Seas, Storms, and Thankfulness

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.

Mural of St. Brendan in Tralee, Ireland. This mural was formerly on the Benners Hotel in Tralee, but was lost when the building was redeveloped. courtesy of http://www.geograph.ie/photo/4369180

 

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.

 

Tarring a Curragh, Inisheer, Aran Islands, photo by Harold Strong, 1962.  copyright Harold Strong for use under Creative Commons License.

A reconstruction of a 1st Century AD British Curragh, made of wicker work and covered with 3 cow hides; capable of carrying 10 people. It was on display at the “Heritage Village” area of the Bedford River Festival. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

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.”

Woodcut, 15th Century? A scene from Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis where the saint celebrates a mass on the body of a sea monster. Public domain. via Wikimedia Commons

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.

 

Sources

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.

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The Truth Behind True Thomas

 

               “True Thomas lay o’er yond grassy bank. . .”

“Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Faerie,” 1852, from The British Museum.

Thomas of Erceldoune was a 13th Century Scottish laird who, so the story goes—popularized by professor F.J. Child in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads—one day met the Fairie Queen, was captivated by her beauty, and consented to accompany her to the Fair Lands—to Faerie. (The Faerie Queen was not exactly forthcoming about her destination him at first, but what else would you expect from Themselves?) She gives him a geas, a prohibition against speaking, and he serves her for seven years. And before being returned to the mortal realm, she gifts him with the power of True Speech. Ever after, he can only speak the truth.

By Katharine Cameron (1874–1965) – MacGregor, Mary; Cameron, Katharine (1874–1965), illus. (1908) Stories from the Ballads Told to the Children (Project Gutenberg), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8720495

The presence of the Faerie Queen would lead the average person to conclude that this tale is fiction, pure fabrication.  Not so fast. So many old tales have their origins in truth . . .

 

Thomas Learmonth of Erceldoune was a real historical person. He lived in Ercildoune, a town now called Earlston, halfway between Edinbourgh and the border of England. Documents from 1294 prove he existed; he is listed as “Thome Rymour de Ercildoun.” Still standing today, although in ruins, is Rhymer’s Tower, his supposed home, (possibly a later building constructed on his land).

“Rhymer’s Tower, Earlston” by Hector MacQueen, 2010. CC2.     https://www.flickr.com/photos/hectormacq/4414896196/in/album-72157623449249579/

 

The Faerie Queen’s gift of True Speech brings to mind school tales of George Washington’s mythical “I cannot tell a lie.” Delving deeper into Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border reveals that Thomas’ truth is equated with prophetic vision. He is said to have predicted the death of King Alexander III, the Battle of Bannockburn, and the union of the English and Scottish crowns—this last did not occur until  1603.

 

I’ve written previously about Thomas the Rhymer and the Christian symbolism in this tale, and the intersections of history and folklore equally fascinate me.

 

I’m pleased to report that my short story “True Thomas” has been reprinted in Fae Wings and Hidden Things, an anthology about faeries.

 

 

Further Reading

F.J. Child’s ballad #37 “Thomas Rymer”

Look at this! There’s a Friends of Thomas the Rhymer local history group in Earlston!

The Legend of Thomas The Rhymer and the Queen of the Fairies

Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border

“Thomas Learmonth of Ercildoune” from Scottish Literary Locations.

St. Genevieve Defeats Attila

“St. Genevieve, St. Genevieve,
It’s Guenevere!
Remember me?
St. Genevieve, St. Genevieve,
I’m over here
Beneath this tree. . . .”

            For over thirty years, all I’ve known about St. Genevieve is that she was referenced in a song from the Broadway musical Camelot.  I was in Middle School, channel surfing, and one of the pay channels, probably HBO, featured a filmed version of the stage play on repeat all month. The first few times I’d bypassed it with a teenager’s disdain of musicals, but later I must have caught a scene with knights and decided it was cool.  Borrowed the album—yes, yinyl­­—from the public library. Learned all the songs. Never once wondered who St. Genevieve was.

In November 2015, St. Genevieve was all over my Facebook feed in the wake of the terrorism attacks in Paris; my religious friends prayed she would heal and protect her city. I still didn’t give her much thought.

