16 May 2011

16 May - Saint Brendan the Voyager

Today is the feast of the 6th-century Irish saint, Brendan of Clonfert, founder of monasteries and churches, and the Sees of Ardfert and Annaghdown.

However, he is best known for his seven-year voyage in search of the Land of Promise, the Paradise on Earth, a tale of wonders to match that of Sinbad and Odysseus. To give some idea of the story that thrilled medieval minds, here is the legendary voyage as condensed by Robert Chambers in his entry for May 16:

"Of all the saintly legends, this of Brendan seems to have been the most popular and widely diffused.  It is found in manuscript in all the languages of Western Europe, as well as in the mediaeval Latin of the monkish chroniclers, and several editions of it were printed in the earlier period of typography.

According to the legend, Brendan, incited by a report he had heard from another abbot, named Bennt, determined to make a voyage of discovery, in search of an island supposed to contain the identical paradise of Adam and Eve.  So, having procured a good ship, and victualled it for seven years, he was about to start with twelve monks, his selected companions, when two more earnestly entreated that they might be allowed to accompany him.  Brendan replied, 'Ye may sail with me, but one of you shall go to perdition ere ye return.'  In spite, however, of this warning, the two monks entered the ship.

And, forthwith sailing, they were on the morrow out of sight of any land, and, after forty days and forty nights, they saw an island and sailed thitherward, and saw a great rock of stone appear above the water ; and three days they sailed about it, ere they could get into the place.  But at last they found a little haven, and there they went on land.  And then suddenly came a fair hound, and fell down at the feet of St Brendan, and made him welcome in its manner.  Then he told the brethren, 'Be of good cheer, for our Lord hath sent to us this messenger to lead us into some good place.'  And the hound brought them to a fair hall, where they found tables spread with good meat and drink.  St Brendan said grace, and he and his brethren sat down, and ate and drank of such as they found.  And there were beds ready for them, wherein they took their rest.

On the morrow they returned to their ship, and sailed a long time ere they could find any land, till at length they saw a fair island, full of green pasture, wherein were the whitest and greatest sheep ever they saw, for every sheep was as big as an ox.  And soon after there came to them a goodly old man, who welcomed them, and said, 'This is the Island of Sheep, and here is never cold weather, but ever summer; and that causes the sheep to be so big and so white.'  Then this old man took his leave, and bade them sail forth right east, and, within a short time, they should come into a place, the Paradise of Birds, where they should keep their Easter-tide.

And they sailed forth, and came soon after to land, but because of little depth in some places, and in some places great rocks, they went upon an island, weening themselves to be safe, and made thereon a fire to dress their dinner; but St Brendan abode still in the ship.  And when the fire was right hot, and the meat nigh sodden, then this island began to move, whereof the monks were afraid, and fled anon to the ship, and left their fire and meat behind them, and marvelled sore of the moving.  And St Brendan comforted them, and said that it was a great fish named Jascon, which laboured night and day to put its tail in its mouth, but for greatness it could not.

St. Brendan celebrates Easter on the back of the great fish.  From Honorius Philoponus, Nova typis transacta navigatio novi orbis Indiae Occidentalis, 1621

After three days' sailing, they saw a fair land full of flowers, herbs, and trees; whereof they thanked God of His good grace, and anon they went on land.  And when they had gone some distance they found a well, and thereby stood a tree, full of boughs, and on every bough sat a bird; and they sat so thick on the tree, that not a leaf could be seen, the number of them was so great; and they sang so merrily, that it was a heavenly noise to hear.  And then, anon, one of the birds flew from the tree to St Brendan, and, with flickering of its wings, made a full merry noise like a fiddle, a joyful melody.  And then St Brendan commanded the bird to tell him why they sat so thick on the tree, and sang so merrily.  And then the bird said, 'Sometime we were angels in heaven; but when our master Lucifer fell for his high pride, we fell for our offences, some hither and some lower, after the nature of their trespass; and because our trespass is but little, therefore our Lord hath set us here, out of all pain, to serve Him on this tree in the best manner that we can."

The bird, moreover, said to the saint: 'It is twelve months past that ye departed from your abbey, and in the seventh year hereafter ye shall see the place that ye desire to come to; and all these seven years ye shall keep your Easter here with us every year, and at the end of the seventh year ye shall come to the land of behest!' And this was on Easter-day that the bird said these words to St Brendan.  And then all the birds began to sing even-song so merrily, that it was a heavenly noise to hear; and after supper St Brendan and his fellows went to bed and slept well, and on the morrow rose betimes, and then these birds began matins, prime, and hours, and all such service as Christian men use to sing.

Brendan remained with the birds till Trinity Sunday, and then returning to Sheep Island, he took in a supply of provisions, and sailed again into the wide ocean. After many perils, he discovered an island, on which was a monastery of twenty-four monks; with them Brendan spent Christmas, and on Twelfth-day again made sail.

On Palm Sunday they reached Sheep Island, and were received by the old man, who brought them to a fair hall, and served them. And on Holy Thursday, after supper, he washed their feet and kissed them, like as our Lord did to His disciples; and there they abode till Easter Saturday evening, and then departed and sailed to the place where the great fish lay; and anon they saw their caldron upon the fish's back, which they had left there twelve months before; and there they kept the service of the Resurrection on the fish's back; and after sailed the same morning to the island where was the tree of birds, and there they dwelt from Easter till Trinity Sunday, as they did the year before, in full great joy and mirth.

Thus they sailed, from island to island, for seven years; spending Christmas at the monastery. Palm Sunday at the Sheep Island, Easter Sunday on the fish's back, and Easter Monday with the birds.

The prescribed wandering for seven years having been fulfilled, they were allowed to visit the promised land. After sailing for many days in darkness—

'The mist passed away, and they saw the fairest country that a man might see--clear and bright, a heavenly sight to behold. All the trees were loaded with fruit, and the herbage with flowers. It was always day, and temperate, neither hot nor cold; and they saw a river which they durst not cross.  Then came a man who welcomed them, saying, "Be ye now joyful, for this is the land ye have sought.  So lade your ship with fruit, and depart hastily, for ye may no longer abide here. Ye shall return to your own country, and soon after die. And this river that you see here parteth the world asunder, for on that side of the water may no man come that is in this life."

Then St Brendan and his monks took of the fruit, and also great plenty of precious stones, and sailed home into Ireland, where their brethren received them with great joy, giving thanks to God, who had kept them all those seven years from many perils, and at last brought them home in safety. To whom be glory and honour, world without end. Amen.'  
Robert Chambers, The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, 1863.

To read The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot in English (or Latin), with all of the perils they encountered as they wandered between the great fish and the islands of monks, birds, and sheep, go to the External Links of Wikipedia's page on St. Brendan.  The English version can be downloaded as a pdf.