23 March 2015

The Island of Strong Men

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 17.

The Island of Strong Men

After many weeks at sea, Saint Brendan and his seafaring monks came upon an island that was flat and full of fruit trees.  After prayer, the abbot predicted that it would be on this island that the one remaining latecomer to his voyage would stay.

This was a holy place of connection and spiritual movement. Three choirs of anchorites, which are monks or nuns who have vowed to live a life away from the rest of the world, roamed the island. Each choir represented one phase of physical life, young boys, young men, and old men; each singing the liturgy of the hours at intervals throughout the day.

There was fruit on this island that yielded much wine, so much so that a single fruit afforded one brother with the constant taste of honey in his mouth for twelve days.  The Island of Strong Men was not inhabited by burly warriors, but by meek and yet immensely powerful brothers who ceaselessly worked in unison, with the good of the whole before their eyes at all times. 

Imagine combining our love and devotion in one mystical body, acting in a most beautiful symbiosis–a true community of the Beloveddistinguished only by our separate voices. Those voices, when lifted up together, become a divine polyphony which yields to nothing, and conquers the darkness and fear of separation and ignorance.  This harmony is the song of the Most High, which gives all things substance.  This music, along with the love that is shared through its harmony, is the foundation of this and every universe.

These choirs seem to me to be in a most blessed state of being, and one that is very near to the fullness which we crave as seekers of the knowledge and experience of God.  And so, St. Brendan rightfully congratulated and blessed the latecomer who was chosen to stay on the Island of Strong Men.  He left his brother in the joyful hope that love would never truly allow their separation.     

It occurs to me that this mysterious island is a symbol of the Eucharistic manifestation of the True Body. May it be for us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.


(Above imageLa Vocation de Saint-François, Alphonse Legros, 1861)

08 March 2015

Beastly, Monstrous Doubt

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 16.

Beastly, Monstrous Doubt

Continuing their voyage for forty days at sea, St. Brendan and his fourteen monks turned their vessel into the great unknown.  As they were carried with the winds into the deep ocean one day, they spied an enormous beast following the currach, spouting water from its nostrils and making great waves beside him.

The holy men were terrified, but not the venerable navigator.  The monks prayed fervently: “Deliver us, O Lord, that that beast does not devour us.”  The creature continued to come nearer to the boat, crashing great waves against it, when Brendan raised his hands and asked the Divine Beloved to do with them what he had done for David when he faced Goliath, and for Jonah when he was swallowed by the great fish. 

After the third prayer, a mighty monster appeared, breathing fire.  The monster made a path straight and quick towards the beast that pursued the monks and smote its broken ruin into three pieces, one of which fell onto a nearby island.  Upon satisfying its mission, the fire-breathing monster departed as quickly as it had appeared.

Having thus given thanks and praise for this miracle, St. Brendan’s party made their way to that nearby island, which was thickly wooded. They had to make land before a storm came up that was to strand them on this island for three months. There, on the far side of the island lay one section of the smitten beast. The wise abbot instructed his men to take from it as much meat as they could, for if they did not, the flesh would be devoured that night by beasts. 

The monks worked until the hour of vespers to butcher the meat of the beast that had tried to devour them.  But even after all these wonders, the brothers were still thinking with their limited, material minds.  They fretted to the abbot that there might not be any water to drink.  Upon hearing their worries, Brendan sent them to a place on the south side of the island where he predicted there was a sweet spring surrounded by good vegetation to eat.  He asked his monks to fetch water and enough vegetables and roots for him to eat, as he had not eaten meat since the day of his ordination to the priesthood. 

How could these men be saved by a fire-breathing monster, and then worry that there would be no water provided to them by the Divine Beloved?  Worse still, they would not believe their own abbot’s word that the beast would be eaten by other beasts if they did not get it themselves.  The brothers secretly went to check on the carcass of the beast the next day, returning in amazement that it had, as Brendan had foreseen, been picked to the bone by animals.

When the men confessed their doubtfulness to the good father, he said: “I know, my sons, that you wanted to test me, to see if I spoke the truth or not. I shall tell you another sign: a portion of a fish will come there tonight, and tomorrow you will eat of it.” 

As it turned out, there was so much fish on the beach the next day the brothers had enough to salt and dry for their voyage onwards into the great western sea. Brendan felt that the long stormy sea was about to go quiet and that the next day would be right for sailing out in a northerly direction.  Everything the good abbot predicted came to pass, and yet his followers continued to be stricken by the same beastly, monstrous doubt that racks all of us from time to time.  Notice that Brendan did not chastise his brothers; he merely taught them to acknowledge their shortcomings and move on to the next spiritual exercise.

This pure and primitive Christianity that St. Brendan was teaching the brothers was not just about ritual and charity.  Religion is a living exercise by which we coax our doubtful souls to remember those things that are truly important, and put aside our animalistic fears to experience the liberation of the spirit that we have been given.  We may not face devouring sea creatures or fire-breathing monsters, but as human beings, our lives are filled with terrors which cannot be allowed to define us or our limitations.    

By the same measure, religion is not essentially about guilt or innocence, right or wrong, but it is rather a tool for us to remember that which has been forgotten in the darkness of our ignorance.  It is a path to be trodden, not a perfect state of being. Our spiritual practice–in community–leads us to a better understanding and compassion for the ups and downs that all of us face as we journey over that same ocean of doubt.

