Celts to the Creche: St. Brendan the Navigator

St. Brendan and his disciples letting the Spirit blow them to their place of resurrection

St. Brendan and his disciples letting the Spirit blow them to their place of resurrection

Celts to the Creche: Day 20

St. Brendan the Navigator

c484-578 AD

On this 20th day of our journey with the Celts to the Creche, we encounter the Irish St. Brendan the Navigator, also known as St. Brendan of Clonfert who with numerous other Celtic saints, past and present that seem to be possessed with the DNA for wanderlust. It is recorded that he and his disciples would construct a coracle, a boat with a basket-like frame of wood, covered with hides softened with butter, and covered in pitch. Then these voyagers would fast and pray, clamber into their little handmade boat with St. Brendan saying as they set sail: “Is not the Lord our captain and helmsman? Then leave it to Him to direct us where He wills.”

Birth: Brendan was born about 484 AD to Christian parents, Findlug and Ciara in western Ireland at Ciarraighe Luachra near Tralee. Before he was born, his mother had a vision that the child in her womb was filled with the Spirit. On the day of his birth, Bishop Erc, who was baptized by St. Patrick,  saw Brendan’s birthplace aglow with an angelic presence surrounding that place and immediately he went there to hold this very special baby. This little one was named “Mobi,” but when a fair drop fell from the heavens on him, his name was changed to Braenfiend (Brendan) meaning “fair drop or white mist.”

Education: Brendan was baptized by Bishop Erc near Tubrid at Ardfert and then given to Abbess Ita (see day 13 of Celts to the Creche) of the convent of Kileedy in County Limerick to be trained and educated for about six years. Like the Druids, St. Ita taught in triads. Brendan is believed to have asked her what three things God loved best and she answered: “Faith in God with a pure heart, a simple life with a religious spirit, and generosity with love.” She also told him the three things God most detested were a scowling face, obstinacy in wrongdoing, and too great a confidence in the power of money.

St Ita's well Tobar na Molt where St. Brendan was baptized by Erc.

St Ita’s well Tobar na Molt where St. Brendan may have been baptized by Bishop Erc

His parents then gave him to the care of Bishop Erc to continue his education.  He later studied with the well-known teacher St. Enda of the isle of Aran. Bishop Erc was a great mentor to him and taught Brendan Latin, Hebrew, and the Old and New Testaments. Brendan became one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who were pupils of Finnian of Clonard. It is even said that St. Patrick prophesied that St. Brendan would be a great Patriarch. St. Enda and St. Finnian are considered to be the founders of monasticism in Ireland, so Brendan studied with the best.

Journeys: Brendan had an urge within him, that Celtic need for travel and to explore, so Bishop Erc gave him permission, but Brendan had to promise to return to Erc so that he could ordain him.

On that first journey, Brendan travelled to Skellig Michael, Arans, Strathclyde, Cumbria, and maybe even Wales.

St. Brendan's Well on Valentia Island, near Skellig Michael. It is said that St. Brendan baptized two people there.

St. Brendan’s Well on Valentia Island, near Skellig Michael. It is said that St. Brendan baptized two people there. It is poignant to see all the prayer gifts surrounding this well. It is not easy to get to this well, so we were surprised to see that so many people had pilgrimaged to this holy place. My husband and I visited the well in Sept. 2014

He then set up his famous monastery at Clonfert (meaning “meadow of the miracles”) in 559 in which it is said that at one time there were 3,000 monks there. He later founded other monasteries including Ardfert in Kerry, Inishdadroum in Clare, and Annaghdown in Galway where his sister Brig was the Abbess.

Aardvert where Brendan was baptized by Bishop Erc

Aardvert where Brendan was baptized by Bishop Erc

He yearned to find the Promised Land of the Saints, the Celtic Tir na nOg.  On his further travels, he visited St. Enda of Aran, St. Finnian of Clonard, and  Adomnan says that Brendan visited St. Columba of Iona on the island of Hinba (see day 3 of Celts to the Creche.) and St. Malo in Brittany. He also travelled to Brittany in France and the Orkney and Shetland Islands off of Scotland.

St. Brendan celebrates Easter on a whale...of an island! BL Harley MS 3244

St. Brendan celebrates Easter on a whale…of an island! BL Harley MS 3244

On his voyage to the Promised Land  he encountered all kinds of interesting sea creatures and scary sea monsters. Brendan and his fellow voyagers celebrated Easter on what they thought was an island, but it was a whale!

St. Brendan and crew celebrate Easter on a whale. Whales: Anonymous after Hendrick Goltzius, Stranded Whale at Zandvoort, 1594. Harvard Art Museum, Light Outerbridge Collection, Richard Norton Memorial Fund; British Library Manuscripts Harley 3244 & 4751.

