The Marian spirituality of the beloved St. Birgitta (Bridget), one of the Patron Saints of Europe, is at once enchanting and instructive. Beckoned by the very Mother of God, she did not hesitate to place herself at the feet of this same Virgin Mother and her Divine Son, receiving revelations that are an endless source of theological insight, spiritual wonder and aesthetic delight.
Of all the Swedish saints (of which there are more in number than is generally known in English speaking lands, but who, due to circumstances, mostly lived before the time of the Lutheran Reformation of the 16th century when Catholicism in Sweden was virtually eradicated), St. Birgitta Birgersdotter of Vadstena (or St. Bridget of Sweden) is perhaps the most well known, not only among Christians, but also among the secular. She has made an impact on Swedish culture that neither the Reformation nor modern secularism has been able to obliterate. Outside of Sweden, she is perhaps best known for the so-called “Saint Bridget Prayers,” and since October 1, 1999, as one of the six patron saints of Europe.1
What is perhaps less well known is St. Birgitta’s deeply Marian spirituality, which began before she founded the Birgittine (or Bridgettine) Order when she was still a Third Order Franciscan. She was truly a handmaid of the Lord, who put her every talent and strength totally at His disposal, following her Heavenly Mother’s direction and example. It was her wish to emulate her Mother: the Mother of her Divine Bridegroom.
Birgitta was drawn to her God as a young child, and already at the age of seven she had an apparition in which she received a golden crown from the Holy Virgin and saw the Suffering Christ. These two elements, the Holy Virgin and the Suffering Christ, were to remain central to Birgitta’s life. Born in 1303, the daughter of a “lawspeaker” (lagman in Swedish), she grew up in a wealthy family in Uppland, Sweden. Her mother was related to the royal family. Belonging to the aristocracy of Sweden, she probably already learned how to read and write in her early years. She owned several books, including a Bible that had been translated into Swedish at her request. In 1316, she was given in marriage to Ulf Gudmarsson, who was a lagman like her father. This deeply religious couple had eight children. They recited the Office of the Virgin together and made several pilgrimages. Following a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Birgitta’s husband died in a house near the Cistercian monastery of Alvastra, Sweden, when Birgitta was only around forty years old.
In 1346, when she was still staying at the residence close to the monastery of Alvastra, Birgitta received the first revelation of a total of around seven hundred. In ecstasy, she heard a voice saying to her, “Woman, hear me.” She left the chapel where she had been praying in great fear, confessed her sins, and received the Body of Christ. The same thing occurred a second time, and a third; only the third time she remained when the voice spoke:
Woman, hear me; I am your God, who wishes to speak with you. Fear not, for I am the Creator, not the deceiver, of all. I do not speak to you for your sake alone, but for the sake of the salvation of others. Hear the things that I speak; and go to Master Mathias, your confessor, who has the experience of discerning the two types of spirit. Say to him on my behalf what I now say to you; for you shall be my bride and my channel (sponsa et canale), and you shall hear and see spiritual things, and my Spirit shall remain with you even until your death.2
Birgitta received the calling to be a bride and channel, “to grow tired toiling alongside the bridegroom so that she can all the more confidently take her rest with him.”3 She would continue to receive revelations throughout her life, in which Jesus, her Bridegroom, and the Virgin Mary, spoke to her about many different subjects. She wrote down in Swedish what she received, or if she was ill, it was taken down by her confessor as a dictation and read to her afterwards.
Birgitta’s toil included admonishing rulers of her day, as well as consoling and strengthening people of lesser status. Beyond this, she lived a life of penance and founded the Birgittine Order. A special “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary” for the Birgittine Order was written by Birgitta and one of her confessors, Master Petrus Olavi, in which praises are sung to the Savior and His Mother, the Virgin Mary. In this office, for Sunday Matins, the Virgin is likened to Noah’s ark: “Noah was glad for his ark before he had finished the building of it, and God himself rejoiced greatly in you, O Virgin, before he created you.”4 In this quotation, we clearly hear echoes of the Franciscan thesis regarding the priority of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with her Son Jesus Christ, in the mind of God before the Creation of the World. The Little Office is still sung by the nuns of the convent in Vadstena, Sweden, which was the first convent to follow the Birgittine Rule, dictated by Jesus in 1346.
Birgitta died on July 23, 1373, in her house in Rome. She wanted to die on a wooden table to resemble her Savior. She had lived in Rome twenty-four years. Her body was moved and enshrined the following year in Vadstena, at the monastery following her rule; and her remains are preserved in the Church of Vadstena, where they are venerated by pilgrims every year. Birgitta Birgersdotter was canonized in 1391.
