29 May 2009

'Rejoice, Sun Which Does Not Set on the Land of Ireland'—St Brendan the Navigator

Today, 16 May on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Brendan the Navigator (c. 484-c. 577), Abbot of Clonfert. According to the famous Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot, ‘St Brendan, son of Findlug, descendant of Alta of the line of Eogan, was born in the marshy region of Munster. He was a very ascetical man, famed for his miracles and spiritual father to almost three thousand monks’ (Celtic Spirituality, trans. Oliver Davies and Thomas O’Loughlin [NY: Paulist, 1999], p. 155). Dennis O’Donoghue’s 1893 translation of the second sentence is more faithful to the Latin—‘He was famed for his great abstinence and his many virtues, and was the patriarch of nearly three thousand monks’ (here).

St Brendan was baptised by St Erc, taught for five years by St Ita, ‘the Brighid of Munster’, and, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia

he completed his studies under St. Erc, who ordained him priest in 512. Between the years 512 and 530 St. Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert, and at Shanakeel or Baalynevinoorach, at the foot of Brandon Hill. It was from here that he set out on his famous voyage for the Land of Delight.

This voyage is of course the primary subject of what is perhaps the most famous hagiographic narrative in the Western world: the above-mentioned Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot. Davies describes the Voyage as follows:

In its combination of ancient Irish motifs, Christian apocalyptic vision, biblical reminiscences, early medieval zoological and geographical lore, all combined with exact descriptions of the monastic regimen and ascetical ideals, The Voyage of Brendan can be regarded as a compendium, or even classical narrative, of the early Irish Church. (p. 34)

But although it certainly has unique features, St Brendan’s story is also an example of the classic Irish tale of voyages, the immram, of which the Voyage of St Maeldune is another example (one used to great effect by Lord Tennyson—‘The Voyage of Maeldune’, Poems of Tennyson, ed. Jerome H. Buckley [Boston: Hough Mifflin, 1958], pp. 479-83).

According to the Voyage, while St Brendan ‘was engaged in spiritual warfare in a place which is called Brendan’s “Meadow of Miracles” [identified by Davies as, most likely, Clonfert—p. 508, n. 4]’ (Davies, p. 155), a relative, St Barinthus, told him about how he had been to visit his son, who was the elder at a skete on an isolated island, and how the latter had taken him to ‘the island which is called the Promised Land of the Saints, that land which God will give us and our successors on the last day’ (p. 156). It is, apparently, a foretaste of Paradise on earth. They stay there a year without noticing the passage of time or requiring food or drink, there is unwaning day, and when they return to the skete they say, ‘Can you not tell from the fragrance of our clothes that we have been in Paradise?’ (Davies, p. 157). (This makes me think of Coleridge—

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.)

At any rate, it is this testimony that inspires St Brendan to undertake his voyage. According to the narrative:

St Brendan selected seven monks from his community, shut himself in an oratory with them, and said to them: ‘My most beloved fellow-warriors, I look to you for advice and help, for my heart and all my thoughts are united in a single desire. I have resolved in my heart, if only it be God’s will, to seek that Promised Land of the Saints, of which St Barinthus has spoken. How does this seem to you, and what advice do you wish to give me?’

As soon as they knew their holy father’s intention, they said with one voice: ‘Father, your will is our will. Have we not left our families, have we not set aside our inheritance and put ourselves in your hands? And so we are ready to follow you to either death or life. We seek one thing only: the will of God.’ (pp. 157-8)

St Brendan and 17 of his monks set sail from St Brendan’s Mountain (on the Dingle Peninsular, Kerry—Davies, p. 508, n. 9), and spent seven years at sea in a wooden coracle covered in cowhide, searching for the Promised Land and encountering various marvels. The most well-known of those, though certainly not the most important, is the story of the ‘island’ that turns out to be the sea monster, often believed to be a whale, Jasconius (told in Davies’s translation on p. 163). In an interesting lecture on St Brendan, John Patrick Crichton Stuart Bute, 3rd Marquess of Bute, makes the following comments:

This is the only incident in the whole romance which is actually grotesque. But from the solemnity with which it is narrated, it is evident that it did not appear to be grotesque to the author. It seems to have taken the fancy of the early and mediæval public, and even of the iconographic public in a special degree. The word whale has commonly been applied to the beast, and as the same episode occurs in the story of Sinbad the Sailor, Jubinal has set himself to speculate how that story, or the Arabian Nights in which it is incorporated, came to be known in Ireland. I confess I do not agree with him. In the first place, the notion is not particularly recondite, and it has at least this possible foundation in fact, that, as I have been told by sailors, the back of a whale of advanced years, when asleep at the surface, may be and has been mistaken from some distance, greatly owing to the accretions upon it, for the top of a reef. [In a fascinating post, Brendan Macodrum points out that a description of this occurrence is found in the 2nd- to 4th-century Physiologus, likely to have been known by the author of the Voyage.] Again, a somewhat similar notion occurs in Lucian's Traveller's Tale, which was much more likely to be known to the Irish fabulist. Lastly, I must observe that all this is gloss. The word whale (cete) is never applied to the animal but always fish (piscis) or monster (bellua) or beast (bestie), and the whole thing, with the notion of its vast size, and the attempt to join the tail to the mouth, which brings it into connection with the emblem of eternity, which is due, I believe, to the Phoenicians, but which we ourselves so often use upon coffins and grave-stones, seems to bring it into connection rather with the idea of the Midgard-Worm, the great under-lying world-serpent which figures so largely in the mythic cosmogony of the Scandinavians. I suggest that this is the notion, of which the romancer may have heard from Scandinavian sources; and there is even a kind of indication that it was associated in his mind with the idea of paganism, as Brendan is made to speak elsewhere of God having made the most terrible (immanissimam) of beasts subject unto them [Davies, p. 173—‘My dear sons, watch and pray in case you should enter into temptation. Remember how God tamed that terrible beast beneath us without any difficulty’].

