Saint Brendan’s Voyage

Saint Brendan the Navigator (484-577 A.D.) is the patron saint of boaters, mariners, travelers, whales, portaging canoes, elderly adventurers and two Irish dioceses, Kerry and Clonfert.  His feast day is celebrated on May 16.  Brendan is chiefly renowned for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed.  It is recorded he took two voyages; the first unsuccessful, the second (565–573 A.D.) is recorded as The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot

Brendan was born in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the west of Ireland.  When he was one, he was handed over to the care of the nun, Ita, when she lived at the foot of Mount Luachra. Ita of Killeedy was known as the “Brigid of Munster” and sometimes called “the white sun of the women of Munster.”  She was a skilled organizer, herbalist, and teacher. Brendan remained with her until he was seven. He regarded Ita as his foster mother and treated her with reverence and affection. He came to her for advice and guidance throughout his life.  One story states that after his first five years of wanderings, Brendan returned to Ireland and went to see Ita. “O my beloved,” she said, “wherefore hast thou tried without my counsel? Thou wilt not gain the Land of Promise borne in the hides of dead beasts. Thou wilt find it in a ship made of boards.” He went to Connaught, built a wooden ship, and embarked on his famous voyage. 

According to Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, Brendan was in his seventies when he and 17 other monks set out on a westward voyage in a curragh, a wood-framed boat covered in sewn ox-hides. The Irish monks sailed about the North Atlantic for seven years.  One of his companions is said to have been Saint Malo, the namesake of the historic port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany, France.  The idea to sail in search of the promised land of the saints came from Barinth, the abbot of Drumcullen, a distant relative of Brendan’s. Barinth told him about a wonderful isle, a place where there was no hunger, thirst, or darkness.  Brendan was determined to find it. There were 13 voyagers (12 original apostles, plus 1) and Brendan. At the last minute three other monks begged to be taken along.  Brendan consented, but predicted that while one of them would come to a good end, the two others would perish miserably.

The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot is one of several wonder-voyages or sea tales of the Irish known as the “Immrama.”  These voyage stories describe the hero’s series of seafaring adventures.  Besides Brendan’s tale, four others have come down to us:  the Voyage of Bran, the Voyage of Mael Duin, the Voyage of the Boat of Ui Corra, and the Voyage of Snedgus and MacRiagla. Unlike the Voyage of Bran, where alluring women figure prominently, Brendan and his crew do not encounter any females on their trip. Not one. Only men and boys—very monk-like. 

During the Dark Ages (500-1000 AD), Irish monks ventured across Europe and into the North Atlantic in pursuit of spiritual and religious missions.  They reached the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Faeroe Islands.  They may have even reached Iceland.  Was it faith that made them step into a boat and hope they would find the Isle of the Blessed; or did they have prior knowledge of lands to the West from Scandinavians or others?  It’s possible that fishing boats, traders or a raiding party was blown off course during a storm and made an accidental discovery. Brendan’s voyage is part chronicle, allegory, explanation, and sea yarn. It contains a lot of mysteries, which makes it fun to try to identify different lands and creatures.  Two that particularly appeal to me are “Jasconius” and “Paul the Hermit.”

Jasconius

Jasconious is a giant sea creature that appears several times in the Voyage of Brendan the Abbot. The monks first thought Jasconius was an island, and went off to cook some fish to eat, leaving Brendan with the boat. “…and no sooner was the fire hot and the fish beginning to boil, than the island began to quake and to move like a living thing, and there was great fear on the brothers and then went back into the ship leaving the food and cauldron after them, and they saw what they took to be an island going fast through the sea, and they could notice the fire burning a long way off, that they were astonished. They asked Brendan then did he know what was the great wonder, and Brendan comforted them, and he said, “It is a great fish, the biggest of the fishes of the world, Jasconye his name is…”

Jasconius or Jasconye was most likely a Right whale but could have been a Humpback or even Sperm whale. Various cultures and ancient peoples had many legends surrounding the Leviathan, a gigantic and fearful sea creature found in the Book of Jonah in the Bible.  The Fastitocalon, a giant sea turtle, lured sailors to rest on its back, and then drowned them. In the Latin Physiologus, written in the second century AD, the creature is called an Aspidochelone.  The Christian scribe who compiled the Physiologus included plants, stones, animals and fabled, fantastic creatures, each with a moral or allegorical background. In the folklore of the Greenland Inuit, there was a similar monster called Imap Umassoursa, which also disguised itself as an island, and killed its prey by tipping over and spilling them into the sea. More likely mariners, hunters, or the curious attempted to stand on or get near the creature and were pulled down in its wake when it dove. Vikings also had many stories about giant whales or kraken monsters that would attack ships.

Paul the Hermit

Brendan finds “Paul the Hermit” living on a small circular island. Paul says he is 140 years old. For his first 30 years on the island, he was fed by an otter, who brought him a fish and firewood for cooking every three days.  For the last 60 years the hermit subsisted only on the waters of a tiny spring before the entrance to his cave home. He had no clothes except for his own hair which was long and white.  He was 50 years old when he first arrived on the island.

