Wednesday 29 January 2014

Vignettes from the Lives of the Irish Saints: The Miracle of Loch Leamnachta

January 29 is the feast of Saint Blath, cook to Saint Brigid of Kildare. Although no details of the life of Saint Blath have survived, she is mentioned in the hagiography of her famous abbess in connection with a miracle concerning some unexpected episcopal visitors and a dearth of milk. The miracle of Loch Leamnachta provided the inspiration for writer Alice Dease, in her 1911 work Good Women of Erin, to try and give a little more substance to the person of Saint Blath. In this story aimed at the younger reader, she portrays Blath as a shepherd girl who encounters the holy Abbess of Kildare and develops a deep longing to join her. Although the story of the hungry visiting bishops is retained from the account of the miracle, in her fictional version Dease makes Blath, the humble cook, the heroine rather than Brigid, the illustrious Abbess. Indeed, Saint Brigid is depicted as having forgotten that the milk supply for the day is already exhausted. I have edited the story slightly for length, but the original can be accessed online at the Institute for Irish American Studies at Lehman College, where you can also enjoy the wonderful woodcut illustrations:

The Miracle of Loch Leamnachta

WHEN St. Brigid first went to the Plains of Leinster to found her great convent under the shelter of the oak forest, there were no dwellings for many miles round the spot where she chose to build her church and her cells. The forest glades and the grassy plains round about the oak-trees were given up to flocks of sheep and of cattle, and the only human beings that were ever seen in the neighbourhood of Kill-Dara, until the coming of St. Brigid and her nuns, were the women and the girls who herded the cattle and watched the sheep. Amongst these shepherdesses there was a maiden whom her companions called by the name of Blath, which means a flower. She had won for herself this name by her great love for the wild-flowers that grew amongst the grasses on the plain, but there was another reason which made this name doubly suitable to her.

One day when her sheep were resting quietly in the shade of the oak-trees, Blath wandered away from them, going hither and thither in search of the flowers that she loved. She had picked a great bunch of daisies, when suddenly she was startled by the sound of footsteps, and, looking up, she saw some dark figures approaching her, clad in flowing robes unlike anything she had ever seen before. For a moment she was afraid, and she would have fled, clasping her flowers to her, had it not been that a second glance at the face of the foremost of the strangers chased away all fear, and made the peasant-girl stay where she was, motionless, in wondering admiration .

“Come hither, little maiden," said the beautiful lady ... Come and tell us your name, and what you are doing in this lonely spot."

“My name is Blath," replied the shepherdess, hanging her head till her soft cheek touched the white petals of the dog-daisies she carried, "and I am minding the sheep that are resting away there,"

"Blath," repeated St. Brigid, for it was the holy Abbess who was on her way to Cill-Dara to found her convent, who had spoken to the maiden- “Blath! You are well named, little one, for there is great likeness between your innocent face and the pretty flowers that you carry in your arms,"

“Do you think they are pretty, too?" asked Blath, for the soft voice had made her forget her shyness. "The other girls laugh at me for loving them." Then, holding them out with a sudden movement, " Please, lady, take them. I-I would like to give them to you." And St. Brigid took the flowers, and bade their little namesake to try ever to keep her own soul as spotless as the petals of the flowers that she loved.

[The story continues with Blath observing the construction of the monastery at Kildare and the steady stream of women wishing to take the veil there]

The little shepherdess watched these maidens with envious eyes. Ever since St. Brigid had spoken to her in the forest and had accepted her flowers, Blath had longed to win her notice once again, to hear her speak, as she had done that day, of God and of His great love for innocent hearts, to serve her, and, through her, to serve her Master. But, as time went on, and the convent-bell reminded the little shepherdess several times in the day to join her prayers with those of the nuns, who were praying in the chapel by the oak, a purer, more perfect wish to serve God began to take root in her heart. She longed to have some great thing to give up for His sake, as the noble maidens had who entered the convent almost daily, and for a long time she did not dare to offer the only things she had -her heart and her life- for His service.

Then, one day, she again met St. Brigid, and, falling on her knees, Blath begged to be received into the convent as the last and least of all the Sisters. St. Brigid at this time was about to make a new foundation at a little distance from Cill-Dara, at a place where some land had been given to her on the borders of a small lake, and, wishing to try the little shepherdess, she told her that there was no work for her to do at Cill-Dara, but if she liked to go to the new convent and ask there for admission, St. Brigid would ask the Prioress to take her in, to work in the kitchen. Blath had pictured to herself long hours spent in prayer in the church that she loved at Cill-Dara, but when she heard the holy Abbess's decision, her first feeling was one of joy that she should have this sacrifice of her own wishes to offer to God, and her only answer was a prayer to be allowed to go without delay to the new convent.

