Advent 2: The Isle of St Ailbe

The church year is one of the central features of the Navigatio of St. Brendan, so I’m going to drop in for a visit with Brendan on his voyage as we make our way through the new church year of 2008 that begins with Advent.

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.

The most consistent legends of Ailbe (d. 528) make him a sixth century missionary bishop to the Munster region of Ireland (seated at Emly), and a disciple of St. Patrick. It is likely that Ailbe was considered the Apostle to Munster. Emly in Munster is land-locked so the Isle of St Ailbe is not a reference to the main site of Ailbe’s veneration. Brendan himself was from the kingdom of Munster.

The description of Brendan’s time with the island community of St Ailbe is described in chapter 12 of the Navigatio. I have heavily edited this to keep it brief. See the link in the line above for the full text.

Brendan and his monks arrive on the Isle of St. Ailbe days during the Advent season. After telling his monks to strictly maintain monastic silence and they had been greeted,

“Then he led them all into the refectory, in strict silence; ….Father abbot, in much cheerfulness, pressed his guests: ‘Brothers, from the fountain, out of which to-day you wished to drink stealthily, make now a loving cup in gladness and in the fear of the Lord. From the other fountain of foul water, which you saw, are the feet of the brethren washed, for it is always tepid. Those loaves of bread which you now see before you, we know not where they are prepared, or who brings them to our cellar; but we know well that, by the free gift of God, they are supplied to us, as an alms, by some obedient creature of His; and thus is fulfilled in our regard the words of divine truth; ‘Those who fear God want for nothing.’… thus it is that from the days of St Patrick and St Ailbe, our patriarchs, for eighty years until now, Christ provides us with sustenance. Moreover, neither old age nor bodily infirmities increase upon us here, were, in the paradise of God.

When the hours for the divine office and for Mass arrive, the lamps in our church, which, under God’s guidance, we brought with us from our own country, are set alight, and burn always without growing less.When vespers had concluded, St Brendan took heed of the structure of the church: it was a perfect square of equal length and breadth, and in it were seven lamps, so arranged that three of them hung before the central altar, and two before each of the side altars. All the altars were of crystal, and the chalices, paten as, cruets, and the other vessels required for the Divine Sacrifice were also of crystal. Around the church were ranged twenty-four benches, with the abbot’s seat between the two choirs of monks in rows on either side. No monk from either choir was allowed to intone the chant of the office, but the abbot; and throughout the monastery no voice was heard, nor any sound whatever…

When the office had concluded, the brethren went to their cells, taking their guests with them; but the abbot remained with St Brendan, in the church, to await the lighting of the lamps. The saint asked the father about about the rule of silence they observed; how such a mode of intercourse in a community was possible to flesh and blood. The abbot, with much reverence and humility, replied: ‘Holy father, I declare before the Lord, that during the eighty years that have passed since we came to this island, none of us has heard from the other the sound of the human voice, save only when we sing the praises of God. Amongst us twenty-four brothers, no voice is raised; but signs are made by the fingers or the eyes; and this is permitted only to the elder monks. None of us, since we came here, have suffered any infirmity of body or mind, such as may be fatal to mankind.’ Upon this St Brendan said with many tears: ‘Vouchsafe, I beseech thee, father abbot, to let us know whether we am permitted or not to abide here.’ The abbot rejoined: ‘You are not per­mitted, for such is not the will of God; but why do you ask me, when God had revealed to you, before you came to us, what you must do? You must return to your own country, where God has prepared for you, as well as for your fourteen companions, the place of sepulture. Of the other two monks, one will have his pilgrimage in the island of the anchorites; but the other will suffer in hell the worst of all deaths;’ and these events after­ward came to pass.

While they were thus conversing, behold, as they looked on, a fiery arrow, passing in through a window, set alight all the lamps that hung before the altars; and passing out through the same window, left the lamps burning. Then St Brendan inquired who would extinguish those lamps in the morning, and the abbot re­plied: ‘Come, and see the secret of all this: you observe those tapers burning in the vases; yet none of them is consumed, nor do they grow less, nor do any ashes remain in the morning, for the light is entirely spiritual.’ ‘How,’ said St Brendan, ‘can a spiritual flame thus burn in a material substance?’ ‘Have you not read,’ said the abbot, ‘of the burning bush, near Mount Sinai, which remained unconsumed by the burning?’ ‘Yes,’ said the saint, ‘I have read of this; When they had thus remained on watch until morn­ing, St Brendan asked permission to depart from the island, but the abbot replied: ‘No, O man of God, you must celebrate with us the festival of our Lord’s Nativity, and afford us the joy of your company until the Octave of Epiphany.’ The holy father, therefore, with his brethren, remained until that time on this Island of St Ailbe.” (from J. Wooding, Celtic E-Library)

The island community of St Ailbe is portrayed as a perpetual divine choir who exists only to praise God, in complete reliance on God, and is therefore provided with all its wants and needs. No one ages or gets ill; no one is too hot or too cold. The church itself is shown to be lit by heavenly light that does not consume its candles and the altar and sacred vessels are all made of pure crystal which only reflects the heavenly light. As the abbot tells Brendan, this is a type of paradise.

