By Safe Haven's Co-Director, The Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Hunter
As a survivor of domestic violence and a woman of faith, I am constantly examining my own faith tradition for resources that are inspiring and supportive, not only for me, but for my siblings who have also experienced domestic violence. There are resources in ALL faith traditions, and now’s the time to bring them to the fore, learn from each other, and use them to support survivors.
One such resource within Christianity is Brigid of Kildare (Ireland), and since it’s mid-January and time to prepare for Brigid’s Day on February 1, I’d like to tell you about some of the connections I’ve found between the life of Brigid (451-525 AD) and the work that I do at the intersection of faith and domestic violence and elder abuse.
St Brigid of Ireland 231 by William Hart McNichols, 2015. Accesed via fineartamerica.
I’ve come to think of Brigid as the “patron saint of those who are abused.” She is already claimed as “patron saint” by a long list of people and professions, and her versatility can be seen in the fact that the list includes everyone from mariners to metalworkers. Most importantly for my work, she is also the patron saint of “children whose mothers are mistreated by the children’s fathers.” There have been so many times over the years that adults who were raised in homes where there was domestic violence have spoken to me about the anguish of their lives. I have met these children in the shelters where I have worked, and I have seen their woundedness and their resilience. We cannot forget these children, or the responsibility we all bear to ensure that children are safe and loved. The sooner we intervene in a violent relationship, the safer and less traumatized the children will be, and the less likely to carry domestic violence into the next generation.
Adding to that, Brigid is the patron saint of “hearth and home” as well as the patron saint of fugitives and “those seeking shelter.” Many survivors of domestic violence experience this bewildering, betwixt-and-between place while fleeing their home and seeking shelter and safety. Brigid could be the patron saint of this scary, most-dangerous time. In addition, Brigid is famous for compassion and hospitality, which are exactly what every survivor of domestic violence needs to experience on their journey toward safety. John Philip Newell says that Brigid “is inspiring us not to be frightened by . . . the uncertainties of passing through new doorways” (Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul, 2021, 67).
Traditions associated with Brigid model respect for women. In one example, the girls and young women of the town would fashion a Brigid doll out of corn and decorate her with ribbons, stones, and shells. They then spend the eve of Brigid’s Day (January 31) together. To enter the house, boys or young men must “ask for permission . . . and treat them and the corn dolly with respect” (Mairead Sullivan, @IrishCentral, January 31, 2021). In another tradition, “the women of the community presided at the feast and the men were required to beg – playfully, but nevertheless to beg – to attend the celebration . . . the best food and drink was kept for the poorest in the community, especially the most elderly women” (Newell, 60). In these days of increased understanding of the importance of consent, especially regarding human sexuality, modeling what it is to ask for permission or to ask to be invited is a refreshing reminder that we all deserve dignity and respect. This is learned behavior, and even those with social power can learn to be respectful across boundaries of gender, class, age, sexual orientation, race, etc. We can learn to honor the sacred in each other.
[Image on left: a traditional 'dolly' decorated with bows, accessed via Wikipedia] [Image on right: a more modern-take on a 'corn dolly' for St. Brigid's day, made with: Willow branch, manzanita branches, pearly everlasting flowers, and dry chaparral grasses and flowers. Accessed via Flickr user St. Blaise.]
Brigid also embodies groundbreaking female strength and leadership. She started a monastery at Kildare for both monks and nuns at a time when gender inclusivity was unusual. She was ordained as a Bishop, which was not only unusual but unheard of. Again and again, she broke boundaries that served to uphold inequity and injustice. According to a complaint lodged with the king by Brigid’s father, “she does things without asking permission” (Newell, p. 57). For Christians (of any gender identity) who experience domestic violence or who are looking to end racism, sexism, ageism, or other forms of injustice, Brigid’s leadership and strength, not to mention her moxie, make her someone you want in your corner.
Brigid was famous for mending and healing. In one story, she was visiting the King of Teffia when a servant broke one of his favorite cups. The servant was thrown into the dungeon to die. Brigid pleaded for mercy for the servant. When that didn’t work, she asked the king for the shards of the cup. Taking them in her hand, she blew on them. The broken shards formed into a mended cup, and the servant was reprieved. Violence in relationships causes broken hearts, broken souls, broken bones, broken dreams, broken relationships, broken families, broken lives. Brigid reminds us that we can help survivors put what has been broken back together and find the mercy and courage to move on. (For those of you who have seen the mosaic patterns on some of Safe Havens’ resources, this is the same idea: sometimes you have to pick up the broken pieces and build a new picture.)
St. Brigid by Brenda Nippert, 2018. Accessed via fineartamerica. The item that St. Brigid is holding is the symbol associated with her, St. Brigid's cross.
Standing behind Brigid is an ancient Celtic tradition of a faith that is life-giving and life-affirming. Every person, every living thing, and the earth itself are sacred and to be respected and loved. The interconnections among all life and the earth are to be honored. (On Brigid’s Eve, holiday treats are even given to the animals and birds!) The abilities to listen deeply and to respond with compassion are to be nurtured. The sacred is with us, in us, among us, surrounding us. The light cannot be extinguished. In this sacred universe, everyone is sacred. No one, no one, no one deserves to be abused.
This blog post was inspired by my reading of John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening to What Our Souls Know and Healing the World, Harper Collins, 2021.