Friday 11 January 2013

Saints Ethnea and Fidelmia, January 11

M.F. Cusack, The Life of St. Patrick (1871)

Saints Ethnea and Fidelmia (Ethna and Fidelma) are sisters who feature in one of the most beautiful stories from the hagiography of Saint Patrick. The pair boast an impressive aristocratic pedigree, being the daughters of King Laoighaire and grand-daughters of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Their story is set against the backdrop of the struggle between Christianity and paganism as Saint Patrick comes to Croghan, the royal residence of the kings of Connaught. There he encounters these daughters of King Laoighaire. We can let Saint Patrick's biographer, Tirechan, take up the story:

Afterwards, then, before sunrise, holy Patrick came to the well that is called Clebach on the eastern slopes of Cruachu. They sat down beside the well, and suddenly there appeared two daughters of King Loiguire, Ethne the fair and Fedelm the red. These had come, as is the women's custom, to wash in the morning. They found the holy gathering of bishops with Patrick by the well, and they had no idea where they were from or what was their nature or their people or their homeland; but they thought that maybe they were men of the si or the gods of the earth or phantoms.

The girls said to them: "Are you really there? Where have you come from?"

Patrick replied to them:"It would be better for you to confess faith in our true God than to ask questions about our origin."

The first girl asked: "Who is God and where is God, and whose God is he, and where is his house? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he alive forever? Is he beautiful? Have many people fostered his son? Are his daughters dear and beautiful to the men of this world? Is he in heaven or on earth, in the sea, on mountains, in valleys? Give us some idea of him: how may he be seen, how loved; how may he be found - is he found in youth or in old age?"

In reply, Patrick, filled with the Holy Spirit, said: "Our God is the God of all people, the God of heaven and earth, of the seas and the rivers, the God of the sun and the moon and of all the stars, the God of the high mountains and of the deep valleys. He is God above heaven and in heaven and under heaven, and has as his dwelling place heaven and earth and the sea and all that are in them. His life is in all things; he makes all things live; he governs all things; he supports all things. He kindles the light of the sun; he builds the light and the manifestations of the night, he makes wells in arid land and dry islands in the sea, and he sets the stars in place to serve the major lights. He has a son who is coeternal with him and of like nature. The Son is not younger than the Father nor the Father than the Son; and the Holy Spirit breathes in them. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not separate. Truly, now, since you are daughters of an earthly king, I wish that you will believe and I wish to wed you to the king of heaven."

And the girls said, as if with one voice and from one heart: "Teach us most diligently how we may believe in the heavenly king, so that we may see him face to face. Direct us, and we will do whatever you say."

And Patrick said: "Do you believe that you cast off the sin of your father and mother through baptism?"

They replied: "We believe."

"Do you believe in penance after sin?"

"We believe."

"Do you believe in life after death?" "Do you believe in the resurrection on the Day of Judgment?"

"We believe."

"Do you believe in the unity of the Church?"

"We believe."

And they were baptized, and a white veil placed on their heads. They demanded to see the face of Christ, to which the saint said: "Unless you taste death, and unless you receive the sacrament you can't see the face of Christ."

They replied: "Give us the sacrament, so that it will be possible for us to see the Son, our bridegroom."

They received God's eucharist and slept in death. Their friends laid them both in one bed, covered with their clothes, and raised a lament and a great keen.

The druid Caplit, who had fostered one of them, came and wept. Patrick preached to him, and he believed, and the hair of his head was shorn. And his brother Mael came and said: "My brother believed in Patrick, but I don't. I will convert him back again to heathenism".

And he spoke harsh words to Patrick and to Mathonus. But Patrick preached to him and converted him to God's penance. The hair of his head was shorn. Its style had been that of the druids - "airbacc giunnae", as it is called. From this comes the most famous of Irish sayings, "Calvus ['bald ', i.e. 'Mael'] and Caplit: the same difference" - they believed in God.

When the days of keening the kings' daughter came to an end they buried them beside the well of Clebach and made a round ditch in the fashion of a ferta. That was the custom of the heathen Irish. But we call it relic, that is, the remains of the girls.

And the ferta was granted in perpetuity to Patrick and his heirs after him, along with the bones of the holy girls. He built an earthen church in that place.
(translation from Liam de Paor, Saint Patrick's World, 163-165).

Canon O'Hanlon admits that the evidence for the numbering of Ethnea and Fidelmia among the saints of Ireland on 11th January, owed more to the 17th-century hagiologist Father John Colgan than to the Irish calendars. A Saint Feidelmai is listed on the Martryology of Tallaght on January 11, as was noted by Colgan, who also noted the presence of a Saint Ethnea on the 28th February. Thus, as O'Hanlon confesses:
'The only reason Colgan had for placing the festival of both holy virgins at this day was the circumstance of a St. Fedelmia first occurring in our calendars, and a want of knowing that day to which their Acts could more appropriately be assigned.'
Whether either of these saints listed on the calendars can be identified with the daughters of Laoighaire is open to question. But as Canon O'Hanlon points out, Colgan has good reason for his making sure these 'heroic virgins' occupy their place:
'First, all the Acts of St. Patrick concur in recording their admirable innocence of life, their miraculous conversion, and their no less miraculous passage to the society of their Spouse, Jesus Christ. Secondly, the fact of a church having been erected to their memory, at the place where they died, manifests the affectionate reverence entertained for them by St. Patrick himself. Thirdly, the transmission of their relics, from the first place of their deposition to the Metropolitan See of Armagh, indicates still more the respect in which those noble virgins were held, long after their departure, and which seems corroborative of their having been in the odour of sanctity. '
Who could disagree? The beauty and pathos of the story of the conversion of these royal sisters at the well and of the wonderful confession of faith which their questions elicited from Saint Patrick, make them indeed worthy.

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Unknown said...

What a great story. I love your blog.

Marcella said...

Thank you, I'm glad you're enjoying it.

Re-construyendo said...

This story is very important to me since I attended Saint Ethnea’s School in Bella Vista, Buenos Aires since kindergarten until I finished secondary school when I was 17 years old.

Marcella said...

Was this your Saint Ethnea or was it Ethna, mother of Saint Colum Cille? Wonderful to know these Irish saints are being honoured so far from home!

Finola Finlay said...

Lots of lovely stained glass images of this story - it captures the imagination.