Monday, 1 February 2016

Saint Brigid of Fiesole, February 1

M. Stokes, Six Months in the Apennines (1892)

February 1 is chiefly remembered in Ireland as the feast day of our national patroness Saint Brigid of Kildare. Curiously, it is also the date of commemoration of a ninth-century namesake, Brigid of Fiesole. This holy lady was said to be sister to the Irish saint Andrew who had travelled to Italy with another Irishman, Donatus, later Bishop of Fiesole. There are reasons to believe that rather than being a separate individual, Brigid of Fiesole represents the transference of the cult of the Irish patroness to an Italian setting. This was certainly the view of the author of the classic work Irish Saints in Italy, Fra Anselmo Tommasini. Canon O'Hanlon himself had raised doubts about the coincidence of both of these saints Brigid sharing the same feast in an entry he made on another reputed feast of the Italian Brigid which can be read here. There is also the fact that Saint Donatus was known for his devotion to the Irish patroness and built a church dedicated to her in Piacenza and also authored a Life of Saint Brigid. In the Italian hagiography, however, Brigid is said to be the sister of the deacon Andrew and is miraculously transported from Ireland to Italy to be with him in his final hours. She then stays on in Italy, living a hermit's life in a cave. It's a very beautiful story and Canon O'Hanlon narrates it below in this account from Volume II of his Lives of the Irish Saints:

Saint Brigid, Virgin, Patroness of the Church of Opacum, at Fiesole, Italy.
[Ninth Century.]

In a minor degree to the celebrated Abbess of Kildare, yet with great relative honour, another very distinguished St. Brigid, an Irish virgin, who belonged in course of time to Fesule, in Hetruria, is commemorated on this day. Her Acts are given in the Bollandist collection. There is a historic commentary, comprised in three sections, and in thirteen paragraphs. The Italic Life of this holy religious is given, likewise, in seven paragraphs. Our own Colgan has introduced notices of her, extracted from various sources, at the present date. Her life, however, is best drawn from that of her brother, St. Andrew, and which Filippo Villani compiled. We do not learn from it, notwithstanding, in what part of the Island of Hibernia, also called Scotia, either had been born. Nor has their pedigree been transmitted, by our native genealogists, to the foreign biographer. We are only told, their parents were people of great wealth and distinction.

Towards the beginning of the ninth century, in the reign of Aedh Oirdnidhe, King of Ireland, there lived in that country a noble virgin, called Brigid. This, too, was probably the period of her birth. The splendour of her virtues far outshone that of her illustrious descent. This maiden had a brother, named Andrew, for whom she entertained a most sisterly affection, and ties of blood were more than strengthened by that sympathy, which binds pious souls. She was younger than her brother, and she regarded him as a wise guide and counsellor. Both had early felt a desire to embrace a life of celibacy. Andrew placed himself, as a disciple, under the teaching and protection of a holy bishop, St. Donat, or Donatus, whom he accompanied on a pilgrimage to Rome. Having received the Pope's blessing, both settled at Fiesole, where Andrew became a deacon. Here he remained for several years. Fiesole was an ancient city, and situated on a mountain, about three miles from Florence. It was once famous for its power and extent; but, now it has nothing of a city, saving the name. Some remains of its Cyclopean walls, and ancient Christian memoirs, attest its remote antiquity, and the ardour with which its people early embraced the Christian religion.

