So many of our great epics are quests and journeys. Joseph Campbell’s classic book The Hero With a Thousand Faces is famous for elucidating what has come to be known as The Hero’s Journey. The lure of unseen marvels draws us, or danger compels us. It’s almost as if Homer’s The Odyssey is written in our blood. Never forget: Odysseus longed for his home. If our seeking is fleeing from instead of moving toward, we will likewise have a strenuous journey beset with trials and labors.
Today is the Feast of St. Brendan the Navigator, a good day to remember his journeys, and all our journeys.
Lady Gregory of Ireland relates The Voyage of Brendan in this way:
“It is a monk going through hardship Blessed Brendan was, that was born in Ciarraige Luachra of a good father and mother. It was on Slieve Daidche beside the sea he was one time, and he saw in a vision a beautiful island with angels serving upon it. And an angel of God came to him in his sleep and said ‘I will be with you from this out through the length of your lifetime, and it is I will teach you to find that island you have seen and have a mind to come to.’ When Brendan heard those words from the angel he cried with the dint of joy, and gave great thanks to God, and he went back to the thousand brothers that were his people.”
Brendan saw many sights: sea monsters and fish, ghosts and the borders of hell, and possibly, I’d like to think, North America—long before the Vikings settled in Vinland, or Newfoundland, Canada. In 1976, Irish explorer Tim Severin built an ox-leather curragh, an early Irish boat, and sailed from Ireland to Canada to demonstrate that St. Brendan’s voyage was possible. The lack of archaeological evidence does not disprove St. Brendan’s voyage. The proof of the Vikings in L’Anse aux Meadows was not discovered until 1960, after all.
A sea voyage is fraught with danger worse than any cross-country travel. Every moment on a fragile Irish canoe is one wind gust away from drowning. St. Brendan prayed, “O Christ, wilt Thou help me on the wild waves?” The Children’s Defense Fund promotes a poem-prayer I’ve taken to my own heart (and slightly edited): “Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide and I am so small.”
Lady Wilde continues her narration:
“And then he [St. Brendan] led them to the great fish and it was upon his back they said their Matins and their Mass. And when the Mass was ended the fish began to move and he swam out very far into the sea and there was great terror on the brothers when he did that and they being on his back, for it was a great wonder to see a beast that was the size of a whole country going so fast through the seas.”
I crave routine; I’m flustered by disruption. I downright despise change. Like those monks, the upheavals in my life fill me with terror. I find security—false security—in stability of place. St. Brendan reminds me that God is with us everywhere, even in the unmapped, unknown ocean; even on a shifting island that is revealed to be the back of a sea monster. Even in our wild untrammeled lives. Unlike St. Brendan, I generally forget to give thanks for my sea monsters and obstacles.
Finally, like Odysseus, like Campbell’s Hero, St. Brendan returns:
“And they sailed home in their ship to Ireland and it is glad the brothers they had left after them were to see them come home out of such great dangers. And as to Brendan he was from that time as if he did not belong to this world at all, but his mind and his joy were in the delight of heaven. And it is in Ireland he died and was buried; and that God may bring us to the same joy his blessed soul returned to!”
Life is our journey; may God be our goal. If we remember God in all things, and in all places, we will never be homeless. May we face our upheavals with thanksgiving. May we be heroes and heroines helping the people we meet along our voyages.
Lady Gregory Augusta. “The Voyage of Brendan.” A Book of Saints and Wonders According to the Old Writings and the Memory of the People of Ireland. Web. Scanned by Phillip Brown, April 2004. Additional proofing and HTML formatting by John Bruno Hare at sacred-texts.com. This text is in the public domain. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this notice of attribution is left intact. Web.
Korz, Fr. Geoffrey. “St. Brendan’s Journey and Immigration.” Orthodox Canada: A Journal of Orthodox Christianity. V. 2 n. 3. Dormition [August] 2007. Web.
Severin, Tim. The Brendan Voyage: Sailing to America in a Leather Boat to Prove the Legend of the Irish Sailer Saint. Random House, 2010.
When Finn Mac Cumhal was a young man, he studied with the bard Finegas, ate the Salmon of Wisdom, and learned the ancient art of poetry. Before he left Finegas, he composed this poem to prove his skill:
May Day! delightful day!
Bright colours play the vales along. Now wakes at morning’s slender ray,
Wild and gay, the blackbird’s song.
Now comes the bird of dusty hue,
The loud cuckoo, the summer-lover; Branching trees are thick with leaves;
The bitter, evil time is over.Swift horses gather nigh
Where half dry the river goes; Tufted heather crowns the height;
Weak and white the bogdown blows.
