Immram as Spiritual Practice

There is a genre of Irish literature known as Immram which are tales of adventures into the wild ocean usually in search of a mystical paradise said to be west of the setting sun. This literary genre includes both pagan and Christian stories. One of the most famous of the pagan tales is The Voyage of Brân and perhaps the most famous of the Christian ones is The Voyage of St Brendan. 

These tales tell of heroic adventures into the wild, usually at great risk to the voyager, in search of Tir na nog (the land of youth) like in the story of Oisin or The Promised Land of the Saints in the story of Brendan. These stories are beautiful allegorical accounts of the spiritual journey, with its ebbs and tides, which the soul makes in search of what is sacred and divine. Perhaps these ancient Irish stories are part of the reason why the early Celtic Church was so fond of the ways of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, those Egyptian and Syrian monastics, who set out into the desert to find peace and goodness.

The Celts did not have deserts in the same sense but they did have the sea and rocky barren islands. Places like Skellig Michael, a nearly barren outcropping of rock 12 miles west of the Irish coast in the Atlantic ocean, became the desert for many of these early Irish seekers while some, like St Brendan, went on a pilgrimage which took them to many places without rest and some suggest even as far as Canada. I have no desert where I live either, but I do have lots of forest. In fact, I just today finished my own sort of imram seeking what is good and true in the wilderness.

In my early spiritual formation I spent quite a bit of time out in the bush with an Ojibwe elder who taught me the ways of the imram even though he never used that language. I have personally done this 6 times now and I have helped countless people to take this journey themselves. I do not say this to boast (Lord keep me far from the vice of vainglory) but rather to explain why I was able to undertake this journey on my own without another there with me. Please, do not try to do this for the first time on your own as this sort of thing must be carefully learned and safely practiced. One day I hope to be able to lead people out into the wilderness to make their own imram.

Here is a picture of my cell (can I call a hammock a cell?) which I stayed in during this journey.

Like St Brendan, I chose to fast for 3 days and 3 nights. I did what was known in the Celtic tradition as a black fast, which means taking nothing into the body – neither food nor drink. Ascetic practice was essential to the early Celtic Christians and the sacred text which records the story of Brendan includes many details of the practices they had. However, it was not just Brendan who fasted. All the texts show that fasting was an essential part of what it meant to be a Celtic Christian.

This quote from the rule of Ciaran talks about the importance of self discipline, won through ascetic practices, not only for the individual but also for the community and indeed the whole of humanity.

“A man suffers for the sake of Mary’s Son and this brings with it no lack of esteem. Heaven is the reward of the person who, for the sake of all people, disciplines his own heart.”

Not only does this identify ritual suffering with the search for Heaven (the whole purpose of the imram) but it also speaks of the wider community and how one disciplines their own heart for the sake of all people. In the way I was taught, we were always told that we “suffer for the people.”

I think this suffering for the people happens in many ways. Firstly, the spiritual healing in the individual who tames their desires through fasting overflows to the people around them. By developing self restraint and control of our passions, we are better able to forgive and love our neighbours and fasting is perhaps the best teacher of self restraint.

Secondly, we suffer for the people as an act of solidarity. This is well expressed in the Homily of Cambrai which is a fragment of Irish theology that survived miraculously in the texts of monks on the continent. It says

“We carry the cross of Christ in two ways, both when we mortify the body through fasting, and when, out of compassion for him, we regard the needs of our neighbour as our own.”

After explaining how Paul teaches to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” in Romans 12, the homily goes on to say:

That is no mere observation; the apostle said so from the greatness of the love he bore all, that everyone’s illness was an illness to him. An offense to anyone was like a personal offense to the Apostle, and everyone’s weakness was his affliction. It likewise becomes us that we, each and all, suffer with all others in their difficulties, in their poverty, and in their weakness.”

Before I went out on my imram this weekend I asked people in The Virtual Chapel if I could carry their prayers with me. As I suffered fasting in my cell I took up the cross of the people and channeled my struggle into my prayer for their struggles. I suffered in solidarity with their suffering and I prayed to God for the sake of the people. To those of you who allowed me the honour to suffer alongside you, thank you.

I copy and pasted all the prayer requests people had made into a Google doc which I printed and brought with me. Once each day I used the Taize chant “O Lord Hear My Prayer”  for a while until I felt my spirit settle and connect to the divine (of course I forgot to bring my prayer rope lol). Then I read out each prayer as it was written and ended each one by saying “O Lord hear this prayer.” On the last day I burned the pages with some birch bark and released them into nature. Here’s a link for the chant I used in case you’re curious.

I also spent some of my time doing lectio divina or sacred reading. I  read the psalms and the gospel of Mark. I chose to read Mark because in the rule of Tallaght the gospels were read aloud during meals one for each quarter of the year starting with Matthew in the spring. I am going to start making a point of following that pattern of reading one gospel each cross quarter.

I read the psalms because in all the monastic rules and in the story of Brendan’s voyage reciting the psalms was a central part of their spiritual practice. The Celtic love of poetry meant that they were very fond of the psalms in particular. The psalms also include lots of lamentation, which felt appropriate for a journey of suffering for the people.

On the morning of the 4th day (I did 3 days and 3 nights) I broke my fast sitting on the earth facing the rising sun and sharing communion with the trees who had accompanied me on my journey. I brought crackers because I was worried bread would go moldy in my bag before it was time. This was my first time breaking my fast this way and I have now learned a very important lesson which is that grape juice will be preferable to wine after 3 days of an empty stomach.

While I did not find the Promised Land of the Saints like Brendan eventually did, I did bring back with me a renewed spirit and a great sense of peace. The last night I woke up to the full moon filling the forest with her pale and beautiful light and I got out of my hammock to simply admire the beauty of creation and allow it to penetrate my being. It was a simple but profound moment.

In my experience with fasting like this the days follow the pattern of mind, body, spirit. The first day is all about the head. What I should be doing and what is going on in the outside world. The second day is about the body when the pains of hunger and thirst come. But the third day those concerns seem to fade away and there is a clarity in which insight comes and prayer is powerful. Perhaps this third day of the spirit is actually the Promised Land of the Saints whose shores we can visit but where we can never remain. Brendan did reach the shores he sought but only stayed a little while before returning home and telling his story. Now I am home and telling you my story.


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4 thoughts on “Immram as Spiritual Practice

  1. Wonderful. Thanks for sharing. Some Celtic Writer (can’t remember who) described a celtic practice of doing a pilgrimage by getting into a rudderless boat and declaring where the tides take you as the place you are meant to be, As I read your words, I was wondering if maybe the Imram is related to that tradition.

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