St. Brendan and crew celebrate Easter on a whale.
Whales: Anonymous after Hendrick Goltzius, Stranded Whale at Zandvoort, 1594. Harvard Art Museum, Light Outerbridge Collection, Richard Norton Memorial Fund; British Library Manuscripts Harley 3244 & 4751.

They even came upon something they had never seen before, an iceberg. These Celts with a great love for God’s magnificent creation were so amazed by this gigantic ice island that they spent a whole day inspecting and measuring this phenomenon. Brendan declared, “let us inspect the wonders of God, our Maker.”

It was on this journey, that it is thought that Brendan and his crew even travelled to Iceland and North America, discovering it long  before the Vikings or Christopher Columbus.

Tim Severin's coracle in which he sailed the Atlantic in the late 1970's, from Ireland to North America

Tim Severin’s coracle in which he sailed the Atlantic in the late 1970’s, from Ireland to North America

In 1976-1977 in County Cork,  explorer and noted author Tim Severin  built a 36 ft., two masted, ash and oak, leather coracle made of 49 hides that he and is crew travelled the Atlantic from Ireland to the Hebrides, to Scotland, and then to Peckford Island, Newfoundland.

Journeys of Return and Resurrection: It is said that Brendan and his crew found the Promised Land, the island of Paradise, but were told not to stay there because they would only spoil it! Brendan returned to Limerick and visited his sister Abbess Brig at her monastery,  Annaghdown in Galway.

Annaghdown where Brendan's sister, Brig was Abbess

Annaghdown where Brendan’s sister, Brig was Abbess

In 578, after  almost 93 years of journeys, of founding monasteries, and of miraculous healings he knew it was time for him to cross over to the other side.  When he had received communion at Mass on Sunday he said, “God is calling me to the eternal kingdom. My body must be taken to Clonfert, for angels will be in attendance there and there is my place of resurrection. Make a small chariot, and let one of you go with it to convey my body.”  Then he blessed his sister Brig and all his followers. Upon reaching the threshold of the church  he said, “into your hands, O Lord.”  The next day, his monks did as he instructed, one brother accompanied his body to Conflert where he was buried with great honor and reverence.

Romanesque arch over doorway of Clonfert where Brendan was buried

Romanesque arch over doorway of 12th c.  St. Brendan’s Cathedral at Clonfert. Likely built over the place where Brendan was buried.

Much of what we know about Brendan is from a romance written about 780, The Voyage of St. Brendan and several lives of this saint written at various times during the medieval period.

Meditation

Feast Day May 16

Statue of Brendan and disciples rowing their coracle. Cahircveen, County Kerry

Statue of Brendan and disciples rowing their coracle. Cahirciveen, County Kerry. Visited Sept. 2014

O Lord,  like St. Brendan, I too want to climb into my little coracle and ask the Spirit to blow me to places I never dreamed or imagined! Blow Spirit Blow! Amen.

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Some Resources:

Baring-Gould, S. and John Fisher. The Lives of the British Saints; The Saints of Wales, Cornwall, and Such Irish Saints as Have Dedications in Britain, Part One. Kessinger Reprints.

Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland.  Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.

Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.

Harrington, Christina. Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Lehane, Brendan. Early Celtic Christianity. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.

Mitton, Michael. The Soul of Celtic Spirituality in the Lives of Its Saints. Mystic, CT: Twenty Third Publications, 1996.

Ó’Ríordáin, John J. Early Irish Saints. Dublin: The Columba Press, 2004.

Pennick, Nigel. The Celtic Saints. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1997.

Rees, Elizabeth. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and Their Saints. London: Burns & Oates, 2003.

___________. Celtic Saints in Their Landscape. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2011.

Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. and expanded. St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2006.

Severin, Tim. The Brendan Voyage: Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2005.

The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot.  

Wallace, Martin. Celtic Saints. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1995.

Wooding, Jonathan M. “The Medieval and Early Modern Cult of St. Brendan,” in Saints’ Cults in the Celtic World, ed. by Boardman, Davies, and Williamson. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2009.

About pastorpilgrim

Pastor Pilgrim is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) clergy. I am married with two grown sons, a Hurricane Rita gift cat, and two Maine Coons.

My interests include illuminated manuscripts, pilgrimage, Franciscan and Celtic spirituality, Shakers, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian abbesses and their double monasteries, comfy cute shoes, Native American spirituality, and genealogy. I am a “Dancing Monk” with the online Abbey of the Arts (known as the Disorder of Dancing Monks!).

Join me as we travel with the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon saints in an Advent devotional entitled, “Celts to the Creche” at www.saintsbridge.org.
I also write of some of my pilgrimages, musings, and another Advent devotional, “Pilgrimage to Bethlehem” at www.pastorpilgrim.wordpress.com

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