We could not travel far in Ireland without running into signs, locations, references to the Big Name Saints: Patrick, Brigid and Brendan, followed by others like Kevin and Cieran. However, traveling with some prayer reflections about and from Irish saints in our hands, we discovered the presence of St. Gobnait of Ballyvourney in County Cork. Our very cosmopolitan innkeeper in Kinsale let us know that the very name “Gobnait,” was almost a derogatory name, since it wasn’t heroic or mellifluous or grand. However, what we discovered that in the place where she is reported to have lived and worked in the early centuries of Ireland’s history, she is memorialized and remembered to this day. The O’Herhily clan was charged from the earliest of times with the keeping of the sacred well, cemetery, shrine and ruins of the chapel and the gratitude for her person and ministry, and still does so.
The gifts she brought to this little community were ones of pursuing justice by protecting the community, caring for the poor, the ill and the vulnerable, tenaciously and continuously. As happens in much telling of oral tradition, miracle stories have grown up around her. Her name is the Gaelic equivalent of “Deborah,” which means “honey bee,” and she was said to be an excellent beekeeper, providing honey for the community, even sending her swarm of bees after cattle rustlers and thieves to keep the village safe. Her vigilance in prayer and fasting was believed to keep her community protected, free from intruders of all kinds. Today local families pray to her for intercession, especially for physically and mentally disabled children.
As I reflect on saints of God on this All Saints Sunday, I am more drawn in gratitude and aspiration to saints like Gobnait, who never became celebrated and beatified, but rather those whose faith expressed in hard work for justice and healing have had a trickle down effect to this day in the communities and families of which I have been a part– the grandmothers, the aunts, the cousins, the neighbors who all worked for lighted streets, for clean water, for after school shelter and a dozen other gifts of living in my community. I am grateful for those who have pressed us as a culture to be mindful and to act for safety and disease prevention, whose names I will never know, but whose gifts make me free and able to live abundantly, all the better to serve others where I live.
Gobnait would have been a first responder in her little village: I want to be one too!
Elizabeth Nordquist, who blogs at patheos.com, reflects on what really makes a saint. her main source on Gobnait is Praying with Celtic Holy Women, by Bridget Mary Meehan and Regina Madonna Oliver.