice Curtayne describes Brigid as someone who found the poor “irresistible” and ministered to them with “a habit of the wildest bounty.” Her lavish generosity sometimes put her at odds with her family and, later, her monastic community, which occasionally had to do without as she gave their bounty to guests and strangers.

There is a strong domestic quality that pervades Brigid’s wonderworking, a homeliness to the miraculous that runs throughout her tales. Most of her recorded miracles are feats of provisioning by which she secures an abundance of fare for daily sustenance as well as for festive occasions. In Brigid’s presence, butter is replenished; the bacon she slips to a dog miraculously reappears in the pot; a stone turns to salt; water becomes milk, or beer, or, in one instance, an aphrodisiac. Her plenitude consciously echoes Christ’s miracles of provisioning—water into wine, a few loaves and fish into a feast—and embodies the abundant generosity of God. There is a gracefulness that shimmers in the utterly mundane quality of the material of Brigid’s miracles, underscoring the dignity of the daily tasks to which the women of her day—and women across centuries—devoted so much of their lives.

Those who wrote Brigid’s Lives, however, were keen to portray her as much more than a wonderworking dairymaid. Within the workaday landscape of her legends, signs of the mystery and power of God flicker and flash with a brilliance that illuminates the saint and sparks the imagination. Fire is a persistent symbol in her stories, and in one of the earliest prayers to Brigid, known as “Ultán’s Hymn,” the writer addresses her as a “golden radiant flame.”

The symbol of fire illuminates and underscores Brigid’s role as not only a worker of domestic miracles but also a woman of transcendent power. In her stories she appears as a charismatic leader who wields influence in monastic, civic, and natural realms; she is ever at ease among kings and bishops; she brings healing to body and soul; she displays gifts of exhortation; she has prophetic dreams and sees far into the hidden reaches of the heart. Brigid possesses a sense of justice that prompts her to secure the freedom of prisoners and slaves.

The Annals of Ulster variously give the date of Brigid’s death as 524, 526, and 528. According to one of her early biographers, Brigid was buried in the abbey church she established at Kildare, and she continued to work miracles after her death. Tradition tells that she was moved from Kildare and laid to rest in Dunpatrick alongside two other great saints of Ireland, Patrick and Columba. Her physical grave remains a mystery, but the landscape of Ireland continues to testify to her presence, with forms of the name Brigid appearing in the names of towns, holy wells, and churches. Legends, prayers, rituals, and celebrations (some of which echo the festivities of Imbolc, a major springtime celebration in the ancient Celtic year) continue to expand and sometimes complicate her story, adding their threads to the mysterious tapestry of Brigid’s legacy.

Brigid lent her name to a modern-day monastery that has been a significant part of my own journey for nearly a decade. Founded at the turn of this millennium by Mary Stamps, a remarkable woman who possesses a wondrous share of the spirit of the groundbreaking Irish saint, St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery draws from both Methodist and Benedictine traditions. For more information about this unique community, visit Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery.

A blessed Feast of Saint Brigid to you, and may you possess Brigid’s habit of the wildest bounty!

[To use this image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

6 Responses to “A Habit of the Wildest Bounty: Feast of St. Brigid”

  1. Elizabeth Nordquist Says:

    I was just trying to frame a response to the other two contributions of the week, and here you are with more. I too love St. Brigid and what she represents. I am so grateful for all the nourishment that you are giving me along my way; it replenishes me, and by extension those with whom I minister, in ways that I could never have imagined, Happy St. Brigid’s Day to you… and may the bounty of your prodigious talent by fed by the wild streams of Grace from the Spirit. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. lynn Says:

    What a blessing you are!- thank you for this Feast Day treat!

  3. Jan Richardson Says:

    Very many thanks, Elizabeth and Lynn! I appreciate your sharing in the celebration across the miles!

  4. Magdalene Says:

    This is just lovely. I am captivated by your artwork!

    Don’t forget that Bishop Mel consecrated Brigid a bishop… there is a Catholic church in my hometown that has a lovely stained glass window depicting her with a bishop’s crozier and the apostolic flame atop her head.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Many thanks, Magdalene. I love this story! Like so many of St. Brigid’s legends, there is some question about its historicity, and also about the source of Bishop Mel’s possibly befuddled state that contributed to his ordination of her, but it’s one of those stories that recognizes Brigid’s remarkable, divine gift of leadership. For those who may not be familiar with the story: the earliest written source of it is the Bethu Brigte (Irish Life of Brigit, probably from the 9th century), in which we read that at the ceremony where Brigid and her fellow virgins were to be consecrated as nuns, “the bishop, being intoxicated with the grace of God there, did not know what he was reciting from his book, for he consecrated Brigit with the orders of a bishop. ‘Only this virgin in the whole of Ireland will hold the episcopal ordination,’ said Mel.” The Bethu Brigte goes on to tell, as Magdalene mentioned above, that “while she was being consecrated a fiery column ascended from her head.” (A side note: this is a good example of the variations that exist in the spelling of Brigid’s name. The sources variously spell it as Brigid, Brigit, and Bride, among others.)

  5. Rev. Allie Playfair Says:


    Your blessings overflow and my congregations have been immersed in the beauty of your thoughts over the years as I have been inspired and quoted from your pages. Often, when I have felt spiritually dry, I have come to drink at your well. Thank you May you continue to receive the abundant grace of God’s love in all you are and all you do.

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