Brendan the Navigator

One of my favourite stories of the Celtic saints is that of Brendan the Navigator. The story is part of a literary genre known as immram. This summer I spent some time fasting in the wilderness and I rooted my little time of ritual and prayer in the concept of immram, and in the story of Brendan in particular. You can read about my experience in an article I wrote, Immram as Spiritual Practice. An immram is a journey into the ocean in search of a holy island. It predates Christianity as a literary form and there are both Christian and pagan stories told by the Celtic people which follow this pattern.

In the Voyage of Brendan the Promised Land of the Saints is described in wonderfully paradoxical terms. It is at once described as “that land which God will give us and our successors on the last day,” (which sounds very much like the new Eden which comes at the end of days) and yet is also described as an island which currently exists and which can be reached by boat. Brendan heard about the island from a fellow monk who had been there himself and who inspired Brendan to take the journey. The monk’s name was Barthinus and he told Brendan about his visit to the holy island that looks like Eden. While he was there he came across a large river which he could not cross and there he met a young man who said to him and his travelling companions,

“Be of good heart, my brothers. The Lord has shown this land to you, which shall be given to his holy ones. This river divides the island in two. You may not cross to the other side. Go back therefore to the place from which you have come.”

When Barthinus asked the man who he was and where he came from the man refused to answer,

“Why do you ask me where I come from and what my name is? Why do you not ask me about this island? It has remained unchanged just as you see it now since the beginning of the world. Do you need any food, drink, or clothing? You have been here a whole year already without having anything to eat or drink. You have never felt drowsy, nor has night fallen. For day is never-ending here, and there is no obscuring dark. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself is the light.”

The emphasis on not needing clothing reminds one of the garden of Eden. The fact that this hidden island of Eden is said to be untouched and unspoiled since the beginning of the world implies that it is the literal garden of Eden itself. How is this both a physical place and also a future promise? How can this search for Eden take place off the western shores of Ireland when the bible tells stories of the middle east? We have in the story of Brendan a clear remembering of pre-Christian myth mingled freely with the new Christian stories and teachings. We also have a story which illustrates through metaphor the spiritual journey home to God, a return to the untainted peace of God from which we come and to which we must one day return.

Brendan decided to find this holy island by getting into his little boat and letting the elements of nature guide him. He did not have a map or a compass or even know where the island was. His journey was one of faith and faith alone. His boat went where the waves and wind took it and he trusted that God would guide the forces of nature to take him where he needed to go.

We don’t have the space here to look at all the places Brendan and his twelve companions visited in their search for this holy island, this new Eden, but I would like to highlight a couple of my favourite things. Firstly, the story shows a journey through the natural world to a destination in the natural world and they regularly receive guidance and support from the natural world as well. They are protected from sea monsters by other sea monsters. They are miraculously fed by the wildlife of the islands which they visit. Brendan even has a full on conversation with a flock of birds who tell him about the future and give him advice he needs to complete his journey.

On one of the islands where they landed Brendan saw a tree so covered in white birds that he couldn’t even see the branches or the leaves. He knew it was a sign from God and fell prostrate in the dirt asking God to reveal the meaning of the mystery before his eyes. 

“When he had said this to himself and had sat down again, one of the birds, its wings sounding like the chiming of a handbell, flew down from the tree to the boat where the man of God was sitting. It settled on the tip of the prow, stretched out its wings, as if making a sign of joy, and gazed peacefully upon the holy father.”

The bird spoke to him with a message from God about Brendan’s journey and where it would take him. So far they had been travelling for one full year and the bird told him they would travel for six more years and then find the land they were searching for in the seventh year. They were to return to this same place each year on Easter to celebrate the mass with the birds. The bird also gave a cryptic explanation of how they were actually spirits of the air which had been caught as casualties during the fall of Satan from Heaven.

“We wander the different paths of the air, of heaven, and of earth, just like the other messengers of God. But on feast days and on Sundays we celebrate our creator here, singing his praises.”

