Feast of Brendan the Voyager

Today is the feast of St Brendan the Voyager, a good day to begin my adventure into blogging. Brendan is one of my favorite saints about whom I don’t know nearly enough. Try to find a nice book on Brendan! It’s a real challenge. Unfortunately, the non-academic discussions of Brendan seem to only revolve around whether he discovered America or not. This, of course, misses the entire point that the Navigatio is about a journey of the soul.

In honor of the feast day today, I sat down and reread the Navigatio. A theme that has struck me for the first time – perhaps influenced by the current discussion on haligweorc – is the stress on the daily office and the Brendan’s cyclical journey around the calendar year. Brendan is told by a bird [banished angel] that:

‘God has mapped out four places for you, one for each of the four seasons of the year, where you shall stay every successive year till your pilgrimage is at an end. Maundy Thursday you will spend with your steward; the Easter vigil is passed on the back of a whale; you are here with us [Isle of Birds] til the octave of Pentecost; and Christmas you will spend with the community of St. Ailbe. After seven years, not without great and diverse trials, you will find the Land of Promise of the Saints which you have sought so long. There you will stay for forty days and then God will take you back to the country of your birth.’ [1]

His journey is circular, like the calendar season, returning to the same place for the same feast year after year for seven years. Seven years represent completeness. The whale is repeatedly seen in the Navigatio as being under the command of God. The community of St. Ailbe is noted in the Navigatio for its keeping of absolute silence, perhaps representing the silent anticipation of the Nativity. An analysis of the use of the divine office in the Navigatio (based on the numerous quotes from the psalms) would be interesting, but it would take much more knowledge of the office than I have.

St. Brendan the Voyager does have ties to northern Britain. Adomnan of Iona records the earliest datable references to Brendan that I know of in his Life of Columba (c. 700). Brendan moccu Altae (the voyager) is mentioned twice; first, as the teacher of the visitor Aedan mac Fergnai and second, as participating in a meeting with Columba and three other monastic founders on the isle of Hinba. The four monastic founders from Ireland conveniently founded monasteries in four different regions of Ireland: Brendan at Clonfert on the border of Connacht, Cainnech at Aghaboe in Osraige between Leinster and Munster, Cormac of Durrow in Brega and Comgall of Bangor in Ulster, although Clonfert, Durrow and Aghaboe are not that geographically far apart. These three all circle around the famous monastery of St. Brendan the elder of Birr. Brendan of Birr was an influential supporter of Columba. (hmm… the synod of Birr is also where Adomnan’s famous ‘law of the innocents’/Cain Adomnan was proclaimed…let’s not be skeptical about that and conclude that Adomnan could have gathered information for his Life of Columba there.) Adomnan claims that both St. Brendans (of Birr and Clonfert) separately saw columns of light marking Columba’s holiness. So we may have some confusion here between the Brendans and the four founders may have been included to show support for Columba from four major provinces and monastic systems within Ireland. These monasteries were probably visited by Adomnan while he was campaigning for his ‘law of the innocents’. Yet, it is early support for Brendan’s existence, notably separate from Brendan of Birr (despite the similar Columban miracles), and his reputation as a monastic founder. Brendan is credited with founding monasteries in western Scotland in other sources. It is possible that Brendan and Columba collaborated on evangelizing western Scotland; they were contemporaries. Brendan founded Clonfert and Ardfert within a decade of Columba’s foundation of Iona, according to the Irish annals.

The whole point of discussing Brendan in the Columban material is to show good early proof that Brendan was not fiction or a duplication of Brendan of Birr, nor a Christianized version of the Welsh god Bran the Blessed or the mythological Irish figure Bran who was also a voyager (who goes to a land of women). The Columban material doesn’t mention Brendan as a voyager at all. Adomnan clearly knows him primarily as a monastic founder. Cormac is the unsuccessful voyager in the Life of Columba. Like Bridget before him, it is time to appreciate the rich folklore built around Brendan without questioning his existence as a Christian saint. The wide scattering of early foundations credited to Brendan across the western seaboard should be enough for us to credit him and his disciples as adventurous voyagers.

As I begin my journey into the blogosphere and, much more importantly, as the Anglican Communion steers into uncharted waters, it is a good time to remember St. Brendan the Voyager with this Irish collect:

“God of sea and land, you endowed your servant Brendan with a bold and adventurous spirit to occupy himself for your business on the great waters and revealed to him the wonders of your deep: Make us, who recall with thanksgiving his life and ministry, zealous to be pioneers and pilgrims for the faith of Christ; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen

[1] D H Farmer, ed. 1998. The Age of Bede. Penguin. p. 252.

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7 comments on “Feast of Brendan the Voyager

  1. Derek the Ænglican says:

    Cool…I’ve never read the actual text of the Navigatio and just know the general second-hand story line. I’ll have to check it out… Are there any reputable online versions?

    Columns of light–that certainly fits the period, it’s a standard topos for the appearance of holiness in Gregory’s Dialogues, the Life of Martin and others…

    The whale is fascinating. Especially from an Old English perspective because my first inclination is the OE bestiary in which the whale represents Satan…

    Blessings on the new voyage!

  2. Michelle says:

    Much to my surprise, I did just find an edition online. I haven’t read this version but here it is http://www.lamp.ac.uk/celtic/Nsb.htm.

    I’m really not sure what the whale means. As for evil, they also meet a penitent Judus Iscariot to whom Brendan gives a 24 hour reprieve from the torments of hell!

  3. […] pm (Brendan the Voyager, Saints) Ask and you shall receive… in one of my first posts on the feast of St. Brendan I suggested that there were enough clues in the Navigato Sancti Brendani to do a study of its use […]

  4. […] Birr, Columba of Iona, Adomnan of Iona, Whitby, Hagiography) In my previous post on the feast of St. Brendan, I mentioned that Adomnan’s use of Brendan of Birr is odd. Then in the last few weeks […]

  5. […] As I discussed earlier, Brendan’s voyage to the Land of Promise is a voyage through the church year with specific destinations for each of the major church festivals and seasons. Brendan and his companions arrive at the Isle of St Ailbe during Advent and remain on the island for the entire Christmas season. […]

  6. Genevieve says:

    There is a book by Tim Severin The Brendan Voyage. Have you read it?

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