22 January 2015

Labor of Love

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 4.

Labor of Love

The word suspended in slow-motion, which came from the lips of St. Enda like the blue smoke of frankincense, was his benediction on Brendan’s voyage to find the island of the Promised Land of the Saints.  The navigator-abbot and his 14 companions now set out to a place called Brendan’s Seat, which is identified with the Brandon Head on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. 
Brandon's Creek, the possible site of St. Brendan's launch
According to the Voyage, this place had just enough room for one boat to be launched, with a towering mountain on the sea, which is appropriately one of the western-most places in all Europe.  Here, Brendan and his followers pitched their tents and got down to the project of building a vessel to take them on their maritime pilgrimage. 

Curiously, the chroniclers of the Voyage noted that although Brendan’s parents lived nearby, he did not visit them.  There could be several interpretations of that little piece of information, but it seems logical to assume that Brendan and his companions had more than enough work cut out for them in the coming days and possibly months, without breaking the spiritual rhythm that had been swelling within their hearts into a crescendo of dedication. 

If we look soberly to the task that awaited these iron-age monks, we would immediately see it as a formidable undertaking even today, let alone for 6th century clerics. For starters, there is a special way to make leather able to withstand saltwater.  The method is mentioned in the original Latin text as rubricatis in roborina cortice – hides that are seasoned in oak bark.[1] They had to gather or make iron tools, hew lumber for the frame, tan or purchase 147 ox hides (enough for 3 boats and repairs), render hundreds of gallons of fat for waterproofing, secure food and other provisions enough to last–you guessed it–40 days, and cut or purchase rawhide to stitch two miles-worth of leather through the hides with 1,600 knots fastened to the frame of their currach, the traditional leather boat of that region.  I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted just writing about it.
Tim Severin's currach in 1976
We know all these little details about the building of a currach from the adventurer Tim Severin  who became something of a minor celebrity for reconstructing St. Brendan’s voyage when I was a little boy. You can imagine the excitement his work inspired in North Atlantic ports such as Boston, which is home to millions of proud Irish immigrants. It will not give inordinate surprise to my readers when I confess not to being given to the flamboyant, fame-seeking Lord Flashhearts of the world, but Severin is cut from a different cloth altogether.  His sense of duty to explore history and make it accessible to those of us who wish to learn from the great works of our ancestors, was decidedly not done for his unique fame or pecuniary aggrandizement. 

Thirty-nine years ago this very week, on 24 January 1976, Severin and his crew launched the 36- foot-long, 8 foot-beam, two-masted , ox hide currach, an exact replica of the vessel described in the Voyage.  For over nearly a year, Severin and his crew journeyed over 4,500 miles (7,200 km) from the site of St.  Brendan’s launch in Ireland to Peckford Island, in what is now Newfoundland, with many stops in between.

The monks finished their project and readied to sail on the summer solstice. In simple, pious style, even after so much work, St. Brendan called his brothers near, put the currach in the water, and in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, asked them to enter the boat. 

Through perseverance, their labor of love had come to fruition. 


[1] Ian Short and Brian Merrilees (eds.), The Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1979), 82.

21 January 2015

Time with St. Enda

Inishmore, Arnan Islands, home of the monastery of St. Enda
The Mystical Voyage of Saint Brendan - Part 3.

Time with St. Enda

In the third part of the Voyage of St. Brendan the abbot, we left Brendan with 14 handpicked brothers from his abbey, as they were expressing their desire to know the will of God, the will to love.  Moreover, God’s will was the only thing the brothers asked for when it came to making up their minds to join Brendan on his voyage to the island of the Promised Land of the Saints.

To seek the will of God, Brendan and his 14 companions decided to fast and pray for 40 days, but no more than three days in a row.  Remembering that the ancient Celtic Church was very much attuned to the asceticism of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Holy Land, it is not surprising that these men found this path to be appropriate for their search for the voice of the Divine.