The Sisters whom Blath was bidden to help, found her so meek, so diligent at her work, and so obedient to them and to the rules of the house, that before very long she was allowed to take the veil, and then, after the usual novitiate, she made the vows that bound her, of her own will, to the service of God for ever.

St. Brigid used often to come to the convent, for she was Abbess both of that house and of Cill-Dara, so that Blath, who, as time went on, was given the whole charge of the kitchen, had the joy of serving the Mother she loved so much.

One day, when St. Brigid was at the convent, eight holy men came to see her and ask her advice. They had travelled a long way, and were weary and exhausted, and as soon as the Abbess had greeted them, she sent word to Sister Blath in the kitchen to make ready a repast for the travellers, and to be sure that they were provided with plenty of milk to assuage their thirst, which was very great after their long and toilsome journey. But, in ordering this repast, St. Brigid had forgotten that the poor people who were always coming to the convent to beg for alms and for food had been given everything, down to the last piece of bread that was in the larder.

Once some of her nuns had complained to St. Brigid of her great charity to the poor. "Little food have we," they said, "from thy compassion to everyone, and we ourselves in want of food and raiment."
"Give earthly things to God," St. Brigid had made answer, "and He will give you heavenly things in return."
And from that time no one had dared make any complaint as to her generosity.

But poor Sister Blath, turning from the empty shelves of the larder, went to the dairy, hoping at least to be able to fulfil a part of her Superior's orders, but the last drop of milk had also been given to the poor, and there was nothing to be seen but a row of empty pails and pans.

Whilst Sister Blath was wringing her hands in the empty dairy, a messenger came to her, bidding her hasten at least to take the milk to the holy prelates, who were consumed with thirst.

The holy cook, who, even while working, kept her heart raised up in prayer to God, felt now that only God Himself could help her to obey these orders, and, going on her knees, she begged of Him to tell her what to do. Whilst thus she prayed, it suddenly came into her mind that, although the cows had only lately been milked, she might, perhaps, be able to get from them enough to allay the worst of the travellers' thirst.

No sooner had this thought come into her mind than she rose to her feet, seized the largest of the milk-pails, and went out to the pasture where the cows had just been driven. Still praying, she began to milk one of the cows, and immediately her pail was filled to overflowing with the sweetest and richest of milk. Without even waiting to put the milk into a pitcher, Sister Blath, overjoyed at the marvellous success of her prayers, went straight to the presence of the Abbess and her guests.

The holy men partook gladly of the foaming milk, and then one and all besought St. Brigid not to have anything prepared for them to eat, because their hunger as well as their thirst had been well satisfied by the milk, which was sweeter and more refreshing than anything they had ever drunk.

There was still a little milk left in the pail after the prelates had slaked their thirst, and, going back to the kitchen, Sister Blath found a crowd of beggars waiting for the alms that were never refused to them, as long as there was anything left in the convent to give. " I have nothing to-day except a cup of milk for one or two amongst you," said Sister Blath, and, on hearing this, all of them crowded round her, hoping to be one of the lucky ones who would receive the milk.

Dipping a cup into the pail, the Sister handed it to the beggar who was nearest to her, and then to one after another she gave the same dole, until, like the travellers, everyone was satisfied, and it was only then that the pail was found to be dry and empty.

As soon as she was alone, Sister Blath fell upon her knees to thank God for having allowed so wonderful a thing to happen in answer to her prayers, but she was so humble that, had it not been for the beggars, no one would ever have known what had happened. As it was, however, they told how the drop of milk in the Sister's pail had been enough to feed them everyone, and when this was told, then Sister Blath made known how she had got the milk.

The little lake on the shores of which Sister Blath had milked the cow was known from that day as Loch Leamnachta, which in Irish means the lake of the milk. And when St. Brigid heard of what had happened, she thanked God for having helped Sister Blath to keep her heart as pure and unspotted as the flowers from which she took her name, for if this had not been the case, her prayer would not have been heard in so wonderful a manner.

It is only for His Saints, for those who are holy, and humble, and pure of heart, that God deigns to work such miracles as this, and St. Brigid prayed that Sister Blath might continue to be saintly on earth, so that some day she might take her place amongst God's own Saints in Heaven.

Alice Dease, 'The Miracle of Loch Leamnachta' in Good Women of Erin: The story of their heroic lives and deeds (Benziger Bros., New York, 1911), 44-52.

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