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Mothering God

30 November, 1999

The Irish in the Middle Ages had an intriguing way of expressing devotion to the Child Jesus. And it was more than mere fancy, writes Gilbert Márkus.

An old Irish way of exploring a gospel text:

Here in Erfurt the Irish, when they’re drunk,
state that among the saints the first one on the list
is Saint Brendan, and that the God of gods supreme
is Brendan’s brother, and that Brigit is God’s Mum.

These lines were written by an anonymous German poet in the thirteenth century, mocking the Irish monks who lived in Erfurt at that time. He went on to describe how most folk think the Irish are completely mad (not to mention blasphemous) in saying such things. He repeats the kind of argument that the monks might use to prove their strange theory. ‘Whoever does my Father’s will,’ Jesus said, ‘is my sister and brother and mother.’ And if they are brother and mother of Christ, they are brother and mother of God.

Deviant Irish monks

At first sight the German might seem to be right: why would anyone want to describe Brigid as the ‘mother of God’? Surely that title can only be applied to the Virgin Mary. And yet the Irish did speak of Brigit, their own great female saint, in exactly this way, and before we dismiss the idea as the German poet did, we should ask just what they meant.

Mothering the Infant Christ

But this is a hymn about Brigit, not about Mary. Another Brigitine hymn says of her that she did not love the world, but she perched in it ‘like a bird on a cliff’ and that:

… the saint slept a captive’s sleep
for the sake of her Son.
Not much to blame was found in her
with the noble faith of the Trinity.
Brigit, mother of my Lord…
In this hymn Jesus is referred to again a little later as Brigit’s son:
A tree that the host could not lift
at another time – excellent tidings –
Brigit’s Son brought to her…
Elsewhere, in an Old Irish Life of Brigit, she is referred to as ala-Máire már Choimded máthair, ‘another Mary, mother of the great Lord.’

Enough has survived of this devotion to Brigit as ‘mother of the Lord’ to show that there was something in the Erfurt poet’s accusation. The Irish did seem to have an unusual way of expressing their devotion to Brigit – and not just when they were drunk, as the poet suggested. But though it may have been unusual, it is not at all unorthodox if we read it in the devotional sense in which it was intended. Of course, no one believed that Brigit had actually given birth to the child Jesus, but the image was a powerfully suggestive way of thinking about her sanctity. Medieval Irish writers explored this imagery in which motherhood was used to express Christian devotion – not only speaking of God as the mother of the Christian believer (an image which has always been part of the Christian repertoire), but by speaking of the Christian as the Lord’s mother, nursing the infant Christ. And they did this not only for Brigid, but also for other saints.

Jesus against one’s heart

It is little Jesus who is nursed by me in my little hermitage.
Though a cleric have great wealth, it is all deceitful save Jesukin.
The nursing done by me in my house is no nursing of a base churl.
Jesus with heaven’s inhabitants is against my heart every night.
Little youthful Jesus is my lasting good: he never fails to give.
…Though little Jesus be in my bosom (im ucht),
he is in his mansion above.

The poem is put into the mouth of a woman, here a sixth century nun, and it was written to be sung by women. And we might imagine that it would naturally be of more interest to women readers – especially perhaps women in monasteries whose work would very possibly include fostering and caring for abandoned children and others. Two other nuns have a similar story in the Martyrology of Oengus: ‘Eithne and Sodelb used to nurture Christ … and Christ used to come in the shape of a babe, so that he was in their bosom, and they would kiss him, and he baptised them.’ What better validation of their work could there be than the belief that the love such women poured out on children should join them to Christ?

Men in a ‘maternal’ role

We hear a similar story about St Moling after he has given assistance to a leper. The sick man disappears, and Moling thinks he may have been deceived and declares that he will neither eat nor drink till the Lord comes to him. An angel asks him, ‘In what form would you prefer your Lord to come and hold speech with you?’ And Moling replies that he wants to see him as a child. Some time afterwards Christ sat in his lap (ina ucht) and Moling caressed him until the morning.

So both women and men were able to express their closeness to Christ through this imagery of nursing or caressing a child, and perhaps through the ordinary and everyday practice of caring for children in their own households, or their own monasteries. A perfectly natural picture of maternal affection is given new depth when it is seen as an image of the soul’s union with God – not the more usual one of the psalmist who says of his soul, ‘A weaned child on its mother’s breast, even so is my soul.’ This is a reversal: now it is God who is pictured as the child, and the Christian as the mother, protective, nourishing, playful. In a sense it is an unfolding of Christ’s teaching about welcoming children: ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me receives not me, but him who sent me’ (Mark 9:37).

