Feast Day: May 16
The following story appeared in the May 12 Idaho Catholic Register.
By Emily Woodham
The stories of Saint Brendan the Navigator of Ireland have captured imaginations for more than 1,400 years. His courage, adventurous spirit and integrity have inspired generations to abandon their fears, live life to the full and be their authentic selves. Although he did great things, his motivation came from a humble desire to simply share the love and vibrant life he experienced in Christ and the Church.
Brendan was born around 484 A.D. in a village on the coast of Tralee Bay on the southwest coast of Ireland. He was baptized by St. Erc, the local bishop. When he was 1, his parents gave him to Bishop Erc so that he could be raised in the Religious life. Erc then entrusted Brendan for five years to St. Ita, a nun whose convent ran a kind of preschool for young boys.
When Brendan was 6, Erc moved him to a community of monks for the remainder of his education. However, throughout his life, Brendan would visit Ita, especially to seek her advice and blessings before he left on pilgrimages. Stories say he asked her what God loved best, and she answered: “True faith in God and a pure heart, a simple life with a religious spirit and open hands inspired by charity.” She then said that God hates a scowling face, obstinacy in wrongdoing, and too much confidence in the power of money.
When he was 18, Brendan travelled around Ireland to learn from different teachers. He eventually went to Clonard Abbey and studied under St. Finnian. (Many of Finnian’s pupils, including Brendan, became known as the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland.”)
When he was 26, he was ordained a priest by Bishop Erc. Brendan then established a monastery in Ardfert. As demand for Brendan’s spiritual guidance grew, he established more monasteries in the surrounding areas.
In 530 – or later, depending on the source – Brendan met a monk who said he came from the “Isle of the Blessed.” Brendan was immediately curious and wanted to visit this land of “paradise and the saints.” However, he knew he needed to take time to pray and discern. After praying and fasting for 40 days, Brendan decided he was called to make a voyage to the Isle. He chose 14 monks (some sources say 60 monks; others, more than 100) to go with him.
Brendan and the Brothers built a 36-foot “curragh,” an Irish wood-framed boat that is covered in hides. They first went to Inishmore on the Isle of Arran to get a blessing from a revered abbot. The legends then describe Brendan and the Brothers stopping at mystical islands as they search for the Isle of the Blessed.
Some scholars believe the stories describe real places. What Brendan calls
“Paradise of the Birds” is believed to be the Faroe Islands. A land in which demon blacksmiths throw up fire and burning rocks is thought to be Iceland. The land surrounded by pillars of floating crystal is thought to be Greenland. Then the green, lush land with plenty to eat is believed to be Newfoundland.
These stories are the most debated aspect of Brendan’s life, and a source of research for both secular and religious scholars. They are believed to have been handed down orally and then written in the late eighth century as the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (“Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot”). (The only surviving complete copy is from the ninth century.) Some consider the legends to be a part of the Celt literary genre called immram, which is a form of Christian epic, which involves a hero and his journey that is allegorical to the spiritual life.
Those in favor of the theory that Brendan and his monks reached America almost 500 years before the Vikings point out that Viking literature mentions seeing the Irish on their journeys to the New World. Also, some scholars say the descriptions of the vegetation and wildlife where the Brothers visited is too accurate to have been made up. Most recently, archeologists found evidence of a sixth century Irish settlement on the Faroe Islands, which would have been 300 years before the Vikings reached the islands.
Enthusiasts also point out that an adventurer in the 1970s made a curragh and completed the voyage of St. Brendan safely, from Ireland to Newfoundland, using only sixth century technology. Although this is not proof that Brendan and his monks made the voyage, it proved that it could be done.
Those in favor of the stories being strictly allegorical point out the lessons within the legends of the value of detachment; choosing virtue, especially when one does not know what to do; and trusting God. Brendan also continues to faithfully follow the liturgical life of the Church throughout the stories, making time to fast, pray and celebrate Mass no matter where he is.
According to the legends, Brendan’s voyage lasted seven years. Some interpret the stories to say that he went as far as the Canary Islands. He returned home to Ireland after he was instructed in a dream to end his voyage.
When Brendan returned, he founded the monastery at Clonfert. He then travelled throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany to evangelize and establish monasteries. When he went to Iona, he met St. Columba.
In the last years of his life, he built a monastery at Annaghdown in Ireland. He also built a convent there for his sister, St. Briga. Before his death, he arranged to have his body secretly taken back to Clonfert for his burial. He died on May 16, 577.
Commentators point out that even if he did not travel to North America, it is historical fact that he travelled extensively, especially for his time. They also note that although he was daring, he was not a rogue or “lone wolf.” He treasured friends, community and the teachings and liturgy of the Church. He also considered prayer and communion with God to be the most important thing he did each day.
He is the patron saint of sailors, travelers and the United States Navy. Unofficially, he is considered a patron saint for those who are afraid.
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