Once upon a time Brenainn came from the west of Ireland to Brigit, to the plain of Liffey. For he wondered at the fame that Brigit had in miracles and marvels. Brigit came from her sheep to welcome Brenainn. As Brigit entered the house she put her wet cloak on the rays of the sun, and they supported it like pot-hooks. Brenainn told his gillie to put his cloak on the same rays, and the gillie put it on them, but it fell from them twice. Brenainn himself put it, the third time, with anger and wrath, and the cloak staid upon them.
Each of them confessed to the other. Said Brenainn: ‘Not usual is it for me to go over seven ridges without (giving) my mind to God.’ Said Brigit: ‘Since I first gave my mind to God, I never took it from Him at all.’
There are many versions of this story. The context varies widely but the confessions stay the same. Stories like this one of St. Brigid (Brigit) and St. Brendan (Brenainn) hanging their cloaks upon sunbeams are the sort that drove early modern historians to throw up their hands about the historicity of all hagiography. While their frustration is understandable, it sort of misses the point of hagiography in the first place. We have here a story of two historical people, yet the details of their lives can be so full of spiritual stories like this one that it is difficult to decide what to believe and what not to. There is good reason for this, however. It would be wholly inaccurate in an important way to simply record all of the historical data of their lives. In doing so, we would miss so much of the reality of who they truly are, that these people were and are filled with the grace of God and that by looking to them we behold a reflection of the divine glory.
The point of hagiography is not to detail in chronological order every scientifically verifiable fact about a person’s life, despite the true value of such historical research. Indeed, people can complain that the saints are portrayed as “superhuman,” never showing any of their faults. I do not, however, think that such complaints are justified.
First of all, this is not, as a matter of fact, true. Clearly St. Brendan lost his temper in this story—hardly the picture of perfect dispassion if you ask me.
Second, and more importantly: our faults are not what make us human; they are the exceptions to our humanity. The point of hagiography is to point us to the reality of our truly glorious nature and destiny, that all of us are meant to be filled with divine grace and transfigured into images of eternal beauty. As St. Athanasius writes, the Son of God “assumed humanity that we might become God.” And St. Peter writes,
“[God’s] divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through [desire].” (2 Peter 1:3-4)
This story about St. Brigid and St. Brendan is about exactly that. These are two people that committed themselves to denying their own desires and directing their minds to God, committing themselves to “life and godliness,” to “glory and virtue.” St. Brendan is shown to have been less successful by both his confession and his display of “anger and wrath.” Nevertheless, both are shown to be “partakers of the divine nature” by doing the supernatural: hanging their cloaks on sunbeams.
The point of the story? Give your mind to God, live for godliness and virtue, and hang your cloak upon a sunbeam.