The mountain slopes there were thickly covered with churches, monasteries, palaces and villas, while a luxuriant country around it has all the aspect of a vast garden. The Fiesole hills are the delight of Florentines, who resort thither to breathe their balmy air. The origin of Fiesole is lost in the darkness of ages. We can say with certainty, that it was among the first of towns, built in Italy, and probably it was one of the twelve Etruscan cities. By order of St. Donatus, who was elected bishop of this city, St. Andrew re-established the Church of St. Martin, near the River Mensola. There he founded a monastery at the base of the Fiesole hills. There, too, he spent the rest of a life, singularly illustrated by piety and renowned for miracles. St. Andrew had made a perfect sacrifice, by abandoning home and the society of his relations and friends. But, a greater privation than all other losses was parting companionship with his beloved sister. She devoted herself wholly to pious exercises in Ireland, living either with her parents, or, more likely, as a member of one among the many religious institutes there existing. Nor does she appear even to have known where or how her brother lived. He survived St. Donatus, however, and after a lapse of some time, age and infirmity growing upon himself, it was deemed well to bestow his earnest admonition on the monks, who stood around his bed in tears. Then, the thought of his dear sister Brigid came into his mind, and he most vehemently wished to see her, ere he should die. The Omnipotent was graciously pleased to regard this feeling, which the dying saint had concealed from the bystanders. The pious Brigid, at the time, had been seated at her frugal meal, consisting of some small fishes and a salad. She lived at a retired place in Ireland. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to her, and miraculously was she brought before St. Andrew and his brethren. All, who were engaged rendering kind offices to their dying superior, were struck with astonishment and admiration, at the unlooked-for arrival of St. Brigid. A greater number soon appeared to witness her presence. Meantime, the virgin herself trembled with fear and reverence; for, instead of a reality, she thought the sick man lying on the bed, with those men standing around in a strange costume, as also the place and objects near her, represented only a vision. St. Andrew had a clear intuition of the whole matter, and in a tender tone of voice, he thus spoke: "My dearly beloved sister Brigid, finding my end approaching, I conceived a most earnest desire to behold you before my death, and the immense fountain of charity and of mercy from on high hath yielded to my prayers, as you see, and hath indulged the wishes of a sinner. Therefore, fear not, for so it hath pleased God, that you should behold your own brother Andrew, during his last agony, and hoping through your present merits, that the Creator of all things will be propitious, although you had long since thought me removed from this earth. For, in this place, far apart from our natal soil, I, a feeble athlete and soldier, have spent my days, while you, in like manner, shall end your life, supplying the complement of my warfare, by great austerity and penance. Now, set aside all dread, leaning on Divine mercy, and set your mind at rest, being assured, that you see and feel only what is real; while for me, I entreat you to become, with the fear of God, and with fervour of soul, an intercessor before our Lord, as the hour of my dissolution now arrives." As if awaking from torpor and coming to herself, with great sensibility and devotion, Brigid wept then, tenderly clasping the hand of her brother, she kissed it, and deep sighs almost choked her power of utterance. Sorrow afflicted her for more than an hour, when on bended knees, she thus exclaimed: "O Almighty God, the sole worker of wonders, whom the powers of Heaven serve, whom the elements obey, and to whom every creature is subject, to thee be praise and benediction, honour and glory, who hath deigned this supernatural favour to thy handmaid, that she should behold her holy brother here present." Then addressing St. Andrew, she said: "Oh, most pious brother, the first faithful director and guardian of my youth, I rejoice with thee, and I am glad and shall be glad, during the short time it may be granted me to behold thee; although, I suffer pain with you, and all the more keenly, because I clearly foresee, when you depart, I shall be alone in this miserable life, and that I shall survive, afflicted, desolate and deprived of your holy conversation. Nevertheless, the deeply impressed traces of thy praiseworthy deeds and pious works, as also the memorials you shall have left, must increase my rejoicing before God, and again bring a festive day. Doubtless, intuitively knowing such matters, you shall happily sleep in Christ. Of this I feel assured, and especially in your case. So long as the usury of life be left to me, I shall not fail in this place, whither angels have brought me, to follow in thy footsteps with penitential exercises, so far as the infirmity of my feeble body will permit, and so far as Divine grace may assist me. Oh, my dearest brother, aid me by thy holy prayers, while you supply to a woman's weakness, that manly strength, which has supported you. But now, have courage, and be comforted, in Christ and in His holy cross; for, as hitherto you were accustomed to contend with great vigour of mind and indomitable fortitude, give still further proofs of resolution, during this your last agony." With such consoling words, she cheered the parting soul of her dear brother, and she soon saw his remains reverently consigned to the earth. Then Brigid sought a dense wood, near Fiesole, where she resolved to live a solitary life, and to spend it, in a rigorous course of penance.

This desert place, called Opacum or Opacus, was at the foot of certain high and steep mountains, where wild beasts alone had their lairs. Here, she subsisted on fruits and roots, which grew about, and thus almost removed from human associations and conversation, engaged in constant vigils, fasts and austerities, old age grew upon her. Yet, would rustics, when hunting, frequently come to her hermitage, which seems to have been a sort of cave. Sometimes, they offered the holy woman products of their chase, which she often refused to accept, as being too great a luxury for her manner of life. As her years wore on, many holy matrons and men visited St. Brigid, while they alleviated her infirmities. This charitable help the Almighty inspired. At length, spent with old age, after miracles and merits had crowned her life, this holy virgin was called to her heavenly nuptials, on the 1st day of February, about the year of Christ, 870. She died —it is incorrectly stated—towards the close of Charlemagne's reign. Then, after her death, all the country inhabitants, venerating her as a saint, interred her remains; and, on an elevated spot among the mountains, where she had lived, they built a church, which was dedicated to her memory. This was called, Piave St. Martin in Baco, and afterwards her natal day was celebrated there with great solemnity. The desert, which in her time, had been rugged, wild and uncultivated, subsequently assumed an almost miraculous change; for, settlers on the spot soon rendered it attractive and populous. Several writers have celebrated the praises of this holy virgin, while pious pilgrimages were made to her shrine, for ages long past after her death.

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