Corncrake sings from eve till morn,
Deep in corn, a strenuous bard! Sings the virgin waterfall,
White and tall, her one sweet word.Loaded bees of little power
Goodly flower-harvest win; Cattle roam with muddy flanks;
Busy ants go out and in.
Through, the wild harp of the wood
Making music roars the gale—Now it slumbers without motion,
On the ocean sleeps the sail.Men grow mighty in the May,
Proud and gay the maidens grow; Fair is every wooded height;
Fair and bright the plain below.A bright shaft has smit the streams,
With gold gleams the water-flag; Leaps the fish, and on the hills
Ardour thrills the flying stag.
Carols loud the lark on high,
Small and shy, his tireless lay, Singing in wildest, merriest mood
Of delicate-hued, delightful May.
9th Century Poem.
“The Boyhood of Finn Mac Cumhal” [chapter 9]. Rollston, T.W. The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland. 1910. WEB. Public Domain through Project Gutenberg.
See also Dr Kuno Meyer’s prose translation in Ériu (the Journal of the School of Irish Learning), Vol. I. Part II.
Early on the day of Easter Monday
I saw on the brine
A duck and a white swan
From the Scottish oral tradition; from the Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland collected by Alexander Carmichael in the late 19th Century.
Today is Easter Monday for those in the Orthodox Christian faith.
The celebration of birthdays is common enough. But who among us celebrates our conception? We may presume that the custom never arose because, until recently, the exact day of conception was never quite known. In our modern era, I’ve had friends argue with their doctors about the date (or argue about their due date, which is based on presumed conception.). I’ve heard an expression, a common response to someone who proclaims ignorance or forgetfulness for their whereabouts or activities: “Were you with yourself when it happened?” Nonetheless, some doctors think they know more than the women who were there when the act occurred.
I live in Philadelphia, where our home team, the Philadelphia Eagles, overcame great odds to win the SuperBowl this past February. I fully expect the local news to run a report on or about October 29 about a spike in births they’ll describe as “SuperBowl Babies.” Other than that, only in literature is conception occasionally mentioned. The character Fenchurch in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series was so named by her parents, readers are told, because she was conceived in the Fenchurch Street railway station ticket line.
We mail (or email) birth announcements. The Annunciation holiday is unique in celebrating a conception announcement. Delivered by an archangel, no less.
Hail, Mary! hail, Mary!
Queen of grace, Mother of mercy;
Hail, Mary, in manner surpassing,
Fount of our health, source of our joy.
To thee we, night and day,
Erring children of Adam and Eve,
Lift our voice in supplication,
In groans and grief and tears.
Bestow upon us, thou Root of gladness,
Since thou art the cup of generous graces,
The faith of John, and Peter, and Paul,
With the wings of Ariel on the heights of the clouds.
Vouchsafe to us, thou golden branch,
A mansion in the Realm of peace,
Rest from the perils and stress of waves,
Beneath the shade of the fruit of thy womb, Jesu.
This poem comes to us from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish oral traditions transcribed by Alexander Carmicael in the late 19th Century. The opening line, from the Gospel of Luke, we’ve heard too many times to count; at first it seems like a lazy plagiarism of the classic prayer. The poem starts weakly. To desire health and joy is commonplace, if vague. Similarly, the second and third stanzas are mostly boilerplate folk-theology. Old Testament and saintly references overflow Carmichael’s collection. The third stanza grabs our attention with the appeal to Ariel. (Most of us–myself included–only know of Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; I had to research it.) This Ariel reference—a rare allusion for an Angel—suggests an intermingling of the oral tradition with the scholarly. How odd!
The fourth stanza holds all the charm. Abstractions are replaced with very real dangers. This is clearly one of Carmichael’s collections from the Scottish Isles. A coastal people would know the perils of waves. It’s almost as if the poet had finished spouting Sunday School platitudes and could finally get down to his darkest fears—the Atlantic Ocean or the North Sea.
This prayer to be kept safe from the “stress of waves” also calls to mind a Celtic prayer common in the middle ages: “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord deliver us.” Likewise, an anonymous poem from the 9th Century or so more ironically declares
“Bitter is the wind to-night
It tosses the ocean’s white hair:
To-night I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway
Coursing on the Irish Sea” (Kuno Meyer, “The Viking Terror” in Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry).
This respect and fear for the waves is the anguish voiced by John Millington Synge’s play Riders To The Sea. His 1904 one-act play centers upon an Aran Island mother who has lost six sons to drowning. And even our own Navy Hymn has lyrics echoing the very term “peril.” The Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father Strong To Save“) implores God to “hear us when we cry to Thee, / For those in peril on the sea.” Some things haven’t changed. The 2016 Census of Fatal Occupational Industries lists Fishing as the second most dangerous job in America. (Only logging is more dangerous.) It’s something to remember on our next seaside vacation.