The story relates that once this period of 40 days had come to a close, Brendan bid farewell to Clonfert abbey and appointed a brother to take charge in his stead.  Although the man is not named, we know from the story that he was a successor to Brendan, what in Irish Gaelic is called Comarbai Brénaind.[1]

Reading between the lines, these 40 days of reflection were still not enough for Brendan, so he set off with his band of 14 monks to visit St. Enda on the holy islands of Aran, near Galway. St. Enda’s island monastery at Inishmore was a well established sacred place for the wisest and holiest people of that era to seek spiritual refuge and direction.  Among the most notable pilgrims to St. Enda was St. Columba, the abbot credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. It seems safe to assume that Brendan held Enda of Aran in very high regard, and that this was the last test of God’s own will for his prospective voyage.

Now to dwell a little bit on time and the numbers which arise in this portion of the Voyage. We have seen the purifying number 40, but have we seen it with our souls?  Have we completely digested the spiritual nourishment of long, silent contemplation?  We are constantly under pressure to multitask, to list our accomplishments; to quantify our productivity, and so we naturally gravitate towards this habit.  Nothing could be more ruinous to our spiritual and mental health.

Consider in your own quest to know the Beloved how you sense his presence.  From my own experience, I know that the barbarities and rampant stimuli of 21st century life lead our imaginations to believe in the great length of a single day.  Separated as we are from a not-too-distant past, where thoughts traveled faster than the engines which carried them, we are daily subjected to an unhealthy and addictive cinema of human emotion and reaction, which stuns each of us into a kind of trance before the glowing screen of the abyss. 

Our sense of time and our existence in the moment are crucial to feeling the breath of God in our ears.  Can we even imagine contemplating an action for 40 days?  Better still, Brendan travels to see Enda, and stays there for a further three days and three nights.  Let this be the standard for us to make important decisions in our lives: 43 days of contemplation and commiseration with the greatest sage we know.

The numbers of this holy quest enliven it as if by beautiful musical notes.  If there were 14 monks chosen to join the voyage, and Brendan is the 15th, what are the chroniclers singing in our ears?  If we back away from our literal and material cynicism for a moment and listen to those numbers, they might fortify our comprehension of the divine will.

The ruins of St. Enda's Monastery, Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway
Twelve is the number of perfection, the Apostles, the months, and the sun signs of the Zodiac. This makes the host of his companions 12 + 3, or twelve plus the Trinity.  Together, they decide to contemplate the voyage through fasting and praying for 40 days, the ritual number of purification associated with the cleansing of water.  The monks fast in three day sprints, again a reference to the Trinity, and the tripartite formations of all sorts of important mathematical and natural manifestations. 

As we leave St. Brendan and his 14 brothers, let’s take a few minutes to envision them there with St. Enda.  Think of the cold stone monastery walls, the sound of tall grass in the wind and of the tide coming in.  The smell of salty air and precious incense fill the moment.  Listen to the word which flows from Enda’s lips as if in slow motion, fulfilling the will to love in Brendan’s ear.

Stay there a while with me.


[1] T.W. Moody; F.X. Martin, F.J. Byrne, eds., Maps, Genealogies, Lists: A Companion to Irish History, Part II, New History of Ireland: Volume XI, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 245–246

20 January 2015

The Will to Love

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan - Part 2.

The Will to Love

Saint Brendan by Fergal of Claddagh
In the second section of St. Brendan’s story, he chooses 14 brothers from the hundreds or thousands who live with him at Clonfert abbey.  The abbot gathers these men in an oratory and seeks their advice, explaining that he wants to find the island of the Promised Land of the Saints, of which Father Barrind had spoken. 

But the brothers being pious and faithful are astounded by Brendan’s question. They ask him in response, “Have we not left our parents behind?  Have we not spurned our inheritance and given our bodies into your hands?” The brothers punctuate their thought, “Only one thing let us ask for, the will of God.”

It seems that the dignity of these men rests in their faith in Brendan as one whose motives seem purely aimed at the apprehension of the Divine.  It is as if the brothers are deeply aware that no matter how dangerous the undertaking of this voyage might be, their quest for communion with God is the only true path to wholeness and satisfaction, even unto death.

Talk of martyrdom or self-sacrifice seems very far from our lives nowadays. At best it is the preaching of delusion, and at worst, the babble of dangerous fanatics.  But it is not a death wish that these monks crave, it is to be true to the will of the Divine, who made and sustains them through love. 

