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.