Every Irish Bridget is named after St Bridget of Ireland: but most Continental Birgittas and Brigittes are named for St Bridget of Sweden, who was born in 1303, and lived to be 70.
Yet Swedish Birgitta was also named after Irish Bridget: the Swedes, who came late to Christianity, were generally much impressed by both St Patrick and St Brigid of Ireland, and the name Birgitta also signified “bright”.
Birgitta was the daughter of a noble Swedish family: her mother, who died when she was only 11, was exceptionally unworldly and devout. Birgitta herself, who was described as “small and slight” was married before she was 15 to a knight, Ulf of Ulfasa. It was not her choice to marry, but she accepted it as the will of God.
Yet Birgitta and her husband had 28 happy years together; and she bore him four daughters and four sons. As a wife, Birgitta lived a life of some grandeur. They dwelt in a castle: ruled over vast domains, with many tenants and dependents.
A medieval castle was a selfsupporting economy, with looms and hop gardens, orchards, fields, storehouses for brewing and baking, dovecots, poultry yards, dairies and many beehives to produce the honey which was the sweetening agent of the time. Birgitta ruled over all this as an accomplished chatelaine: she was a gifted gardener, importing many plants from the Mediterranean.
Yet, in the midst of riches, Birgitta was always drawn both to her spiritual life, and to the service of the poor.
Each day, before she herself ate, she would serve 12 poor people at table. On Thursdays, she washed the feet of the poor, in imitation of Christ. She took her children to the bedsides of the sick, and of lepers. She also practised private penances in the course of her devotions. She had had a vision of Our Lady when she was 10, which influenced her entire life. In her thirties she was commanded to attend the royal household at Stockholm. But she upbraided King Magnus for his extravagance and frivolity, and for overtaxing the people and oppressing the poor. Birgitta resigned from her courtly duties: later, this was to have an impact on Magnus, who sought to mend his prodigal ways.
After 25 years of marriage, Birgitta and Ulf went on pilgrim age to St James of Compostela in Spain, journeying from Sweden by ship, and then overland on foot and by horseback. The Black Death was abroad at the time, but this did not daunt them. On the way home, Ulf fell ill at Arras in France, and began to prepare for death. He retired to a Cistercian monastery at Alvastra in Sweden, and Birgitta was permitted to tend him in his last days. Ulf died thanking her for being such a wonderful wife who had led him towards heaven.
In her widowhood, Birgitta knew that she had a religious vocation, but she was not quite sure what shape it would take. She put herself through many penances and mortifications; she experienced visions and religious ecstasy. She sold the last of her jewellery for the poor, and went to Rome. In Italy, she joined in the campaign – eventually successful – to bring the Pope back from Avignon in France. She visited St Francis of Assisi, and resolved to set up an order of holy women who would live spiritual lives in community. In Rome, Birgitta was joined by her daughter, Katherine, who, as Abbess of Vadstena, was also to be canonised, and was to continue her mother’s work in establishing the order to be known as the Bridgettines. (Two of Birgitta’s sons died prematurely, which was a great sorrow to her.) In her last years, she went on pilgrimage to Palestine, which proved to be an uplifting experience. In Jerusalem, she had visions not only of Our Lady, but of St Anne and her husband St Joachim. At Bethlehem, the whole saga of Christ’s birth passed before her eyes, as in a heavenly tableau: she watched Mary “folding her child to her bosom and wrapping him in swaddling clothes”.
When Birgitta died, many, many people followed her cortege, and there were numerous reports of miraculous cures, of the sick, the blind, the disabled, as well as the poor to whom Birgitta was so devoted. Her order, the Bridgettines, is still established at Rome and in many other parts of the world.