Either side of the east window at Saint Mary’s, we have a pair of windows mirroring each other. Yesterday, we looked at the one to the east window’s right, portraying two saints associated with England: Pope Saint Gregory, and Saint Augustine of Canterbury. When Saint Mary’s church was opened in 1897, its congregation, as with many parishes of that era, included a large number of Irish parishioners. It’s sister window, therefore, shows two of their patron saints: Saint Patrick on the left, and Saint Brigid on the right.
Known as ‘the Apostle of Ireland’, Patrick was born in Great Britain – possibly at Kilpatrick on the northern bank of the Clyde, between Glasgow and Dumbarton. As a lad, he was several times captured by pirates and taken prisoner to Ireland, where he was put to work as a shepherd. During his captivity, Patrick already showed marks of his saintliness to come. His spirit was filled with faith, love and fear of God, so that he would rise before the light, in snow, frost, or rain, to make his prayers to God – being accustomed to address God in prayer a hundred times every day, and a hundred times every night. After being rescued, Patrick was placed among the clergy and later ordained priest. At length, having been consecrated bishop, he returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary.
He had many evils, sufferings, labours, and adversaries to bear in the discharge of his missionary calling. Nonetheless, by the goodness of God, many who had until then been given over to the serving of pagan idols, were drawn through Patrick’s preaching to faith and baptism. Patrick established an organised church, ordaining bishops and priests, and founding communities of religious. Adorned as he was with heavenly visions, the gift of prophecy, and with great signs and wonders from God, Patrick’s fame spread itself abroad more and more.
As during his youthful years in bondage, Patrick never suffered his spirit to weary in constant prayer. It was his custom to repeat every day the whole book of Psalms, with songs and hymns, and two hundred prayers. He bent his knees to God in worship three hundred times every day, and made the sign of the Cross a hundred times at each of the seven ‘hours’ of the Divine Office. He divided the night into three portions: during the first, he would repeat the first hundred Psalms, and bend his knees two hundred times; during the second, he remained plunged in cold water, with heart, eyes, and hands lifted up to heaven, while repeating the remaining fifty Psalms; and during the third, he took his short rest, lying upon a bare stone. Like Saint Paul, Patrick earned his keep by labouring with his own hands.
He died in extreme old age, sometime in the fifth century, worn out with unceasing care for the Christian communities he’d founded – yet fortified by the rites of Holy Mother Church, and glorious both in word and work. His body is buried in Down in Ulster.
Patrick is famed for using the three-leafed shamrock to illustrate the central mystery of our Faith – that of the Holy Trinity, one God in three persons. Some depictions of Patrick (but not this one) show him holding, or pointing to a shamrock. Patrick is also celebrated for banishing snakes from Ireland. This is why snakes are absent from there to this day – but also, being the guise under which Satan tempted Adam to his Fall (Genesis 3,1-15), their expulsion signifies Patrick’s banishment from Ireland of pagan error and idolatry. Patrick chased the snakes into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill – and this is what we see in our window. Patrick is dressed in his pontifical Mass vestments, with a bishop’s mitre on his head, and bishop’s crozier (topped by an ornate version of the shepherd’s crook) in his left hand. He stands on a rock, by the side of which (in the bottom right hand corner) we can just glimpse the edge of the glittering, emerald sea. Into this Patrick’s right hand is peremptorily directing the snakes. I can make out three of them: one slithering across the bottom of Patrick’s white alb, another over the ‘T’ in ‘ST’, and the third (its head about to enter the water) over the ‘K’ in ‘PATRICK’.
Brigid was born in AD 451, just north of Dundalk – of a slave mother who had been baptized by Saint Patrick himself. Already as a child, Brigid was noted for her holiness, and performed miracles. She then entered the religious life as a nun. She founded a number of monastic communities, both for women and men. The most famous of these was the abbey at Kildare, where Brigid was the abbess.
Brigid is celebrated for her generosity to the poor (a generosity she already showed in childhood – once giving away, to her mother’s consternation, their entire store of butter – though the butter was miraculously replenished in answer to Brigid’s prayers). She was able to turn water into beer, and her prayers to still the wind and the rain. She died in 521.
In our window, Brigid is dressed in her black nun’s habit. Leaning against her left shoulder is a crozier similar to Saint Patrick’s, though simpler – the mark of an abbess. In her left hand she holds a lighted lamp. Brigid’s abbey at Kildare replaced a pagan shrine to a Celtic goddess (also known as Brigid) where a group of young women had tended an idolatrous eternal flame. Brigid thus replaced error with the true light of the saving Gospel – and this may be one significance of Brigid’s lamp. But also, in the traditional form of Mass, the Gospel reading for the feast of Saint Brigid (on February 1st) is Our Lord’s parable about the five virgins who were wise enough to bring along flasks of oil with their lamps, and so – with lamps alight – were found ready to enter the wedding feast when the bridegroom arrived (Matthew 25,1-13). Commenting on this parable, Saint Jerome says that the lamps represent faith, while the flasks of extra oil signify good works. As lamps go out without oil to replenish them, so faith by itself (as the apostle James warns us, 2,14-26) is a dead faith. But good works transform faith into a living, saving faith – just as flasks of oil kept the five virgins’ lamps lit. Brigid, as we heard, abounded in good works – particularly towards the poor – and so holds in her hand a lamp kept alight by plenty of spare oil.
Yesterday, we noted that the tiny window above Saints Gregory and Augustine contained a rose, to represent England. The equivalent window above Saints Patrick and Brigid contains (as you’ve no doubt already anticipated!) a bunch of green Irish Shamrock.