In the fifth century, according to Irish church tradition, a king impregnated a slave, and the baby, Brigid, was raised a servant who grew up grinding corn, washing feet, tending livestock, and giving the king’s bacon to hungry dogs and his butter to working boys.

Losing patience, he took her nearby intending to sell her. He entered the castle to settle the arrangements. A leper passed by, and Brigid gave him her father’s battle sword from the chariot. The king was enraged, and the prospective husband backed out, saying that he could not afford such a wife.

Brigid was beautiful and full of spunk, and since she loved music and conversation, her father arranged her marriage to a poet. But resolving to belong only to Christ, Brigid found the man another wife, then deserted the castle.

Her father thought it good riddance.

Brigid sought other women wanting to belong only to Christ, and with seven of them she organized a community of nuns like the communities of monks established by Patrick. The monastic settlement at Kildare became a buzzing compound within a great stone wall and peppered with thatched-roof buildings. Artists’ studios, workshops, guest chambers, a library, and a church evolved. This and similar settlements became beehives of industry, producing some of the most beautiful craftsmanship in Europe. The slaves and the poor bettered their lot by becoming artisans.

Brigid herself traveled by chariot as an evangelist through the countryside, helping the poor, preaching the gospel, and organizing nunneries. By her death on February 1, c. 453, 13,000 women had escaped from slavery and poverty to Christian service and industry. Throughout ensuing centuries, Christians across Ireland have placed St. Brigid’s crosses of woven straw over their doors on February 1, and housekeepers have repeated a rhyme bidding them give a portion of their butter to working boys.

If you forget to bring in a stack of harvested grain, don’t go back in the field to get it. Leave it for the poor, including foreigners, orphans, and widows, and the Lord will make you successful in everything you do. (Deuteronomy 24:19)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Feb. 1.

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