Duties of the Bride (The Triple Way)
In one of Birgitta’s earliest revelations she receives a description of the duties of the bride, which reveals the aspects of her calling as bride and channel. Speaking to Birgitta, Jesus says:
It is the duty of the bride to be ready when the bridegroom decides to have the wedding, so she can be properly dressed up and clean. You will be clean if your thoughts are always on your sins, on how in baptism I cleansed you from the sin of Adam and how often I have supported and sustained you when you have fallen into sin. The bride should also wear the bridegroom’s tokens on her breast, I mean, you should bear in mind the favors and benefits I have done for you, such as how nobly I created you by giving you a body and soul, how nobly I enriched you by giving you health and temporal goods, how kindly I rescued you when I died for you and restored your inheritance to you, if you want to have it. The bride should also do the will of her bridegroom. What is my will but that you should want to love me above all things and want nothing but me? 5
It is striking to notice how perfectly these duties of the bride of Jesus Christ correspond to the Triple Way of St. Bonaventure: the cleanliness of the soul corresponds to the Purgative Way; the wearing of the tokens of the Bridegroom on her breast corresponds to the Illuminative Way; and the doing of the Bridegroom’s will by loving Him above all else corresponds to the Perfective or Unitive Way.6 These “ways” do not represent levels or stages, but rather must be present at the same time and at all times, as the duties of the bride. Jesus promises Birgitta that the reward for loving Him above all else is nothing other than Himself, as her Bridegroom. Once again, the Bridegroom speaks to His bride:
Your soul will be filled with me and I will be in you, and all temporal things will become bitter to you and all carnal desire like poison. You will rest in my divine arms, where there is no carnal desire, only joy and spiritual delight. There the soul, both inwardly and outwardly delighted, is full of joy, thinking of nothing and desiring nothing but the joy that it possesses. So love me alone, and you will have all the things you wish, and you will have them in abundance.7
In Birgitta’s revelations, we hear how Jesus celebrated the marriage between Himself and humanity in the womb of Mary, where He united humanity to His Divinity. This is “the most beautiful wedding.” St. Agnes speaks to the Blessed Virgin while St. Birgitta listens:
You are truly mother and virgin and bride. The most beautiful wedding was celebrated in you at the time when a human nature was joined to God in you without any admixture or loss in his divinity. Virginity and motherhood were united while virginal modesty remained intact, and you became at the same time both Mother and daughter of your Creator.8
Being the bride of Jesus Christ is to be in a real sense His Body. The mystical union of the soul and her God is a marriage where God draws the soul into His Divinity, into the Trinitarian Life, and this occurs in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. St. Birgitta’s life of tireless action and deep spiritual union with God shows wonderfully how the union of the soul with her God takes place in the womb of the Virgin, and expresses itself in praise of the Virgin. In her wish to emulate her Mother and the Mother of her Divine Bridegroom, Birgitta fulfilled in her life the saying that “he has used praise to foil his enemies.” In her revelations, we hear the Virgin Mary give Birgitta a prayer in response to Birgitta’s earnest request to know how she should praise her:
I am the Queen of Heaven. You were concerned about how you should give me praise. Know for certain that all praise of my Son is praise of me. And those who dishonor Him, dishonor me, since my love for Him and His for me was so ardent that the two of us were like one heart. So highly did He honor me, who was an earthen vessel, that He raised me up above all the angels. Therefore, you should praise me like this: Blessed are you, God, Creator of all things, who willed to be in the Virgin Mary without being a burden to her and deigned to receive immaculate flesh from her without sin. Blessed are you, God, who came to the Virgin, giving joy to her soul and to her whole body, and who went out of her to the sinless joy of her whole body. Blessed are you, God, who after your ascension gladdened the Virgin Mary your Mother with frequent consolations and visited her with your consolation. Blessed are you, God, who assumed the body and soul of the Virgin Mary, your Mother, into heaven and honored her by placing her next to your divinity above all the angels. Have mercy on me because of her prayers!9
Mary: Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate
Many aspects of Mary’s mediatory role are brought to light in Birgitta’s revelations. For example, St. Birgitta makes explicit reference to Mary’s universal mediation when she says to the Blessed Virgin:
Truly, my Lady, you are the most precious beauty, the most desirable beauty, for you are the help given to the sick, the comforter in sorrow, everyone’s mediator.10