These spiritual beings who had taken the form of birds then began to sing, as the hour of vespers had approached. They sang in beautiful anitphon the words from Psalm 64 “Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed.” They sang this way, beating their wings against their bodies like drums, for an hour while Brendan and his friends soaked in the beauty of their music. In fact, the birds did this at each of the hours of prayer throughout the whole of the Easter celebration. What an amazing Holy Week that must have been!

Each year at Easter they returned to this island to celebrate the mass and the liturgy of the hours in the company of these birds and as their journey went on they received more hints and important information from the birds about their journey.

One cannot discount the advice of unexpected messengers in the spiritual journey and neither should one discount the wisdom of the birds and the powerful effect of their song. As we make the journey to the Eden within our hearts we will at times find good spirits willing to show us the way we must go. Like Brendan, we should not fail to fall to our knees and listen to the wisdom of creation. We need guides along the way.

One other part of their journey which I would like to talk about is their encounter with Judas Iscariot. As they were out at sea they noticed a rock protruding from the water with a wretched looking man sitting on it. The waves were pounding against him and he had nowhere to go to escape them. They turned their little boat towards him to try and offer help.

As they approached the waves became a solid wall around the man so that they could not get right up to him. He told them that he was Judas, the one who had betrayed the Lord. The rock where he sat was not actually a torment for him but a place of refuge from the suffering he normally experienced in Hell. On Sundays he was allowed a respite from his torment where he could sit on his rock in the middle of the sea with the waves pounding against him.

He begged Brendan to speak to God on his behalf so that God might grant him a little more time than usual on his rock. Brendan obliged, promising him he could spend the night there. Some demons arrived to take Judas away at the usual time but Brendan cast them away in the name of Jesus. There was some arguing between Brendan and the demons but Brendan consistently defended Judas and never made a single mention of his sins and crimes while he was living in this world, not even of his betrayal of Jesus before the crucifixion. While Brendan was not able to save Judas from Hell, he did shield him as long as he could and showed mercy for his wretched state.

This story is one that shows the tenuous relationship of the early Celtic Christians with the doctrine of Hell. One cannot deny that the early Celtic church had an emphasis on Hell and the avoidance thereof, but they also seemed to struggle with the doctrine a little. Maybe it is my own modern bias which forbids me from believing that anyone is tortured for eternity by a loving God that makes me see the stories that way, but I see it nonetheless. Either way, an important part of this spiritual journey in search of Eden was showing mercy on those who have done wrong and protecting those who are at the mercy of the wicked.

Eventually they found their way to the Promised Land of the Saints, which is an almost anti-climatic moment in the story. They hardly spent any time there and we are told very little about it. The story is clearly telling us that the journey itself is something sacred. The path we take to reach Eden is in itself important and blessed. When they reached the holy island they were greeted by a young man who said,

“This is the land which you have sought for so long. You were not able to find it immediately because God wished to show you his many wonders in the great ocean. Return now to the land of your birth, taking with you fruit from this land and as many gems as your boat can carry. The day of your final journey is approaching, when you shall sleep with your fathers. After the passage of many years, this land will be revealed to your successors.”

There is a blessing in the journey itself. The apocatastasis which all of creation is in the midst of can be seen in this light as well. There are many beautiful wonders to be seen in the wild sea of separation from God and we are blessed to be able to explore them. 

After Brendan and his friends made it to the Promised Land of the Saints, they were told to bring back with them gems and fruits from the island to their community. I believe that this is a brilliant and very necessary commentary on the dynamic between making the inner journey to God and living in the world. Like Brendan, we are not meant to stay too long in paradise. Rather, we are to visit there and return to our communities with the fruits of our journey. We are not meant to live there in this life but only to visit and when we return home we bring with us precious gifts which we give to those who were unable to join us. We bring back wisdom and healing from our journey to the otherworld and that in itself is a sacred act as much as the journey.

If you would like to learn more about Brendan, check out this video from our virtual retreat Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.

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One thought on “Brendan the Navigator

  1. I know this journey well. It’s an amazing experience, but the only way I know how to convey it is by accompanying others on their own adventure.

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