The poem ends by returning to borrow from the classic Hail, Mary prayer. Jesus is recognized as the fruit of Mary’s womb. The poet seizes the metaphor and runs with it. If Jesus is her fruit, he is also the tree—unexpected synecdoche—and Mary is his golden bough. What the poet wants most is to be in the shade of Jesus, to be cooled and refreshed by His shadow.
The Annunciation is a Marian feast that really celebrates Jesus.
For fun, I’ve back-dated a due-date calendar to estimate the date of my conception. But I think I’ll stick with celebrating my birthday. We mortals can celebrate birthdays. Otherwise, let’s remember the conception of God.
An Irish culture site I follow posted an infographic with a PSA to avoid confusing the Shamrock with a Four-Leaf Clover.
The same day I was reacquainting myself with faerie folklore and was reminded that the four-leaf clover offers protection against the fey.
I agree that theologically, we would do well to avoid confusing them. But culturally? As a symbol of Ireland? What could be more Irish than the fey? I’ll take all the protections against Themselves that I can get.
The Druids and ancient Irish were already a fan of triads and the number three before St. Patrick started preaching. According to legend, he explained the Trinity by holding up a small trefoil plant. St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a Lorica [protection] prayer attributed to him, begins by invoking the Trinity: “. . . believing in threeness, confessing the oneness of Creation’s Creator . . .” In many pictures and icons of St. Patrick, he is holding a shamrock.
Technically, a shamrock is merely a small or young clover plant. The term comes from the Irish, seamróg, and even readers with as little Irish as I have may recognize óg as meaning young as in the expression Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth, more commonly known as Faerie. Fans of the movie The Quiet Man may also remember the character Michaeleen’Og, or little, young Michael; Michael Jr. (The character is an older man in the movie, but we may presume his father was also named Michael.) Seamair is Irish for clover. Seam + og = seamróg, shamrock.
Botanical descriptions may or may not shed light. The librarian in me wants to stick to the generally authoritative Encylopedia Britannica, although I wonder if it is reputable when speaking on matters pertaining to Éire. Clover (trifolium) apparently has round leaves. Wood sorrel (oxalis) has the distinctive heart-shape leaves we associate with the Irish shamrock. Britannica calls them both—and others—shamrocks.
Wood sorrel, by the way, is edible. In the 16th century, English writers Edmund Spencer and Edmund Campion reported that the Irish were eating “shamrocks.” Wood sorrel tastes sour and is rich in Vitamin C., and can be used as a salad, tea, or herbal medicine to treat fever and other ailments.
Whatever its species, the three-leafed shamrock representing the Trinity is the one best associated with St. Patrick.
But let’s not rule out four-leaf clovers.
I’ll stubbornly argue that four-leaf clovers may also be considered somewhat Irish because the Irish are considered lucky, and four-leaf clovers are rare; to find one is to be lucky. (And if “everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” as the expression goes, then we can consider the four-leafed clover Irish on March 17 too.) Or perhaps, more to the point, one is lucky to escape an enchantment by faeries. Robert Hunt recorded in his 1865 Popular Romances of the West of England the story of a dairy cow befriended by faeries, and the milkmaid who came to see them one day by draping herself in a pile of grass in which a four-leaf clover was intermixed. A similar tale is told by Michael Aislabie Denham in his 1859 Denham Tracts, a Yorkshire folklore pamphlet. According to folklorist Katharine Briggs, four-leaf clovers dispel faerie glamour and break enchantments, which is why the above-mentioned milkmaid could see Themselves that day. An ointment made of four-leaf clovers will enable mortals to see the Good Neighbors – and keep one from being beguiled by them. While there are a few fey folk like the leprechaun who may grant boons to mortals, all the same, I’d just as soon stay clear of them. I call that very lucky indeed.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
|Resources, References, and Further Reading|
Briggs, Katharine. An Encylopedia of Faeries, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, And Other Supernatural Creatures. N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1976. Print.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Shamrock.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. July 20, 1998. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.
MacConnell, Cormac. “Everything You Know About the St. Patrick’s Day Shamrock Is a Lie.” Irish Central. March 16, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.
“Shamrock.” No author. Wikipedia. March 16, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.
“Wood Sorrel.” No author. Wild Edible. 2010-2018. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.
Walking to the bus stop after work last night, I saw my first Spring flower
and wrote a poem.
A yellow crocus cannot lie.
After burrowing all winter,
(breathing beside bears)
she yawns and stretches.
She pokes her pert green nose
past the crumbling den of Hades’ habitation.
Spring is near