To this mediatory role is unequivocally added an even more radical (and controversial) coredemptive role, by which Mary is actively instrumental in the salvation of every soul, to the degree that Mary can “well be called the blood of the heart of God.” Jesus says to his Mother:
O blessed Mother… you offer help to everyone struggling to rise to God, and leave no one without your consolation. You can therefore well be called the blood of the heart of God. Just as each member of the body receives life and strength from the blood, so too everyone comes to life again after sin and is made more fruitful before God through you.11
A dramatic picture of Mary’s role as Advocate is revealed in numerous visions in which Birgitta witnesses first-hand the intercessory power of Our Lady as Advocate Most Powerful. In one vision, the devil attempts to lay his hands on a woman who was formerly a prostitute, and who is being tempted to return to her former way of life. The Virgin Mother turns first to her Son to ask Him to command the devil to answer her questions truly. Her Son replies:
You are my Mother, you are the queen of Heaven, you are the Mother of mercy, you are the consolation of the souls in purgatory, you are the joy of those making their way in the world. You are the angels’ Mistress, the most excellent creature before God. You are also mistress over the devil. Command this demon yourself, Mother, and he will tell you whatever you want.12
Mary commands the devil to answer: “Tell me, devil, what intention did this woman have before entering the church?” Then she proceeds to engage the devil in debate! At the end of the debate, the Virgin asks the devil: “Tell me, if a robber lay in wait outside the doors of the bride and wanted to rape her, what would the bridegroom do?” The devil answers that the bridegroom would, of course, defend her. Then the Virgin says:
You are the wicked robber. This soul is the bride of the bridegroom, my Son, who redeemed her with his own blood. You corrupted and seized her by force. Therefore, since my Son is the bridegroom of her soul and Lord over you, then it is your role to flee before him.13
In another vision, Birgitta witnesses the judgment of the soul of a lukewarm man who has died. The devil demands the right to drag the soul of this man to hell. When the demons begin to taunt God on account of His Justice, the Virgin Mother intervenes dramatically, and because of the prayers of her faithful children who reside beneath her mantle, the man’s soul is saved:
After this [the demons’ taunts], a trumpet-like sound was heard at which those who heard it fell silent, and immediately a voice spoke and said: “Be silent, all of you angels and souls and demons, and hear what God’s Mother has to say!” Then the Virgin herself appeared before the judgment seat, and it looked as though she were hiding some large objects beneath her mantle. She said: “You, enemies! You attack mercy, and you love justice but without charity. Though these good works of this soul may be deficient and, for that reason, he should not enter heaven, yet look what I have beneath my mantle!” Then the Virgin opened the folds of her mantle on either side. On the one side could be seen a little church, as it were, with monks in it. On the other side appeared men and women, God’s friends, both religious and others, all of them crying out with one voice and saying: “Have mercy, merciful Lord!”14
In a third vision, which was painfully close to Birgitta’s own heart, her son, Karl Ulfsson, is the subject of the demons’ desire. Once again, the Virgin acts as Advocate, with surprising efficacy and power, and in this case the mediatory role of Birgitta herself is also illustrated. The devil complains first that the Virgin has treated him unjustly by snatching the soul of Karl away from him when it left his body, bringing it before God’s court herself. Mary replies:
I say to you that it was my right rather than yours to bring this soul before God, the true Judge. While his soul was in the body, this man had great love for me and often pondered in his heart how God had deigned to make me his mother and willed to raise me up above all created beings.15
The devil, however, not willing to give up so easily, says that he has written down the sins of the man:
The devil replied: “I shall now enumerate his sins.” He wanted to start at once, but at that very moment began to cry and wail and frenetically search inside himself, in his head and in all the limbs he seemed to have. He seemed to tremble all over and cried out in great consternation: “Woe and misery to me! I have lost the work that took me so long! Not only is the text erased and destroyed, but all the material in which everything was written has been consumed!”16