They will never stop seeking closer intimacy with God because they realize on an existential level the best way to reciprocate Divine love is to freely acknowledge that love and entrust themselves to it.  This is the will to love at its most beautiful.

These 14 men know that Brendan would not lead them against that will, and so it seems they are devoted to him through their quest for communion with the Divine, come what may.  So I ask, what can you and I do today to seek the will to love? 


17 January 2015

A Foretaste of Divine Life

Loch Léin, birthplace of St. Brendan

St. Brendan’s Voyage – Part I.

A Foretaste of Divine Life

The Voyage of St. Brendan, taken from the English translation of the 8th or 9th century account Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, begins by very simply stating who Brendan was and from whence he came. “Saint Brendan, son of Findlug, descendant of Alte, was born among the Eoganacht of Loch Léin in the land of the men of Munster.”

While to our foreign eyes, probably few of these facts mean much to us, in fact this single sentence contains centuries of learning and background.  The Eoganacht were a dynasty, descended from a legendary 3rd century king, Ailill Aulom, and were known to be a learned people; the wise and gentle rulers of the southern counties of Ireland.[1]

As our story begins, we find ourselves at Clonfert abbey in Galway, founded by Brendan himself in the 6th century, and whose cathedral church still stands having been rebuilt and expanded in the 12th century.  The stone carvings of the church relay some of the mysteries and wonders that surrounded this place, which is said in the annals to have been ordered to be built directly by an angel.[2] Brendan was buried there in 580.[3] At its pinnacle under Brendan there were some 3,000 monks at the abbey, an amazing number considering the sparse population of Ireland in those days. 
Portal to St Brendan's Cathedral, Clonfert

Once the chronicler (who was most likely a monk from this very same abbey) has told us what we need to know about Brendan, we are then immediately transported to a touching reunion between Brendan and his friend, the abbot Barrind.

As Brendan is asking Barrind of his recent pilgrimage to various North Atlantic islands, Barrind is overcome with emotion, breaks down and begins to weep.  He prostrates himself before his friend and falls into deepest prayer.  As I read this passage, I thought of the many times that I have wanted to break down and cry when feelings, experiences or great pains somehow escape my ability to speak.  Now we know that these two people are true friends and brothers of the great Mystical Body.

Brendan does exactly what Christ would have done, and what we should emulate.  He picks his friend up off the floor, dusts him off, and asks him: “Father, why should we be sad during your visit?  Did you not come to encourage us? Rather should you give joy to the brothers.  Show us the word of God and nourish our souls with the varied wonders that you saw in the ocean.”[4]   

Barrind puts himself together and recounts the supernatural tale of his voyage to the island of the Promised Land of the Saints, where neither he nor his son, nor their other companions felt the need to eat or drink for weeks on end.  Barrind relates that although they had been in that holy place for 40 days, they felt as though they were each filled with new wine.  Barrind shares his spiritual ecstasy with Brendan, describing in detail the mysterious island that was lit by Christ himself. 

Brendan and his followers fell to the ground in prayer, just as Barrind had done, only this time he thanked God for this foretaste of the divine life.  At the end of this chapter, Brendan reminds everyone that it is the proper day for the washing of feet, Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, which they do in accordance with the new commandment, to love.

What do we gather from Barrind's story?  We are human and frail.  Do not be afraid to share your pain with those who love you.  Realize that the greatness of divinity and the smallness of humanity is often times too much to bear alone, and focus instead on the good that you can bring to others.  

Above all things, never forget the new commandment to love, and keep the feasts and liturgies as your agenda, so that your spiritual life rules all else.


[1] Francis J. Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2nd edition, 2001).
[2] 561 - In which the battle of Cúl Dreimne is what is to be recorded, and in which Ainmire, son of Sétna, and Ainnedid son of Fergus, and Domnall were victors. Diarmait, however, was put to flight; and on this day Cluain Ferta Brénainn was founded at the order of an angel. [AU 558, 560, 561, 564; AU 558]
[3] Dermot Nolan and Pat Ruane, St. Brendan’s Cathedral Heritage Plan, (Dublin: The Heritage Council, 2004), 15.
[4] John J. O’Meara (trans), The Voyage of Saint Brendan, (Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Ltd, 1991), 3.