“Brigid, woman ever excellent, golden, radiant flame,
Lead us to the eternal kingdom, the brilliant, dazzling sun.”
—Ultán’s Hymn, as translated in Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1999)
Take a moment, and think of one of your heroes. Perhaps it’s a person you’ve known, someone whose way of life or personality impressed you. Perhaps it’s someone famous whose life illuminates our world. Perhaps it’s a fictional hero, because these of course matter, too. Take a moment, and think of that hero.
Now, take a moment and know that Brigid of Kildare is better in every way. It hurts at first to have been so wrong, but we’ll have to get used to it. She, a golden and radiant presence, is going to lead us somewhere even better.
Jesus might have turned water into wine, but Brigid turned water into beer for thirsty workers (or maybe a visiting bishop—that story comes up a few times). She could heal the sick or even those born without speech. She could replicate livestock, literally having it and eating it, too, or cause rivers to rise up and defend her favorite cow. Foxes spontaneously domesticated for her, and cute ducks would fly over so that she could cuddle them. Dogs would steal her bacon in order to keep it safe, and even venerate the bacon rather than eat it. Buildings she touched would refuse to burn. She re-wrote the playbook for political and church authorities. She could hang her clothes to dry on a sunbeam. Once, a bishop became so “intoxicated with grace” at a worship that he consecrated Brigid bishop. A fiery column stood on her head in that moment, like she was at Pentecost.
I know these stories sound a bit exaggerated to our modern ears, but hear me out. This is how the Celtic people thought of their saints. These heroic saints were so in love with God, and God so loved them, that the world bent to their desires. The Celtic Christians saw God’s saints as amazing—doing things elemental, political, and altogether heroic—and lavished these stories upon them both as a way to trumpet how amazing they are, but also as way to highlight how amazing God is.
When we read these ancient stories (you can find Brigid’s in the Paulist Press volume referenced above), we are invited to be impressed by what they show. Humans are fully part of the natural world; Christ is the source of true safety. Even if we don’t believe every one of those stories, we can hear what they’re trying to say to us. Brigid was a woman of such command, authority, cunning, and faith that she reshaped society for centuries. That’s at least as impressive as hanging clothes on a sunbeam.
Brigid’s funny and fiery stories show a woman who would not be held captive to the expectations of her society. In the end, it’s not the magic powers that make her a saint—they’re just the delightful and fun symbols of how truly incredible God’s call can be.
In our era, we seem to have become too focused on the magic, and in a twisted way. We refuse to accept ancient writings that speak of the miraculous, but we flock to films to imagine it—the superhero, the wizard, the artist, and the financial analyst all cast their own kinds of spells. We claim to be thoroughly disenchanted, and then spend all of our free time looking for enchantment.
As we remember Brigid today, we are invited to consider not whether magic or miracles are real, but what they are for. In stories about Brigid, the miracles highlight the power of God and the magic that simply is the life of a bold, faithful, compassionate woman. Brigid’s magic impresses us not because of its special effects, but because it reminds us how malleable the world can be in light of God’s love. In the hymn quoted above, Brigid is a flame, but she’s leading us into the sun. Magic and miracles are the colorful pathway into the richer divine reality.