It should not surprise us when after years; perhaps decades of good religious practice, we can and do fail.  Look at these fourteen monks.  These were men of letters and spiritual contemplation that were given the luxury to escape family life, the stresses and responsibilities which most of us must endure.  They had seen great wonders before the fire-breathing monster. They had lived in harmony with the time and space of their liturgical voyage, they had seen the wonders of St. Enda, the community of Ailbe, the Paradise of Birds, and the faithful steward on the Island of Sheep, who tended to their every need––and still they relapsed into that monstrous doubt that overshadows each one of us.    

No matter how dire our prospects might be, or how frustrated we become by our fears and shortcomings, we must never stop seeing the power of our communion with the Divine.  Through difficult journeys we learn through prayer, the Sacraments, and the transformation that is manifested in us through the knowledge and experience of the Divine––the Most Holy Gnosis.  


02 March 2015

Seven Seals

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 15.

Seven Seals

Just as Moses communed with the Divine Beloved in a cloud over Sinai, and Jesus was taken up in a cloud in the Transfiguration, so too the fourteen Irish monks and their abbot Brendan saw an island appear like a cloud on the sea.  From the doldrums of the coagulated sea, the currach made land again on the beneficent Island of Sheep, again on Maundy Thursday. 

On this island, St. Brendan’s brothers would find their steward again, who washed their feet and promised to care for them with food, drink and lodgings just as he had done before.  The mysterious man explained to the monks that they were to make the same journey to his island, then on the back of Jasconius to the Paradise of Birds, then off again into the distant waters of the great ocean sea. 

The monks spent Easter vigil with Jasconius, who still had the cauldron they had tried to boil on his back the year before.  Just as the good steward had told them, they once again landed on the island of the Paradise of Birds. As they disembarked, the feathered souls in the great Tree of Life began to sing the Hymn of the Three Holy Children.

As the monks made camp and prepared the table for their Easter feast, the same little white bird who had given Brendan his prophecy swooped down and perched on the prow of the boat.  There, according to the chroniclers, the bird opened his beak and make a glorious sound like an organ. He then began to give another prophecy.

This was to be a pilgrimage of seven years, that Easter being the beginning of the second cycle.  There were to be four points of call for the brothers along this journey, beginning with Maundy Thursday with their beloved steward on the Island of Sheep, then Easter on the back of Jasconius;  the Easter feasts until Pentecost in the Paradise of Birds, and Christmas with the community of Ailbe.  Then in the seventh year, the little bird promised, Brendan and his men would see the Promised Land of the Saints, where they would stay for forty days, and then return home safely to their abbey in Ireland.

Seven years is such a long time in our world.  In seven years just think of the things that you have done, the places you have been, and the altered state of your life.  The sages of old taught that the human person changes in seven years; that our bodies are completely renewed in that time.  Even better, modern medicine confirms that even our bones are completely changed in seven year cycles [1.]  But through the number seven we can also see that the seven seals of Revelation are continuously unfolding within us, as we approach the great silence that is the harbinger of the coming of the Christ within us. 

A pilgrimage and revelation of seven years is something to be admired and emulated.  We do not have to jump into a leather boat and head out to the nearest whale’s back, but we can learn to appreciate the cycles of our life in a way that reflects our mindfulness and our intention to grow in the spirit.  As we learn to pray, meditate and reflect on our journey, each safe-haven, and every island of hope should be marked down on our maps.  Who is your good steward?  Where do we find our prophetic bird?  Where do we seek shelter in the darkness?   

Only you can find your points of call, but when you do, be sure to show them how grateful you are for their shelter.  


(Above Image: Apocalyptic lamb on the book with seven seals, Johann Heinrich Rohr, 1775. Dommuseum Köln.)

26 February 2015

The Doldrums

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 14.

The Doldrums

It was the beginning of Lent when Saint Brendan and his band of fourteen brethren set out from the perils of forgetfulness and headed north into the cold expanse of the sea.  They brought with them enough salt cod and water to last until Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.

But after three days and three nights, the winds died down and the sea went smooth.  The word that the chroniclers chose was literally ‘coagulated’; the ocean had somehow flattened.  We could set out on a rational trek and decide for ourselves that this might have been ice, since there are years when Lent begins with extreme cold in the North Atlantic.  Other, equally logical theories have speculated that the Navigator and his men encountered the Sargasso Sea. The latter theory seems very unlikely if the brothers did indeed set north by northwest from Ireland, the Hebrides, Shetland Islands or the Faroe Islands.

If we ponder this chapter in the Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot carefully, we need not invent scientific explanations for the sea going smooth.  Anyone who has tried to enliven a soulful life has certainly sailed that arctic sea of spiritual aridity.  Far from the chills and thrills of gnostic ecstasy, much of our lives can be overcast by the doldrums of this torpid ocean of doubt. 

Even in the middle of a great spiritual pilgrimage, the monks of Clonfert abbey came to a grinding halt.  There are many times in life when we are the active agents of the Divine and in our own inspiration.  As St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.” This passage reminds us that when we are in the doldrums, we still have the chance to live our spirituality in the moment by reverencing the Divine in others.  We may not be experiencing the thunderbolt of a cherub piercing our hearts, but by recognizing the indwelling spirit in each person we encounter, we are raising our sail to catch the breath of Adonai when it stirs once more.  And stir it will.

Thus, as the currach stood in that placid sea, the abbot Brendan commanded his men saying, “Ship the oars and loosen the sail, wherever God wants to direct the boat, let him direct it!”  At this critical juncture, the Navigator knew that there was nothing to be done but yield his vessel up to a power that remains to this day, beyond our understanding.


(Above Image: Scipio Africanus Landing at Carthage by Giulio Romano, 1545)