The community of St. Ailbe also recalls God’s providence during Exodus. The abbots continual reminders to Brendan of what has been decreed about his voyage and the fates of Brendan’s companions places the abbot in the role of a prophet. The abbot’s explanation of candle lit by divine light but not consumed is to remind Brendan of the burning bush upon Mount Sinai that is not consumed. Water is provided by two springs of water that may recall the bitter spring turned sweet by Moses who then decrees that if the Israelites will follow God’s commandments they will not suffer the illnesses and diseases of the Egyptians (Exodus 15:23-25). They take their sustenance from divinely provided bread recalls the manna provided from heaven on which the Israelites must rely for 40 years until they enter the promised land. The double share of bread on Sundays recalls the double portion of manna given to the Israelites on the sixth day of the week so that they will not have to gather the manna on the sabbath. The double portion consumed on Sunday, the sabbath, reflects an adaption to reflect contemporary monastic practices. Unlike the Israelites, the community of St Ailbe are satisfied to rely completely on God’s providence without complaint and so they continue on for 80 years, twice the 40 years that the Israelites wonder in the wilderness, and remain healthy and whole. Brendan is being shown that he must rely completely on God’s providence and protection on his exodus from the ‘wilderness of Sin’ (Exodus 16.1) toward the Land of Promise to his Saints.

Its seems odd that after the abbot explains all to Brendan, he then asks to leave the community the next day! The abbot reminds Brendan that he has already been told that he will remain with them until the eve of Epiphany, and so they must wait and learn patience. After previously asking if they could remain there forever, why is Brendan eager to leave? If he is eager to move his journey along, then he has failed to learn the lesson of patience, that the next stage will occur on God’s time and not his own. The seasons of Advent and Christmas are about anticipation of God’s great gift to the world in the birth of Christ, and celebration of the bounty of God. This anticipation is figured in the silent community where Brendan will wait in silent anticipation of the arrival of Christ into the world while completely dependent upon God’s bounty. For the community, this is not just an Advent discipline but a way of life that waits in anticipation of the second coming of Christ.

So now we must wait in anticipation of the Nativity and celebrate God’s bounty during the Christmas season before we continue along our journey with Brendan.


10 thoughts on “Advent 2: The Isle of St Ailbe

  1. Having sailed about a bit, St Brendan is one of my favourite saints. I remember reading Tim Severin’s ‘The Brendan Voyage’, albeit a practical attempt to interpret St Brendan’s voyage as a physical journey, rather than a spiritual one, whilst sat by the bay at Bardsey Island [two more trips = pilgrimage to Rome], with curious seals surfacing out of the water to have a look at me. Dr Jonathan Wooding, one of the ‘pilgrims’ with me has written quite a bit about the spiritual aspects of St Brendan:
    ‘St Brendan’s Boat: Dead Hides and the Living Sea in Columban and Related Hagiography’, in John Carey, Máire Herbert and Padraig Ó Riain (ed), Studies in Irish Hagiography. Saints and Scholars (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001) 77-92
    ‘The Latin Version’, Chapter 2 of Glyn Burgess and W.R.J. Barron (ed.), The Voyage of St Brendan – Themes and Variations (Exeter: University Press, 2001) 13-25 (printed with translation of Nauigatio by J. J. O’Meara).

  2. The architecture of the chapel is very much out of Revelation. See ch 1 on the seven lamps before the altar of God, the special significance of 24 brothers in ch4, and the foursquare character of the city in ch 21. I’d have to see the original of Brendan to see what word is used for crystal and check it against the Vg but the concept of crystal/gemstones is all over the place.

    Actually, Rev 4:4-6 has the lamps, the crystal, and the 24 elders… And that’s just the obvious citations in your edited version. I’ve got to read the whole thing one of these days!

  3. Saesferd,

    Looks like you have mentioned a good book of translations. I’ll have to look into that one.


    I also think the structure of the church significant but I didn’t have the energy to fully investigate it. As the abbot says, this is a type of paradise.

    I think you would find it interesting… I even clipped out some of the office bits to keep it brief. For example, as their feet are washed by the abbot and the monks before they go into the refractory to eat, the monks are singing the antiphon ‘A New commandment I give to you’ (John 13:34) (in the Celtic Spirituality version before me at the moment). I don’t suppose there are any anitphoners who have preserved this?

  4. Well–the antiphon is CAO 3688: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos dicit dominus” (I give to you a new commandment: that you love mightily just as I loved you, says the Lord)

    Unfortunately, I haven’t found a web-based source that gives Office Antiphons in liturgical order…I’d have to hit Hesbert in the flesh.

  5. I know we’re in Advent—that’s one of the things that makes this interesting. However, if the goal is to envision Paradise then the depiction of the monastic meal as the Last Supper=the First Mass may be pointing to eschatological banquet/marriage feast of the Lamb images.

    One the diss gets done I’m definitely going to have to study this text.

    I wonder how helpful Bede’s commentary on the Apocalypse would be on the imagery…

  6. I have been trying to read the tale as chiasmic; it does not work as such. Only one of the Irish immrama does work as a chiasmus, the Voyage of Bran, and that one is almost such a perfect form. Having said that, there are certain elements in the first half that seem added on, make no addition to the tale. Take those out and the form is perfect.
    St Brendan’s tale has the beginning, middle and end of the ring-form, based on the revealing of the will of God. Unless the insular Irish religion of the period saw any sin as all sin then the demons that caused the follower to steal (ch 7) can then be paralleled with the demons that plagued Judas. Nothing else fits the scheme, however.

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