            This is what I’ve learned recently:

St. Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris. She was born ~422 in Nanterre, a region a short distance outside of Paris. As a child she was blessed by a bishop, reportedly St. Germain of Auxerre who was traveling to Britain to refute the Pelagians; he encouraged Genevieve to pursue piety and a life dedicated to God. As a nun in Paris, St. Symeon the Stylite corresponded with her.  She was known for her teachings, for her charity and fasting, and for working miracles. Long after her death, in 1129, an outbreak of the Plague in Paris stopped after a procession was made in her honor.

St. Geneviève watching over the sleeping city of Paris / Sainte Geneviève veillant sur Paris endormi; Painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, French, ~1824-1898

I certainly don’t hold negligent my public school education for failing to mention her; I understand the importance of teaching history without indoctrination.  In 7th Grade we learned that such a thing called the Byzantine Empire existed—barely—and were remotely introduced to the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne (although what exactly they did or why they were important wasn’t stressed.) We learned that generic “barbarians” sacked Rome. (What more detail do you need to offer pre-teens, practically barbarians themselves?) Somewhere along the way, outside of my history classes, I learned about history’s great baddies: Attilla the Hun, Vlad the Impaler, Genghis Khan. (A Listverse article ranks Attila as #2 and Genghis as #1 worst all-time ancient history villains.)

Medieval painting of Huns attacking a city.

So back in 451, Attila “the Scourge of God,” unable to conquer the thick walls of Constantinople, turns to the Western Roman Empire instead. (Sidenote: Emperor Theodosius II built his double walls of Constantinople specifically to keep out Attila—although first he paid Attila tribute.) Attila crosses then-Gaul, closes in on Paris, and St. Genevieve starts to pray.

Map courtesy of Wikipedia

In one version, St. Genevieve criticizes the cowardly men of Paris who had wanted to flee, and emboldens them to stay and fight. In another, she and her nun sisters pray and fast. Perhaps a little of both are true. Either way, Attila and his armies turn away. In June 451, Attila is defeated—the one defeat of his career—at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, somewhere in Gaul. (Wikipedia tells us that the Catalaunian Plains are near Champagne-Ardenne in the northeastern part of present-day France.)

The Epistle of James says that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), a verse I’ve long believed, even when I didn’t understand it or know what righteousness is. This much I know:

St. Genevieve the unknown-to-me defeated Attila-the-effing-Hun!, the #2 villain and conqueror of the ancient world, and I was robbed of the inspiration of her example by an anti-hagiography Protestant upbringing.

Dearest well-meaning Protestants, sweet brothers and sisters, do you even know the legacy you’ve jettisoned?

“One [he] can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” — St. Cyprian of Carthage.

 

Evie Peoples at Giant’s Causeway, No. Ireland. Photo by Anna Love via Facebook. The Giant’s Causeway is one of my favorite places in the world. I didn’t know Evie personally, but this is how I would like to remember her.

This article is offered in remembrance of Evie Peoples, ~1997-2017. Memory Eternal. Rest in Peace.  

            St. Genevieve of Paris, pray for us, and for all who bear your name.

 

St. Genevieve; Painting ~1500-1599; from the Carnavalet Museum in the Netherlands

Resources / Further Reading

8 Things You Might Not Know About Attila the Hun from the History Channel /History.com

Attila the Hun from Ancient History Encyclopedia

Attila the Hun from Biography.com

Genevieve of Paris from Orthodox Wiki

St. Genevieve from The Catholic Encyclopedia

Venerable Genevieve of Paris from The Orthodox Church in America

 

 

 

Seeing Rightly: In Search of the Little Prince [Book Review]

I finally made time to read In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and I’m glad I did. This picture book biography tells the life of Saint-Exupéry and his never-flagging passion for flying.  It also reveals some of the real-life inspiration for his beloved The Little Prince.

Tonio, as his family called him, delivered mail by plane in Morocco and Northern Africa, and it was on one of those stopovers that he tamed a desert fox.  He loved poetry at a young age and preferred flying to any other job. He called himself “a farmer of the stars.”

The flat, almost one-dimensional watercolor (?) illustrations were not to my personal liking, but delightful photographs of Saint-Exupéry line the front endpapers.

Antoine and his siblings, 1907. Antoine is second from right.

 

Antoine in France, 1921

The best part of the book was this quotation:

 

It’s a short read, intended for children, and the child in everyone will appreciate this book.

 Illustrated by the author.

 

Landmann, Bimba.  In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Books For Young Readers, 2014. Print.