A Dictionary of Saintly Women/Brigid (19)

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St. Brigid (19) of Sweden, July 23, Oct. 8. 1302 or 1304–1373. Commonly called Brighite, Brigida or Brigitte, Britta or Brita, but her proper name was Birgitta. Dr. Dollinger calls her “one of the great visionaries of the 14th century.” Founder and patron of the Order of the Saviour of the World, or Brigittines, and of the monastery of Wadstein, the first of that order.

Represented (1) holding in her hand a heart surmounted by a crucifix, to indicate her devotion to the Passion; (2) standing before a cross, holding a candle, in allusion to her custom not to let Friday pass without undergoing some suffering in honour of Christ: if no other opportunity for suffering occurred, she dropped burning wax on her flesh; (3) stigmata in the air near her, to denote revelations which she had on the subject; (4) writing in a book, an angel dictating to her.

In the Norwegian calendars of the 15th century a house is the emblem of her day, in allusion to the monastery she founded; sometimes the day is marked, instead, by two heather-bushes, because on this day, Oct. 8, the bear is supposed to begin to prepare his lair for the winter by gathering ling.

Brigid was daughter of Birger Person Brahe, a devout warrior, who fought against the Russians and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her mother was Ingeborg, of the great family of Folkunga, who gave Sweden her first kings. Shortly before the birth of Brigid, her mother was at sea in a frightful storm when many persons were drowned. The following night she was told in a dream that she was saved from shipwreck on account of the predestined sanctity of her unborn daughter. She died soon after the birth of her child. Brigid was three years old before she began to speak, and then she surprised her family by uttering quite distinctly words of prayer and praise. Sometimes she got up to pray while the other girls in her room were asleep. On one of these occasions the aunt, who had charge of them, quietly fetched a cane to whip her. She no sooner held it over the back of the young saint than it fell into small pieces. At thirteen she married Fulk or Wulf, prince or lagman of Nericia, who was eighteen. They joined the Third Order of St. Francis, and passed the first year of their married life in holy virginity. They devoted much of their property, time, and energy to works of religion and charity, turning their house into a sort of hospital, where they tended the sick. About 1343 they took their eight children on a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella, in Spain. On their return journey, Wulf was taken ill at Arras. He received the last sacraments, but Brigid continued to pray for his recovery. St. Denis appeared to her in a dream, and foretold many events; and as a pledge of their truth, said that Wulf should recover immediately; which he did. When they reached Sweden he retired, with Brigid’s approbation, into the Cistercian monastery of Alvastro, where he very soon died. From that time she led a life of austerity and devotion, eating with the poor in the hospitals, and begging with them about the streets, denying herself the use of linen, and wearing a cilicium.

It was about 1344, soon after the death of her husband, that she founded the monastery of Wadstein, on the beautiful shore of Lake Wettern, in the diocese of Lincopen. It was the first house of her Order of the Saviour of the World, since called that of the Brigittines. It was a branch of the Order of St. Augustine, and was instituted expressly for women; men were never to be admitted, except to minister to the spiritual wants of the nuns; the abbess ruled over the monks in all temporal matters. The rule she gave contains the most minute directions, not only for the conduct of the members of the order, but concerning their dress and the furniture of the house and church. The number of nuns in each monastery was fixed at sixty, that of the priests at thirteen, in honour of the twelve apostles and St. Paul. There were to be eight lay brothers and four deacons, representing the four doctors of the Church (SS. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory); in all, eighty-five, the number of the thirteen apostles and seventy-two disciples of Christ.

While she was protesting against the wickedness of the time, against the abuses in the Church, and the conduct of her cousin, King Magnus Smek, and prophesying that God’s judgments would fall upon the land, the Black Death came from England in a ship. Before the ship was unloaded, every man who had come in it was dead, and the contagion had made many other victims. It spread over the country, and killed a third of the population, laying waste whole districts, so that many churches were unused and forgotten, and in the next generation people discovered them in unsuspected places, where the woods had grown up around them and hidden them.

St. Brigid never took the veil, because the rule of the order would have prevented the pilgrimages she believed God required her to make. She went to Borne, and obtained the confirmation of her order by Urban V. in 1370. After visiting Naples and Sicily, she was inspired to go to Jerusalem, although, being in her seventieth year, she had some misgivings about her infirmities. Her son Charles, father of the younger St. Brigid of Sweden, set off with her, but died at an early stage of the journey. She was comforted by a revelation of his having entered into eternal bliss. Her daughter, St. Catherine of Sweden, and her son Birger, went with her to Jerusalem. She was taken ill on the return journey, and died in 1373, soon after her arrival in Rome.

It is recorded that she was never known to be angry or jealous. She caused the Scriptures to be translated into her native language.

She had four sons and four daughters, one of whom was Abbess of Wadstein; another daughter, Mareta, was the mother of Ingrid, abbess of Wadstein. There is extant a volume of the Revelations of St. Brigid, presented by her daughter St. Catherine to Pope Gregory XI., who commissioned three learned cardinals to examine them; they found in them nothing contrary to the Catholic faith. Her denunciations of the abuses of the time in high places were somewhat like those of St. Hildegard, but much more explicit. A coarse sort of guipure lace, made in Sweden, is said to have been introduced by St. Brigid, who learned the art on her pilgrimages, and taught it to her nuns.

The tomb of Brigid’s father and mother is still shown in the cathedral of Upsala. Their recumbent statues lie on a slab, a lion at his feet and a dog at hers; their seven children are represented on the border of the tomb. Two sheets of her handwriting are shown in the Library at Stockholm.

Her canonization was begun by Boniface IX., and was completed by Martin V., in 1419.

R. M., Oct. 8. Fant and Annerstedt, Rerum Suecicarum, iii. Helyot, Hist. Ord. Mon., part iii., chap. 4. Butler. Baillet. Mésenguy. Duffy. Mrs. Jameson. Geijar, Hist. of Sweden, i. 290, etc. Karamsin, Hist. de Russie, iv. 327. Report of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, Oct., 1878. A very interesting book, The Mirrour of our Lady, edited for the Early English Text Society, by Miss Toulmin Smith, and written for the monastery of St. Saviour and St. Brigid at Isleworth, near Twickenham, gives some particulars of her life, and an account of the establishment, in 1406, of this first Brigittine monastery in England. Paul du Chaillu, Land of the Midnight Sun, ii. p. 333, etc., gives a charming description of the country where Wadstein is situated, and some legends collected from the people of the district.