Doing the Father’s will

Here there is less stress on the physical gestures of affection, the dandling and nursing of the child, and more on the Christian response to Christ in faith and love – doing the will of the Father. But it still points towards the same image of the Christian, male or female, as the Mother of the Lord.

If at first sight the cult of Brigit as ‘mother of God’ looked a little strange, as it did to the Erfurt poet, on a deeper reading we begin to discover a certain richness in the idea. We find a sense that in caring for children, the weakest people in any society, men and women draw close to God. We always need images for our faith, ways of imagining the unimaginable. Here we find a new and fertile image of God, where feelings of tenderness and playfulness might offer a counterpoint to, for example, the holy fear of the just Judge, and an interplay with such images as the Potter, the Father, the Shepherd.

Not just the Irish

It was not only among the Gaels that this kind of imagery was popular, and in the middle ages women especially were to find ways of articulating their experience in the context of their faith in this kind of way. As Caroline Walker Bynum writes: ‘Secular society expected women to be intimately involved in caring for the bodies of others, especially the young, the sick and the dying… To some extent women simply took these ordinary nurturing roles into their most profound religious experiences. … Not only did female mystics kiss, bathe and suckle babies in visions and grieve with Mary as she received her son’s dead body for burial; they actually acted out maternal and nuptial roles in the liturgy, decorating life-sized statues of the Christ-child for the Christmas crèche.10

So we find examples outside the Gaelic world of simple and tender images such as those in this anonymous English poem in which the mother laments that she has no cloth to wrap up the infant Jesus to protect him from the cold, and instead she will hold his little feet against her breast.

Jesu, sweete, be not wroth,
Though I n’ave clout ne cloth
Thee on for to fold,
Thee on to folde ne to wrap,
For I n’ave clout ne lap;
But lay though thy feet to my pap
And wite thee from the cold.

Many nations and cultures, not only the Gaels, explored this imagery of the Christian disciple as the mother of God. The application of the Gaelic title már Choimded máthair to Brigit, ‘mother of the great Lord’, is not some kind of weird error or deviation. It is a natural flowering of the creative mind in love, part of that ever unfolding process of finding new ways to express the love poured into our hearts. 


This article first appeared in Spirituality, a publication of the Irish Dominicans.

And we should also note that it is not an entirely novel image that the Irish invented, drunk or otherwise. Augustine offers an initial exploration of this very imagery in his short book On Holy Virginity. There he writes: ‘So they are mothers of Christ, along with Mary, if they do the will of the Father. … So every devoted soul is also his mother, as it does the will of his Father in a most fertile love…’The same kind of language is also found in an early scholarly text with Irish connections, the Catechesis Celtica. Here the author looks at the story of the woman who cried out to Christ, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that gave you suck.’ Or as the author understood her to say, ‘If only you were my son!’ He notes Christ’s actual reply, ‘Blessed, rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it,’ and he combines these words with Christ’s words elsewhere: ‘Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Matthew 12:50) In other words, the author claims that Jesus is saying, ‘You can choose to be my mother, for it is within your reach. For if you keep the word of God, you will be my mother and you will not envy Mary. For Mary is blessed more in her having faith in Christ than she is in holding him in the flesh.’But it is not only women who are shown taking Christ in their bosom and acting out this ‘maternal’ role. Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona, is seen in his Life in the same posture: ‘At another time when Adomnán was on Iona, he fasted in his closed house for three days and nights and did not come into the monastery. A few of the faithful went to the house to see how the cleric was. They looked through the keyhole and saw a very beautiful little boy in Adomnán’s lap (in-ucht). Adomnán was showing affection to the infant in a manner which convinced them that it was Jesus who had come in the form of a child in order to bring solace to Adomnán.’A tenth century poem written in honour of Saint Ite, put into her mouth words that reflect exactly
this image of the nursing mother.An early Gaelic hymn prays: ‘May she destroy within us the taxes of our flesh,/the branch with blossoms, the mother of Jesus.’It’s clear from the mocking tone of the poem that the Erfurt poet has no time at all for this kind of argument. ‘What else would you expect,’ he seems to ask, ‘from a bunch of Irish drunks?’ He wasn’t the only German to see the Irish monks abroad as a pretty deviant mob. One wrote to suggest that if a married woman disappeared, the first place you should go to look for her was among the Irish monks.

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