St. Brendan's Episcopal Church
Juneau, Alaska
The Rev. Caroline Malseed, Priest-in-Charge

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St. Brendan is a Celtic saint who was born in what is now County Kerry, Ireland, about 486 A.D., approximately 25 years after the death of St. Patrick. He was taken from his family at a very young age and raised by St. Aida of Killeedy under the patronage of Bishop Erc of Kerry. He bercame a monk, then a priest and finally an abbot. He had a very strong influence on the Cel tic church, which at the time was poorly organized, and is regarded as one of Ireland's most important saints. He was responsible for founding a number of abbies and monastaries, including the one at Clonfert in Galway, where he died about 578 A.D.

He is known as Brendan the "Voyager" or the "Navigator" because of the many voyages he made around the British Isles and to the coast of Brittany. Even skeptics concede that he visited the Holy Isle of Iona on the west coast of Scotland where he met with St. Columba. However, the voyage for which Brendan is best known is schrouded in the midst of legend. This is the story of his search for the Land of Promise, far away in the west..

It seems that Brendan was visited by another Irish monk who told him about this land far across the ocean. Thoroughly intrigued, Brendan decided to see for himself. He built a special boat out of oak- bark tanned oxhides stretched over a framework of ash, provisioned it for a voyage of 40 days, and set off with 17 other monks. He took along some extra oxhides and grease to dress them in case repairs were needed during the voyage.

Almost immediately they encountered bad weather, stormy seas and high winds. After 15 days they were blown onto an island where they were met by a dog who led them to a settlement. There a meal was prepared and waiting for them. They stayed three days, seeing no one but always finding food prepared for them.

Their next landfall was the Island of Sheep, where in addition to large flocks of sheep there were streams full of trout and the sea-weary monks could rest for a while. By contrast, the next island they cane to was devoid of all vegetation, - completely bare. They pulled their boat up and began making camp, including building a fire. To their amazement the island bergan to move, gently at first but then more strongly. The terrified monks raced back to their boat and pushed off just in time to see the "island" swim away with their fire still burning on its back. They had made camp on Jaconious, the biggest whale of all.

They were probably a lot more careful before building a fire on the Paradise of Birds, which was their next stop. On this island there were birds of every type and sort. They all joined the monks at their prayers, and one little bird sat on Brendan's shoulder and told him that the voyage would last not 40 days but 7 years.

For the next three months they made another landfall and were exhausted when they finally reached an island inhabited by an order of monks. This order lived under a rule of silence, but the abbot broke the rule long enough to tell Brendan that they had lived there for 80 years. In all that time they had experienced no illness or mishaps of any kind. One of the monks with Brendan was so impressed by this order that he asked and received permission to remain with them.

He was not with Brendan and the others when they reached the very edge of Hell itself. Giant demons threw great lumps of burning slag at them from huge fiery furnaces, and they could see rivers of gold fire running down from the furnaces. Another of the monks fell overboard during the bombardment and was lost forever.

Their adventures continued as they were chased by a bad whale, saved by a good whale, and buffeted by storms and high winds. Sometimes, though, it would be calm, - so calm that they could look down through the water and see fish lying in a circle, head to tail. Once, when Brendan sang, the fish circled the boat to listen to him.

Another time they saw a tall crystal pillar in the sea, so high that they could not see the top of it and covered with a wide-meshed net. In it was an opening big enough for the boat so they sailed through it. As they did so, they could see that the pillar extended even further into the sea than it towered above. It took them three days to sail through and around it.

Finally after sailing through dense fog they reached their destination. They were met by a young man who acted as their guide. They explored the fringe of this Promised Land but were prevented from going further by a great river, too large for them to cross.

They returned to Ireland by much the same route, though probably avoiding Hell. They even encountered Jasconius the whale once again, and this time he helped by towing the boat from the Paradise of Birds to the Island of Sheep. Shortly after their return, Brendan died.

This story was very popular in the Middle Ages, and so many versions of it exist that it took one American scholar, Carl Selmer, nearly 30 years to trace them. In l959 he published a comprehensive Latin version of NAVIGATIO SANTI BRENDANI ABBATIS - The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot. For many years it was dismissed as pure fabrication with no possibility of being true. Various destinations were suggested for Brendan if he in fact ever made a voyage at all. These were all close to the British Isles, although some did think he might have reached the Canary Islands.

However, in the l970s Tim Severin became fascinated with the Brendan story. He studied maps and charts and did extensive research before coming up with his Stepping-Stone Route. He maintained that, byt using prevailing winds and currents, it would be possible for a small boat to travel from Ireland to North America. He also maintained that the only way to prove it was to do it.

He had a boat built out of a framework of ash and covered with oxhides. Experimentation proved that oak bark does make the most seaworthy tanning solution for these hides. He named the boat the BRENDAN (of course) and, with some like-minded friends, he too set sail from Galway. As they traveled he realized that many of the landmarks and other events mentioned in the NAVIGATIO make a lot of sense to someone in a very small boat. The coast of Iceland, with its many active volcanoes, might well have seemed like the edge of Hell, and an ice-berg looks exactly like a crystal column. The story of this voyage is told in Tim Severin's book, THE BRENDAN VOYAGE. It did not take them 40 days, but it didn't take 7 years either. They did leave their boat in port over winter and finished the voyage the following year. But on June 26th, 1977, after sailing through dense fog for several days, they reached the coast of Newfoundland!

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