Blog Template Theology of the Body: St. Bridget

Monday, April 26, 2010

St. Bridget

St. Bridget was a fourteenth century wife and mother who mourned the early death of her husband and then moved to Rome for a life of religious devotion, taking her children with her.

She is especially interesting to me because she vividly honored the Church's understanding of her nuptial union with Christ, and in conesequence, St. Bridget was an avid defender and promoter of the Church's practice of indulgences, which I spend most of my time thinking about. Some excerpts from her recorded Visions and Prophecies are very striking; while obtaining indulgences as “the compendium to heaven because of the indulgence that the holy pontiffs have merited by their prayers,” Bridget was partly responsible for the decision of Pope Clement VI to proclaim the 14th century indulgence granted in the bull Unigenitus, in which the Pope definitively lays out the Scriptural basis for indulgences as proceeding from the copious merits of the Passion of Christ. Bridget also believed herself to be instructed by Christ in a vision to request the promulgation of an indulgence associated with the Church of St. Peter’s in Chains in Rome, for the benefit of the cloister of the Blessed Virgin in Vadstena, Sweden, and her language can be construed as reflecting the idea of a dower; speaking to the Pope, Christ utters as follows:

"Now I want you not only to confirm (an order that should be founded) by your authority but also to the it the strength of your blessing, for you are my vicar on earth. I dictated it and endowed it with a spiritual endowment by granting it indulgences." (Prophecies Chapter 137, page 565).

Bridget’s personal quest for the “spiritual goods” of indulgences was confirmed by visions and interior locutions which confirmed their efficacy and the authority of the Church to grant them; in particular, St. Bridget reported a vision in which Christ and the Blessed Mother “assured Bridget of the efficacy of the Church’s ministrations…(and that) a pope who is without heresy possesses full and complete authority to loose from God through his succession to Peter.” Just as Shaffern points out that Bridget’s endorsement of indulgences flourished when the “spiritual vanguard of the later medieval centuries… represent a great flowering of mystical ecstacy,” which included the explicitly nuptial spirituality of St. Catherine of Sienna, the rubric for Bridget’s confidence in the Church’s indulgence grants emerged from her personal, cultural, and spiritual understanding of the meaning and implications of the Church’s espousal to His Church. In the first place, Bridget makes clear her affirmation of Christ as the “husband” of the chaste member within His espoused Church in her Prophecies and Revelations, (in which she also refers to indulgences at least twenty-seven times); so espoused by responsive love, the chaste soul must be purified by the acts of reparation associated with indulgences, and receives her spouse’s “rewards.” As Christ speaks to the soul in Bridget’s account,

"I have chosen you and taken you to myself as my bride in order to show you the ways of the world and my divine secrets… you are mine by right because of this great love of yours, and I will provide for you because of this…it is the obligation of the bride to be ready when the bridegroom wants to celebrate the wedding so that she will be properly dressed and pure. You purify yourself if your thoughts are always on your sins… the bride should also have the insignia of her husband on her chest, which means that you should observe and take heed of the favord and good deeds which I have done for you… how lovingly and sweetly I redeemed you when I died for you and restored your heavenly inheritance to you- if you want to have it… I bought back the inheritance (for you) which (mankind) had lost because of his sin… but if you, my bride, desire nothing but me… I will give you the most precious and lovely reward." (Prophecies, Chapter 2, page 4)

These spousal promises are immediately connected to the need and means of penitence which are provided as an aspect of the spousal covenant in the same chapter:

"Therefore, as you have sinned in all your limbs, so shall you also make satisfaction and penance in every limb. But, because of your good will and your purpose of atoning for your sins, I shall change my justice into mercy by foregoing painful punishement for but a little penance. Therefore, embrace and take upon yourself a little work, so that you may be made clean of sin and reach the great reward sooner. For the bride should grow tired working alongside her bridegroom so that she may all the more confidently take her rest with him.
(Prophecies, Chapter 2, 5)

These personal revelations which St. Bridget received are encouraging to me as I complete the third chapter of my dissertation (a milestone, I've heard); but what is more important to me as I prepare for the birth of my baby is the fact that St. Bridget took her daughter with her on almost every indulgenced pilgrimage that she was given. I've had several appointments to share with various local groups on the theory and practice of indulgences, and by God's grace the audiences have been warmly enthusiastic about the topic; and while I've long gotten over any stage fright regarding this controversial topic, what sobers my heart more than anything is the prospect of succesfully handing the same ideas on to my most important audience: my children. How in the world can I help them to see the beauties and importance of what the Church offers, in a frequently misunderstood practice? How will I be able to teach them about this practice while avoiding the mercantile reduction of the doctrine, and instead promoting a vision of their authority to participate with Christ in the redemption which He gives, and in the rescue of poor souls from their own woundedness?

What St. Bridget instantiates, and sucesfully at that, given that her children followed her, is the fact that an indulgenced life, a life lived with the general intention to offer satisfaction for our sins in honor of Christ's all-sufficient offering of Himself, cannot be a life of calculation. It must be a life of charitable trust in the Church which Christ gave us, of humility before the world as we live out our testimony precisely by affirming our sinfulness and our need for mercy, and of mission as we offer our little acts of worship to rescue those who are still imprisoned by their sins and brokenness.

And for anyone who tries to hand these ideas on... as with obtaining indulgences and passing their understanding on to others, there can be no other reliance but on the fact that God alone will "give the increase" for the little efforts that we plant every day on our way to join Him in Heaven (He wants us to be there even more than we do).

St. Bridget, pray for us.