The Celtic Way of Mission - 13 - the adventurous spirit of St Brendan the Voyager

The feast day of St Brendan is May 16th. Brendan is one of my favourite Celtic characters because he was bold and adventurous, launching out into the unknown to seek undiscovered lands which they called The Promised Land of the Saints.

He is famous for potentially discovering the North American coast 900 years before Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the Bahamas. Brendan's journey was re-traced by the explorer Tim Severin in 1976-77 which proved it was possible to traverse the North Atlantic in a leather boat. Rather than Brendan's Voyage being a fable, Severin showed from sea routes, maps and following Brendan' account (called a Navigatio) that he probably did it. Severin travelled from Ireland to Scotland, then to the Farnes, then Iceland and made it to Greenland before travelling south. Brendan's journey lasted seven years and his narrative is full of references to sea monsters, volcanoes and icebergs, all of which were unknown to an Irish monk.

Brendan was born around 484AD on the north shore of Tralee Bay in County Kerry, Ireland. He lived till he was 93. He was fostered by St Ita (who I reference in an earlier blog) in her abbey which had a boy's school in County Limerick. He was raised in the monastic tradition of Patrick who died a generation earlier. Brendan later studied under St Finian at Clonard who taught him to reproduce monastic disciples and establish new centres of mission. He was ordained as a priest at the age of twenty six. Brendan became known as one of the twelve apostles of Ireland and went on to establish monastic centres in Ireland (his main base was in Clonfert), Scotland, Wales and Brittany. At one point, Brendan had over three thousand people being trained in his monasteries.

Like many of the Celtic saints, Brendan travelled in community. He lived and taught his disciples as a group, following the tradition of Jesus. The group saw themselves as pilgrims following a Way of Life together with someone like Brendan functioning as a soul friend, a spiritual mentor. In some ways Brendan's Navigatio and journey to the Promised Land is a parable for the spiritual life. We are all seeking a better place and have to overcome obstacles on the way. Ideally we do this as community rather than individuals and we each have a soul friend as a navigator. It is also interesting that Brendan's Voyage is recorded around sacred festivals such as Easter and Christmas with daily rhythms built into their lifestyle, even in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown. Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with You.

Christ of the mysteries, I trust You to be stronger than each storm within me. I will trust in the darkness and know that my times, even now, are in Your hand. Tune my spirit to the music of heaven, and somehow, make my obedience count for You.

—The Prayer of St. Brendan

What can Brendan and his epic journeys teach us?

First of all, be bold in trusting God. Launch out if you feel a sense of call to do something. When Faith and I first realised we could move to Holy Island and live a new adventure we stepped out trusting the process.

Second, don't do it on your own. Live with a community mindset. Find your tribe, people who get you and understand who you want to be. Community keeps us accountable. This is why soul friends are essential and not a luxury item for the super spiritual, they are for us all. They help us build rhythms and practices that function as way marks for life.

Finally, be ready for the unknown. There is a big mysterious world out there and it is waiting to be explored whether it is geographically or the landscape of the soul.

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