The story isn’t often retold but St Brigid, the Irish saint who ushers in spring this Wednesday, once miraculously ended a pregnancy in fifth-century Ireland.
In an account of her life, Cogitosus describes how the saint met “a certain woman who, after taking a vow of virginity, had lapsed through weakness into youthful desire of pleasure, and her womb swelled with child”.
Brigid, “exercising the most potent strength of her ineffable faith”, blessed her and “caused what had been conceived to disappear”. The woman was returned “to health and to penance”.
If she were alive today, it’s a little fanciful to think St Brigid would be among those campaigning to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution.
Then again, is it?
It’s clear from the account, written two centuries after her death, that Brigid’s miracle was an exceptional measure designed to restore a sinner to the fold.
Her biographer includes it to illustrate how the early Church mother’s power came solely from her unshakeable belief in God. It was not intended as a social commentary on the compassion shown to a woman who had been cast out because of an unexpected pregnancy.
Yet, Brigid’s compassion shines through, just as it does elsewhere in this fascinating narrative outlining 32 of her miracles. She turned water into ale to slake the thirst of needy lepers; milked a cow three times to provide for visiting bishops; restored speech to a dumb girl, sight to the blind.
That’s intentional, of course. No doubt Cogitosus’s biography was designed to show a charitable and powerful Church. However, it also clearly exposes the early Church’s monastic fervour and its belief that women should be self-restrained and chaste.
Brigid was revered because she was virginal and unquestioning in her devotion. Yet, she was strong, determined, and, at times, gloriously wily, too. Remember the story of her search for a site to build her monastery? She persuaded the king of Leinster to give her as much land as her cloak would cover. When he agreed, four of her nuns each took a corner of the cloak and ran, like the wind, in all directions until the garment covered the whole area of the Curragh.
That would probably be considered fraud today, but what a great yarn. In fact, the life of Brigid is full of them. It’s a wonderful, rollicking tale of an admired female leader who rushes in on her chariot with a timely miracle whenever it’s needed. If you have time, look it up.
All the same, nobody’s trying to paint a rosy picture of the mythical past. Few, if any, would volunteer to be catapulted back in time to join the Brigidine monastery in Kildare.
Nevertheless, when half a million women march on Washington to voice their fears about a reversal of women’s rights, reproductive and otherwise, it seems like a good time to recall the miracle “of the Pregnant Woman Blessed and Spared the Birth-Pangs”.
Even if the early church considered Brigid’s miracle as a way of restoring a woman to virtue, her action seems more open-minded, more understanding, and more considerate of the reality of women’s lives than some of the measures being taken by secular leaders today.
In the fifth century, the woman in question was restored to “health and penance”. The choice of word is interesting; it’s ‘penance’, mind, not ‘punishment’, which is what Donald Trump, in the 21st-century, suggested should be meted out, in some form, to women who have had abortions.
He has since rowed back on that statement and, in any case, why should we be concerned about what the president of another country thinks, says, and does?
Well, here’s why.
On Monday, President Trump signed an executive order banning international NGOs in receipt of US funding from offering abortion information and services.
Let’s leave the ethics of abortion to one side for a moment to consider this statistic from the World Health Organisation: Every eight minutes a woman in a developing nation will die of complications arising from an unsafe abortion. In other words, some 68,000 women die annually from unsafe abortions, making it one of the leading causes of maternal mortality (13%).
Now, healthcare workers will have to decide between funding and offering women a range of family planning services, including abortion.
They have already warned that a withdrawal of funding will force them to close health clinics and cancel training, and that it will put the lives of women at risk.
I wonder if any of the seven men photographed watching over Trump as he signed the executive order in the Oval Office stopped to consider its implications. There was, praise the heavens, a bit of a Twitter backlash about the maleness of the gathering.
This tweet from Martin Belam, social and new formats editor at the Guardian, stood out: “As long as you live you’ll never see a photograph of 7 women signing legislation about what men can do with their reproductive organs.”
It emerged afterwards that there weren’t, in fact, seven men present that day — there were nine.
In fairness to the newly elected president, two women were added to the line-up the following day as he signed an executive to reinstate the environmentally controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
That, in 2017, is supposed to be progress.
Here at home, things are better. When you consider what is happening in the US, we should be grateful that we have a citizens’ assembly. It’s convening again this weekend to, at least, discuss the implications of the eighth amendment, the measure that equates the right to life of an unborn child with the right to life of the woman carrying it. The assembly is due to report to the Government in June.
Who can say what might happen after that, but as a woman — a non-protesting, non-placard-carrying, non-side-taking woman — I’m hoping against hope that it will mean new legislation that safeguards and protects the health of all Irish women.
Is that asking for a miracle?