At last, St Brendan and his surviving companions were guided to the island they sought. According to the Voyage, they ate and drank of the blessed fruit and spring-water, discovered a river they could not cross (St Barinthus also mentioned this river), and finally encountered a ‘young man’, who kissed them and called them each by name, saying, ‘Blessed are they that dwell in your house, O Lord. They shall praise you forever and ever’ (Ps. 83:5).

Then he said to St Brendan: ‘This is the land which you have sought for so long. You were not able to find it immediately because God wished to show you his many wonders in the great ocean. Return now to the land of your birth, taking with you fruit from this land and as many gems as your boat can carry. The day of your final journey is approaching, when you shall sleep with your fathers. After the passage of many years, this land will be revealed to your successors when Christians will be suffering persecution. This river which you see divides the island into two halves, and you can see nothing but ripened fruit, which is how it remains all the year round, with no shadow of night, for Christ himself is our light. (pp. 189-90)

The end of the Voyage tells how St Brendan and his companions returned to his monastery in Ireland and told the story of their journeys and the wonders they experienced. The abbot also informed his spiritual children of the prophecy the young man made concerning his imminent repose. According to the narrative, ‘Events proved him right for when he had put all his affairs in order and had been strengthened by the sacraments of God, he soon gave up his spirit as he lay in his disciples’ arms, and passed over to the Lord, to whom be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (Davies, p. 190).

Of course, there must have been some not entirely insignificant lapse of time between St Brendan’s return to Ireland and his repose, since, as Brendan Lehane (in his typically cynical tone) points out, ‘He was still to travel, to risk his life in restless searchings [he visited many places throughout the British Isles], and to play the autocrat among his erring monks’ (Early Celtic Christianity [London: Constable, 1996], p. 90). Among others, he founded a convent in Galway, ‘Annaghdown by the shore of Lough Corrib’, where he made his sister Brig the abbess (Lehane, p. 91). He met St Columba of Iona in Scotland, and St Gildas the Wise and St David in Wales. Finally, he returned to his sister’s monastery at Annaghdown, where he died in her arms in 577. According to Lehane, ‘On his instructions his body was taken for interment to Clonfert, where he was buried in the presence of many mourners’ (p. 99).

There have been many speculations that the Voyage of St Brendan contains a genuine account of Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact, i.e., that St Brendan and his companions may have visited the New World 300 years before Leif Ericson and over 900 years before Columbus. Apparently, it was doubted at one time that such a feat could have been accomplished in a coracle of the type described by the Voyage, but in 1976, someone did precisely that. I recall once hearing a recorded lecture by Hieromonk Ambrose (Young) at Holy Cross Hermitage about some markings in a cave in West Virginia that were believed to have been made by Irish monks, but unfortunately a little internet digging reveals that this interpretation of the markings is believed by most archaeologists to be ludicrously doubtful (alas, see this article). Do, however, read this article about the general idea of the Irish visiting the New World, maybe even Florida! (HT to Orthodox Okie, to whom I am grateful as well for the icon above.)

I highly recommend some of the posts on Brendan Macodrum’s blog, Wick Lit, though I should warn readers that this blog also features quite a number of images of nude women, most of them, however, somewhat tastefully done. Macodrum, a resident of Skellig Michael, the famous monastic island off the coast of Ireland, also has two other blogs, Cape Blue and Immrama (here he has posted the account of the end of St Brendan’s voyage from the Book of Lismore). He no longer posts on any of them, but if he happens to read this, many years on his Old Calendar Orthodox nameday!

There is also an Akathist to St Brendan here, but sadly it is in the barbarous French tongue, which I have not yet condescended to learn. I was, however, able to translate the title of this post from the first Ikos. Finally, for those who have been waiting all along for me to mention Frederick Buechner's novel, Brendan, I'm afraid it will have to wait for a separate post. This one has already ballooned to mammoth proportions.


+Savas of Troas said...

More whale-like than mammoth, certainly! And all this, with a bandaged hand? Amazing!

I look forward to your remarks on Buechner.



aaronandbrighid said...

Well, the mammoth was sort of an obscure homage to Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin) who, in the Preface to Et Introibo ad Altare Dei refers to his book as a 'wooly mammoth'. But yes, perhaps the whale would have been a more appropriate metaphor!

Thank you for your well-wishes for my recovery. Unfortunately, not only is the hand bandaged, it is bruised, intolerably itchy, and the bandages won't stay in place. I find it difficult to think about anything except my hand right now!

By the way, your book arrived today. Thank you again, Despota!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Fun posts! Best wishes on your recovery, too.