A little know story about Brigit shows how she valued creativity, and helped a woman preserve hers. It is a story about the rather unpopular theme of sacrifice: what are you willing to give up for Spirit and its purpose? The version from a 17th century source is followed by my own retelling of the story. In the next page you can read what meaning it has for us today.
I found this version on the St. Brighid web site, which contains many original stories about the saint.
The holy vergin being once benighted in a spacious field in Meath, declined to a certain poor woman's ouse with whom she lodged all night, and albeit the woman received her with great joy, rendering God many thanks for the happy and safe arrival of the most holy virgin, hyet her poverty was such that she wanted wherewithall to entertain so worthy a guest but nonetheless of reverence to theSaint she broke down a frame she used to weave in boyled therewith the calfe of one only cow which she had. Supper being ended, and after resting her self all night, the next morning to the end that the charitable woman should not sustain any dammage or detriment, by the entertainment or reflection of the Saint, she found another calfe like her owne with her cow and found likewise a weaving frame in form and greatness alike to her own that she had burnt.
It had been raining all day and Mary was clean out of firewood. It was no use going into the woods around her cottage to fetch some, because that would all be wet by now, and she would only catch a chill. So Mary blew her fingers warm with her own breath and bent over her embroidery frame.
Mary was grateful for her good eyesight and her skill with the needle. It kept her in just enough money to buy necessities. Without that and her only cow - who had just had a beautiful bull calf - she had no hope of survival. She embroidered intricate flower pattens that she took to town once a month, where she sold it to the taylor, who made it into bodices and waistcoats. With the proceeds, she bought the supplies she needed for another month. It was good work, and she loved seeing the garlands of flowers appear and grow from her hand.
But just as she had sat down to do a little more work before the light faded, she heard noises on the road outside her cottage. That was unusual, not many people took that road, certainly not this late in the afternoon. They would never make it to a farm or village before night fell. The voices became more agitated and the cart had stopped moving. Mary noticed that all the voices had been female. She secured her needle on the cloth and ran outside to see if she could be of any assistance.
Outside, just by the last trees before the clearning where her cottage stood, a heavy cart had got stuck in the mud. That patch was always a little damp, but after a week of heavy rain it had turned into an impassable pool. Mary saw five nuns milling about the cart. Some of them had hoisted up their skirts and were trying to free the wheel. The other two were trying to encourage the horses to pull harder. Mary ran into the woods, where she found some sticks. She carried it to the cart and stuck some of the pieces in the mud, so the wheel could get some purchase. It helped, and soon the cart was pulled free.
The nuns thanked her profusely and made ready to leave again. But Mary would have none of it. She told the nuns they would never find shelter before nightfall, unless they did her the honour of staying with her for the night.
‘I am aware my cottage is small, and I have little to give you, but it is far better than a night out in the open, certainly in this weather,’ said Mary. The nuns couldn’t disagree with that, and pulled their cart up by Mary’s door. She let them in and gave them all a drink of water. As they sat down to drink, Mary’s curiosity got the better of her, and she started to ask the nuns where they had come from. ‘Kildare’, was the answer. That delighted Mary, and she cried: ‘Oh, so you are the holy Lady Brigit’s women. Please do tell me what she’s like.’
The ensuing silence told Mary she had made a faux pas. One of the nuns smiled at her warmly. She had a beautiful face, and a red lock of hair was mischievously protruding from under her veil. ‘I am Brigit of Kildare,’ said the nun, and Mary apologised profusely. She would never have thought that this woman, who had treated the others as equals, was indeed the holy abess herself. But her apologies were laughed away, and conversation turned to the trials of the journey.
Mary had suddenly become silent, though. She had a living saint in her house, a lady who was holy in the eyes of the Divine and who had performed miracles, a lady who could grant Mary eternal life if she so wished. This lady was in her little cottage, and she had nothing to give her and her attendants for supper. She only had one loaf of bread left, and some greens from her vegetable patch, enough to get by until next market day. But no where near enough for six.
Mary felt despondent, until it struck her. As soon as she knew what to do, she leapt up and set to work. The nuns had now truned to their prayers, and Mary took her embroidery off the frame. She took it to the back of the cottage, where she cut it up into bits small enough for a fire.
Then she went to the meadow, and put a rope around the calf’s neck. She talked to the mother cow and told her that her calf was needed to feed the Lady Brigit. The cow didn’t seem to mind. Even the calf followed her meekly. Mary slaughtered the calf, cut the best bits of meat up into chunks and went back inside.
There she lit a fire. One of the nuns offered to tend it for her, since she was very used to doing that at Kildare. So Mary went out and gathered the best young greens, and the tastiest herbs. She used what little fat she had to fry the meat, and then added water to make a stew. When night had fallen, and the stew had been simmering over the fire for quite some time, Mary fed her guests everything she had, her only means of support.
But during the meal and for some time afterwards, she listened to Brigit instructing her nuns, and Mary felt that her soul was fed now. A warm glow burned inside her heart as she remebered what the lady had said: you can always trust that the Divine will provide what is best for you. Mary reckoned that spiritual food was at this time better for her than bread and meat.
In the morning, Mary helped her guests depart. They all thanked her with a kiss, and the Lady Brigit granted her and her home a blessing. The inner fire was still burning in Mary’s heart as she waved them goodbye. She was certain she had done the right thing, but as she turned to go back inside, she wondered what she would do. She could never finish her embroidery to the required standard without the frame. And how was she going to survive the winter without the meat from the calf?
Just then, a particular sound struck Mary. All this morning it had been there, on and off, but she had been too busy helping the nuns on their way to really notice. From the meadow she distinctly heard the lowing of a cow and a calf.
Mary rushed to the back of the house. Her heart leapt as she saw her own bull calf, the very same one with the white spot in its left ear, drink milk from its mother. As the sun broke through the clouds, Mary ran inside, and by the little window she found what she had hardly dared expect: her embroidery frame intact, with her work stretched over it as though it had never moved.
Mary thanked the Divine for Brigit’s visit and her compassion, and she vowed to always keep the glow in her heart alight.
Main picture: A tribal woman sewing from a page on traditional Kasooti embroidery
Embroidery silks from the Smocking Store
Hands sewing: a detail of "Nude Study, or Suzanne Sewing" by Paul Gauguin (1848-19303)
Creative embroidery by Anne Griffiths
Forge: detail of a picture from an armour workshop, which has disappeared from the internet