Later on in this week, many dioceses throughout the world, especially those who have links to Ireland will celebrate the feast of St Bride. She is a saint that is reputed to have lived from the year 451- 525. In Ireland and in far flung places associated with Ireland she is just as popular as St Patrick.
Even in our own diocese 5 Churches have her as their patron. Even towns are named after her, East Kilbride – the word Kilbride means Church of Bride, probably testifying to the existence of a Church dedicated to her in those lands many centuries ago.
We are not exactly sure whether Bride lived or in actual fact ever existed in the first place. Before you fall off your seats, let me explain what I mean.
Celtic scholars and historians point out that in Ireland at that time (5th& 6thCentury) there also was a goddess by the same name, Brigid who was worshipped by the pre-Christian peoples in that land. As it turns out there are many similarities between this pre-Christian Bride and our Bride. The godess’s feast day is on the same day as the feast day of our Bride, the 1st February. Like our Bride the goddess is a healer. Like our Bride the goddess has a way with words, advice and a giver of wisdom. Like our Bride, the goddess encourages hospitality.
The Celtic scholars say, that as was normal, the Christians merely Christianised things. Practices, places of worship, and even adopted ‘their’ holy people to become ‘our’ holy people.
The scholars, then, would suggest that our Bride may never have existed but is just a Christian person who has been grafted onto the goddess. We have grafted onto the pagan goddess the face of a Christian saint.
The 5thand 6th centuries were times in which few people wrote, in which few books or writings even existed. A more remote place than Ireland for the people’s of those times would have been difficult to imagine. They were regarded as barbarians, although now we realise they had very sophisticated cultures. Its difficult for us to know who was what and what was what. A grey veil descends over the matter. Was Bride just a construct of the Christian Church or was she infact the singular and unique person we have come to know, remembered and her memory that is not extinguished.
You have to realise that the Church we know and the Church in Celtic Ireland of 5th& 6thcentury was different. Priests Bishops, diocese, 7 sacraments and so on which we know – these were less important. People gathered around holy places and holy people, Patrick, Bride and the like.
These people who were themselves Celts using the Celtic traditions and symbols that they had known previously in order to evangelise. Light, fire, water, walking in circles, pilgrimages were the order of the day. Even today that mark of Celtic Christianity still exists, holy places, holy well, places of pilgrimage, remote places that people travel to, rugged and hard penances are still a mark and one which they have carried to places where they have travelled down through the centuries.
The things we know about Bride are filled with legend. As a young woman it is said she prayed to be ugly so that she might not attract any suitor, (I have known many people who prayed to be beautiful but few who prayed to be ugly) we don’t know whether her prayer was successful. She liked cows, her cows milked all day long for her visitors. She liked beer ( I can see some of your eyes light up at the thought). She served her visitors beer. She was a latter day doctor, people would come to her for healings of body and mind. She is associated with wise words, her later biographers tells us that people sought her out for advice and guidance, people of rank but people of lower rank. She was thought to be able to stop the wind and rain. To drive wildcats of Ireland. She founded a holy site, a former pre-Christian site which became a major religious site in Ireland, Kildare.
I don’t know whether all these things actually occurred but they are maybe the residual memory of Bride. Healer. Wise woman. Welcoming person. Generous to stranger and people in need. That is the memory of her that didn’t die. Someone who passed faith onto them in a way that they could understand.
I think I have often mentioned to you before this is my vision of this Church this parish which bears her name – that it will be like Kildare – a place of healing for people who have trouble. A place of wise words were people may be directed. A place of hospitality where people may go away knowing they have been truly welcomed and are always welcome. A place where people can receive miracles. A place where faith is handed on, nurtured and nourishing to those who receive it.
Let scholars fight out who Bride was.Godess or Christian saint. But I feel her spirt and presence amongst us. She has shaped a parish which bears her name, it is a place of healing welcome and which offers wise words – this is the very spirit and everything we know about Bride.
I think of her on those blasted heaths. Her hair whipped by those winds, her clothes and cloak strapped tightly round her. I think of her home which she beckoned others to come into, to be seated, to be fed, to be healed and supported. To be inspired by the grace of God.
I hope that is place has always and will continue to be a place in which this is its spirit – in which the spirit of Bride is alive.