Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Birgitta of Sweden: Celestial Revelations

Birgitta of Sweden (died 23 July 1373)


The life of Birgitta Birgersdotter changed radically in 1344. Before that date, she lived a pious but conventional life as daughter, wife, and mother. After 1344, her life was utterly unconventional.

A late fifteenth-century depiction of
St. Birgitta of Sweden
Born about the year 1303, Birgitta was the daughter of Birger Persson, a wealthy landowner and member of a prominent family, who was also a governor and provincial judge in Uppland, a province on the eastern coast of Sweden. Her mother was Birger Perssons's second wife, Ingeborg Bengtsdotter, who had equally illustrious connections, both to the Swedish monarchy, and to Birger Magnusson of Bjälbo, the founder of the city of Stockholm.

Birgitta would later claim that she had begun experiencing mystical visions when she was seven and that she had wished to join a religious order. But her father did not want his daughter to enter a convent, and after Ingeborg Bengtsdotter's death, about 1314, Birger Persson decided to arrange a politically advantageous marriage for his daughter. So in 1316, Birgitta was married to Ulf Gudmarsson, lord of Närke, and she would spend much, though not all, of their twenty-eight-year marriage at his castle at Ulvâsa in Östergötland.

Birgitta happily discovered her husband was as dedicated to his faith as she was. Over the course of the next three decades, Birgitta would live the life of a wife and mother--although one who was also devout and dedicated to performing works of charity. Despite some accounts of her life that focus on her avoidance of "marital pleasure," Birgitta gave birth to eight children, four sons and four daughters. She was also called to court of King Magnus Eriksson after his 1335 marriage to Blanche of Namur. 

But Birgitta would enter the second phase of her life in 1344, after her husband's death. Now in her forties, a widow, and freed from childbearing and childrearing, she could devote herself to the religious life that had been denied her earlier. 

She became a practicing ascetic, like many of the religious women we have already seen, denying herself food and subjecting herself to a variety of penitential acts. Her visionary experiences returned; after her death, her confessor recorded some six hundred of her revelations in Latin as Revelationes coelestes ("Celestial revelations").  

Not content to join an established religious order, Birgitta founded her own religious community, probably in the year 1346. Originally known as the Order of St. Saviour, it later became known as the the Brigittines, an order that included joint communities of both monks and nuns. Its chief monastery was at Vadstena, in Östergötland, a gift from Magnus of Sweden. 

A detail from a prayer book, c. 1500,
St. Birgitta of Sweden
In 1349, seeking approval for her new order, Birgitta traveled to Rome, accompanied by one of her sons and her daughter, Catherine, about whom I posted earlier this year. Although the Brigittines would not receive papal approval until August 1370, Birgitta decided to remain in Rome (though she did undertake occasional pilgrimages, including one to the Holy Land in 1372). She died in Rome on 23 July 1373.

After Birgitta's death, her daughter Catherine returned to Sweden with her mother's body. Birgitta was buried in the monastery she had founded in Vadstena. Catherine continued her mother's work in the monastery and with the Briggitine order, though she ultimately returned to Rome to work for Birgitta's canonization, which took place on 7 October 1391. (While in Rome, Catherine developed a close relationship with a woman we have met before, Catherine of Siena.) 

And as a further note: St. Birgitta of Sweden's daughter, Catherine, was herself canonized, in 1484, as St. Catherine of Sweden. Like her mother, Catherine had been married, but her husband died while she was in Rome with her mother. Birgitta's granddaughter Ingegerd, the child of Birgitta's daughter Margareta, became the first official abbess of Vadstena Abbey in 1388. (Unfortunately, she was accused of forgery, embezzlement, and breaking her vows of chastity and removed as abbess in 1403. Oops. But she remained a member of the community until her death in 1412, and in the end her sins were forgiven.)

For a short biography, I'll link you here to the online Encyclopedia Britannica entry. The longer one, available here, via the Encyclopedia of World Biograhy, is also quite good. There are many editions of her Revelations and prayers available, but I like Classics of Western Spirituality text, Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Writings.