Then an angel replies to the devil: “The tears and long work and many prayers of his mother [Birgitta] accomplished this.” Trumped, the devil asserts that he still has “a sack full of writings in which this knight [Karl] had proposed to rectify his sins but never did.” The angel tells him to open the sack. But once again, the devil cries as though out of his mind, saying: “I have been robbed of my rights! Not only has my sack been taken away, but even the sins that it was full of.” Once again, the angel replies: “The tears of his mother [Birgitta] robbed you and broke the sack and destroyed the writing.” Finally, when the devil attempts to present the venial sins of the soul, which he has written on his own tongue, he finds to his great dismay that his tongue has been cut off, and he protests with a great wail and clamor like a madman: “Woe is me, I do not have even a single word to say!”17 When the devil is ordered to withdraw, the angel says to the bride of Christ, Birgitta:
You should know that God has shown you this vision not only for your own consolation but also so that the friends of God might understand how much he is willing to do for the sake of the prayers and tears and works of his friends, when they pray with charity for others and work for them with steadfastness and good will.18
The Virgin’s Charm — The Mother’s Sorrow
We have collected here only a small sampling of the writings of St. Birgitta of Vadstena, in order to illustrate her deeply Marian spirituality. The Revelations of St. Birgitta are an endless source of theological insight, spiritual wonder, and aesthetic delight, to say nothing of the detailed accounts of numerous events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. Perhaps the greatest treasure St. Birgitta has left us in these accounts is the opportunity to know the personal charm of Jesus and Mary as she did. Consider these words from the Mother of God to her daughter, Birgitta, filled at the same time with the charm and the gravity of the Seat of Wisdom:
The world, in fact, is no more than a cooking pot. The fire and ashes beneath the pot are the friends of the world, but God’s friends are like the choice morsels of food inside the pot. When the table is ready, then the delicious food will be presented to the lord for him to enjoy. But the pot itself will be smashed, though the fire shall not be extinguished.19
Of all the accounts in St. Birgitta’s revelations, it is the portrayal of the united suffering of Jesus and Mary during His most bitter Passion and Death on the Cross that is perhaps the most memorable. As in the well-known “Saint Bridget Prayers,” this suffering is portrayed with stark and vivid realism, for example when the Virgin describes the Death of her Son:
Surrounded by these sorrows, my Son looked at His friends who were weeping and who would rather have borne His pain themselves through His help or have burned in hell forever than to see Him tortured so. His sorrow at His friends’ sorrow exceeded all the bitterness and tribulations that He had endured in Body and Heart, due to the tender love He had for them. Then, out of the exceeding bodily anguish of His human nature, He cried out to the Father: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” When I, His most sorrowful Mother, heard those words, my whole body shook with the bitter pain of my Heart. As often as I have thought on that cry since then, it has still remained present and fresh in my ears.20
May the Mother of Sorrows, who “pondered all these things in her heart,” make us always mindful of the Passion and Death of her Son, and may we always remain under her mantle, in the company of her faithful daughter, Birgitta.
1 Blessed Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Issued Motu Proprio Proclaiming Saint Bridget of Sweden, Saint Catherine of Siena, and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross Co-Patronesses of Europe, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, issued October 1, 1999.
2 The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, translated by Denis Searby with Introduction and Notes by Bridget Morris, Vol. 1, Oxford University Press (2006), p. 8. All quotations from The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden are taken from this translation, Vol. 1 (2006), Vol. 2 (2008), or Vol. 3 (2012), hereafter abbreviated Rev with Book, Chapter, and verse as labeled in the Liber Caelestis.
3 Rev, Book I, Ch. 2, v. 12.
4 Den Heliga Birgitta och den helige Petrus av Skänninge Officium parvum beate Marie Virginis, utgiven med inledning och översättning av Tryggve Lundén, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis (1976), p. 11 Läsestycke 2.
5 Rev, Book I, Ch. 2, vv. 5-7.
6 The Triple Way or The Kindling of Love by St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Doctor Seraphicus, English translation, commentary and notes by Fr. Peter Damian M. Fehlner, FI, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA (2012).
7 Rev, Book I, Ch. 1, vv. 11-13.
8 Rev, Book IV, Ch. 11, vv. 4-6.
9 Rev, Book I, Ch. 8.
10 Rev, Book IV, Ch. 19, v. 4, italics added.
11 Rev, Book IV, Ch. 19, vv. 11-13.
12 Rev, Book I, Ch. 16, v. 4.
13 Rev, Book I, Ch. 16, vv. 9-10.
14 Rev, Book IV, Ch. 7, vv. 24-27.
15 Rev, Book VII, Ch. 13, vv. 19-20.
16 Rev, Book VII, Ch. 13, vv. 35-36.
17 Rev, Book VII, Ch. 13, vv. 38-49.
18 Rev, Book VII, Ch. 13, v. 77
19 Rev, Book IV, Ch. 11, vv. 17-18.
20 Rev, Book I, Ch. 10, vv. 30-31.