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)

23 February 2015

The Waters of Forgetfulness

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 13.

The Waters of Forgetfulness

This is the dwelling of noiseless repose, except that a trickling stream of water from the River Lethe, down at the cave’s very bottom, babbles along and induces sleep with the tinkle of pebbles.   In front of the cavern’s mouth luxuriant poppies are blooming, with numberless herbs from whose juices sleep is distilled by the dewy night and sprinkled over the darkened lands of the earth. – Ovid, Metamorphoses, 11. 602

Once the high holidays of Christmas and Epiphany had ended, St. Brendan and his brethren set sail once again, but this time they headed directly northwest and far out to sea.  They journeyed many days in the harsh winter winds of the North Atlantic, until they ran out of provisions for three whole days at the beginning of Lent. 

When the sun rose after the third hungry morning, the brothers sighted an island and pulled their sea-battered currach up to a landing near a clear well.  The inlet was brimming with fish, and around the well were various plants and roots which were good for eating.  After they had gathered their meal and gave the blessing, Brendan warned them mysteriously: “Brothers, take care that you do not use too much of these waters, lest they lie heavily upon your bodies.”  

For each cup that the brothers drank, they would sleep an equal number of days, and as a consequence, left behind all thoughts of the voyage, their prayers and vigils.  But what was this magical water? We know that Brendan was a man of education for his time, that he was the son of a noble family and instructed by Saint Ita, and at St. Jarlath’s Monastery.[1]  From his education we can speculate that the good abbot spoke and wrote Latin, and that he likely read Classical myths and history in addition to scriptures and hagiographies. 

For those who have read Ovid, the idea of soporific water––that is to say, water which induces sleep and forgetfulness––is not an entirely original one to the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis.  In ancient Greco-Roman myths, the underworld had the River Lethe, a personification of forgetfulness.[2] The powerful imagery of human frailty and forgetfulness is nonetheless vital to any honest spiritual quest.  Mindfulness is so very difficult to cultivate in our daily lives.  The moment we think we have it mastered, we drink three cups from the waters of Lethe and find ourselves in the darkness once again, scraping our way towards the light that shines outside Plato’s cave.   This phenomenon is less of a pilgrim's progress and more of a cyclical calendar.  Here it seems Brendan and his chroniclers were using the liturgical year to show how it can be used to improve the frustrating cycle of our forgetfulness.  We can always hope that with each Christmas and Easter, we forget a little less.

After seeing the perils that his brethren faced in their mindlessness, the holy navigator urged them to board their leather boat and escape the blandishments of oblivion.  We must all be wary of giving up or giving in to the darkness of materialism and spiritual defeatism.  No matter how battered and weary the vessel of our life might be, we must never surrender our conscious determination to see the island of the Promised Land of the Saints.


(Above imageLa Fontaine de l’Inspiration, Constant Montald, Belgian, 1862-1944)

[1] See St. Brendan’s biography at the Diocese of Kerry.
[2] Lethe, the stream of oblivion, was one of the rivers of the underworld and its goddess. The others were the Styx, Akheron, Pyriphlegethon and Kokytos.

20 February 2015

The Community of Ailbe

The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Part 12.

The Community of Ailbe

At this point in their voyage, the good monks of Clonfert and their beloved abbot Brendan started a spiritual journey that began to touch off from the physical world. They sailed the high seas, eating only every third day, seeing only the grey and blue Atlantic beneath their boat, and the expanse of the sky overhead.  This in itself must have been a kind of spiritual practice, which tested the brothers’ endurance and doubtless changed the way they experienced the world. 

After three months at sea, St. Brendan’s party caught a glimpse of a friendly looking island–at long last a place of rest and nourishment. But before rushing to allow his men to drink from the island’s springs, Brendan admonished them to wait until they encountered the island’s inhabitants, and got their blessing.

This was the monastery island of a community founded by St. Ailbe, also known as St. Elvis (Above photo of the location of one of Ailbe's communities in Pembrokeshire, Wales). There are many legends about Ailbe, one of which made him a disciple of St. Patrick, and another a Welsh bishop. It is entirely possible that he was indeed both, but it is even likelier that there was more than one holy father by that name. Nevertheless, Ailbe is recorded as being a sixth century bishop, abbot and founder of many monastic and diocesan communities in Ireland, Wales and on smaller islands.   
According to the annals of the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, Ailbe secured the donation of a group of small islands for monastic use, including the isle of St. Enda.[1] 

As St. Brendan’s monks entered the monastery, the members of the community gave their guests the kiss of peace, washed their feet and chanted the antiphon Mandatum Novum (A New Commandment).  Still other priests of Ailbe met Brendan with holy relics, candles and crosses. Through the whitest clouds of frankincense, Brendan’s brothers saw that this community was truly extraordinary in its immense silence.  The monk-priests did not toil to eat, but enjoyed miraculous loaves of bread and jugs of wine which appeared every day, with a double portion on Sundays and high feasts. Each of the 24 fathers who dwelt on this prayerful island lived in total simplicity and in silence, but they were able to communicate perfectly without uttering a word.  It was as if their hearts were uniting their thoughts, and their communion with the Beloved at once sustained this metaphysical communication and somehow joined their bodies in the same incorporeal light that fueled their candles.

The high altar of the monastery was made of crystal, as were the patens, chalices and other serving dishes.  This crystal allowed for a symbiotic union of the 24 priests, so that they could experience the incorporeal light as one, sacred community––a literal temple of living stones. The living power of the Divine which coursed through the veins, air, water and earth of this island left no one older than the day they arrived.  

Upon seeing such visions of beauty and harmony, even Brendan was astounded.  Noticing that none of the local brothers took care of the candles in the monastery, Brendan asked the abbot how it was possible that the candles continued to be lit.  The abbot of Ailbe responded: “Have you not read of the bush burning at Mount Sinai? Yet that bush was unaffected by the fire.”  

Brendan pondered this great mystery in an all night vigil, and then asked the abbot for his blessing that the monks of Clonfert continue their voyage.  But the abbot of Ailbe reminded Brendan that he was to spend Christmas and the octave of the Epiphany in the community of Ailbe, which he did.

On this island we can see the divine light acting as a bond between the 24 priests, their sanctuary and their guests.  We can look at this illumination as that very same thing which brings us together in love and compassion, here and now.  Those who are closest to our practice must also be closest to the light of our love, and in this way there is a kind of communication which transcends the corporeal, and becomes a symbiotic harmony of light.  We can be that unaffected bush which burned so brightly in the eyes of Moses and in St. Ailbe’s inextinguishable tapers. 

We can experience the kingdom of light which has but one law; the new commandment to love. 


[1] The Acts of St. Ailbe may be found in the Codex Salmanticensis, edited in 1588 by the Bollandists under the title of Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae.