St. Brendan epitomizes the Irish monastic: he was born into a devout family, his brother becoming a bishop and his sister an abbess; he was destined for the monastic life from an early age; he was keenly aware of the supernatural; and he carried the Irish desire for peregrinatio to an extreme, traveling in search of an “Island of the Blessed.”
Born in 484 in the southwest of Ireland, Brendan was baptized by Bishop Erc, who foretold his monastic future and entrusted his earliest spiritual direction to St. Ita. Returning to the bishop for further education at the age of 6, Brendan was ordained to the priesthood by him in the year 512, when he began his life as a monk. For many years, Brendan preached and taught and established monastic cells, eventually having spiritual responsibility for 3,000 monks. He led a very ascetical life and became known as a miracle worker.
A visiting monk who was a relative of Brendan’s told the story of his travels to a fantastic island, a story which whetted Brendan’s appetite for such travel. After many years of longing, he bade farewell in 565 to the majority of his monks, taking 33 of them with him, and embarked on a journey of his own that would last for seven years.
According to J. F. Webb, in the introduction to his translation of The Voyage of Brendan:
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the tombs of the apostles, and the shrines of the saints began as a popular movement in the fourth century and spread throughout the West during the fifth. The journeys undertaken were often hazardous and called for considerable endurance and sacrifice… Ireland devised its own form of pilgrimage, closely linked to the anchorite movement. The monk freely left his native land in order to release himself more completely from human ties and come closer to God in solitude [or with like-minded companions]. This voluntary exile was looked on as a battle in which the soldier of Christ went out to fight against the powers of darkness and to perfect himself through self-conquest.
The voluntary exile of such a pilgrim was also compared to that of Abraham who was commanded by God to leave his home and family in the land of Ur and journey toward a Promised Land.
The stories of the adventures of St. Brendan and his monks were told and retold for centuries: stories of the various islands which the monks discovered, of never-aging monks whom they met and who gave them hospitality, of birds who sang Psalms and fierce beasts who obeyed the commands of God, of strange and wonderful fruit, of barren and also lush terrain never before seen by the monks, of crystal columns in the midst of the sea. The Latin version of this tale probably dates to the 8th or 9th century and translations were made into French, English, Saxon, Flemish, Welsh, Breton, Irish, and Gaelic. The story as it has evolved through the years includes many incidents borrowed from the folk tales of other traditions (such as the Arabian Sinbad the Sailor, Scandinavian myths, and early pagan Irish imram, or tales of thrilling sea voyages).
But the story also includes evidence of the innocent faith of monks who trusted completely in the mercy and care of God and who believed that his will would always be revealed to them if they waited for direction and looked for a sign. It is also a story of the disciplined life of monks who, no matter what danger or inconvenience they faced (hunger and thirst, storms or lack of wind for sailing, no harbor for landing), never failed to sing the daily Offices or celebrate the cycle of liturgical feasts and fasts. The monks clearly expected miracles to happen as well and were always quick to give thanks to God for every blessing they experienced along the way.
After his return from this fantastic voyage, Abbot Brendan also visited Wales, Britain, and the Scottish holy island of Iona. He ended his earthly pilgrimage at a monastery of his founding at Annaghdown.
Interest in the voyage of St. Brendan has continued into our day, some suggesting that the monks were the first Europeans to discover North America. Despite one negative reaction in a 12th century poem chastising the abbot for neglecting the care of 3,000 souls by going off on such a journey (the manuscript is preserved in the library of Lincoln College, Oxford), the stories have served as an inspiration for centuries. Christopher Columbus may have been thinking of this story when, before his voyage of 1492, he wrote about the Island of Saint Brendan, which could only be reached through the will of God. In 1976, the Irish explorer, Tim Severin, built a boat to the specifications in the story of St. Brendan’s voyage, and successfully sailed from Ireland to Iceland and Newfoundland. His reports of seeing icebergs, whales, and other sights which would have been amazing to 6th century Irish monks lend credence to the stories.
Wherever our life’s journey takes us, may we, like St. Brendan, maintain a life of prayer and trust in God’s guidance. Holy Brendan, pray for us.