Brendan asked him about how he came to the island.  Paul told him his story: “For forty years I lived in the monastery of St. Patrick, and had the care of the cemetery. One day when the prior had pointed out to me the place for the burial of a deceased brother, there appeared before me an old man whom I knew not, who said, ‘Do not, brother, make the grave there, for that is the burial place of anther.’ I said, ‘Who are you, father?’ ‘Do you know know me?’ said he. ‘Am I not your abbot?’ ‘St. Patrick is my abbot,’ I said. ‘I am he,’ he said; and yesterday I departed this life and this is my burial place.’ He then pointed out to me another place, saying, “Here you will inter our deceased brother; but tell no one what I have said to you. Go down on tomorrow to the shore, and there you will find a boat that will bear you to that place where you shall await the day of your death.’ Next morning, in obedience to the directions of the abbot, I went to the place appointed, and found what he promised. I entered the boat, and rowed along for three days and nights, and then I allowed the boat to drift whither the wind drove it. On the seventh day, this rock appeared, upon which I at once landed, and I pushed off the boat with my foot, that it may return whence it came, when it cut through the waves in a rapid course to the land it had left.”

Was he deranged to push off the boat; or was he full of faith to obey his vision and abandon himself to his fate?  The story of Paul the Hermit’s relationship with the otter is similar to the tale of St. Cuthbert and the Otters. Both men had otters help and comfort them in their spiritual trials. Because of the presence of the otter, we know Paul’s island cave probably wasn’t more than a mile from land in Scotland or northern Ireland.

Is there any truth behind the story of the Voyage of Saint Brendan? Could it have really happened?  British historian and explorer Tim Severin set out to follow the legend. In 1976 Severin built a replica of Brendan’s currach. Handcrafted using traditional tools and materials, the 36-foot, two-masted boat was built of Irish ash and oak, hand-lashed together with leather throng, wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides, and sealed with wool grease.  Between May 1976 and June 1977, Severin and his crew sailed the Brendan 4,500 miles from Ireland to Newfoundland, Canada.

He sought to prove Brendan’s voyage by undertaking a similar journey following what is known as the “stepping stones” route: following trade routes to and amongst and beyond the islands of the Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland to Nova Scotia. Severin’s re-creation of the voyage helped to potentially identify many of the legendary sites in the story: the “Island of the Sheep,” the “Paradise of the Birds,” “Crystal Towers,” “mountains that hurled rocks at the voyagers,” (volcanoes) and the “Promised Land” of the saints. The patch of sea they described as being in a semi-solid state may have been ice floes and slush.

The voyage of the Irish monks across the Atlantic and back was significant for the next group of transatlantic voyagers: Norwegians. Did Irish monks reach North America in the 6th century? It appears they did, and the stories of their sea voyages inspired Norsemen to set out for new lands farther to the west. Vikings first traveled to Greenland in the 8th or 9th century; and Leif the Lucky (Leif Eriksen) established the first Viking settlement in “Vinland,” in the 10th century. Brendan the Abbot discovered the “New World” almost 1,000 years before Columbus.

The abbot, Barith, Brendan’s distant kinsman, was his inspiration to travel to the Island of the Blessed.  Barith had traveled there and returned to Ireland. Who told Abbot Barith about the fabled lands to the west? 

Read the Brendan manuscript here.

Chapter Synopsis of the Voyage

1.Barinth tells of his visit to the Isle of the Blessed, which prompts Brendan to go on his journey.

2.Brendan assembles 13 monks to accompany him.

3.They fast at three-day intervals for 40 days and visit Saint Enda for three days and three nights.

4.Three latecomers join the group. They interfere with Brendan’s sacred numbers.

5.They find an island with a dog, mysterious hospitality (no people, but food offered) and an Ethiopian devil.

6.One latecomer admits to stealing from the mysterious island; Brendan exorcises the Ethiopian devil from the latecomer; the latecomer dies and is buried.

7.They find an island with a boy who brings them bread and water.

8.They find an island with some sheep; eat some and stay for Holy Week.

9.They find the island of Jasconius, celebrate Easter Mass, and hunt whales and fish.

10.They find an island that is the “Paradise of Birds.” The birds sing psalms and praise God.

11.They find the island of the monks of Ailbe, who have magic loaves of bread, do not age, and maintain complete silence. They celebrate Christmas.

12.They undertake a long sail after Lent. They find an island with a well, and drinking the water puts them to sleep for 1-3 days, depending on the number of cups each man drank.

13.They find a sea in a semi-solid state.

14.They return to the islands of sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds. A bird prophesies that the men must continue this year-long cycle for seven years before they will be holy enough to reach the Island of the Blessed.

15.A sea monster approaches the boat, but God shifts the sea to protect the men. Another sea monster approaches, bites the first into three pieces, and leaves. The men eat the flesh from the dead creature.

16.They find an island of three choirs of monks who give them fruit, and the second latecomer remains while the others leave.

17.They find an island of grapes and stay there for 40 days.

18.They see a gryphon and bird battle.  The gryphon dies.

19.They journey to the monastery of Ailbe again for Christmas.

20.Many threatening fish circle their boat, but God protects them.

21.They find an island, but when they light a fire, the island sinks. They realize it is a whale.

22.They pass a “silver pillar wrapped in a net” in the sea.

23.They pass an island of blacksmiths who throw slag at them.

24.They find a volcano, and demons take the third newcomer down to Hell.

25.They find Judas Iscariot sitting unhappily on a cold, wet rock in the sea, and learn it is his respite from Hell for Sundays and feast days. Brendan protects Judas from the demons of Hell for one night.

26.They find an island where Paul the Hermit has lived for 60 years. He wears nothing but his hair and is fed by an otter.

27.They return to the islands of sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds.

28.They find the Promised Land of the Saints.

29.They return home, and Brendan dies.

 

 

Saint Swithin and the Rain

8 June 20 | Posted in Events, History, Saints, Supernatural

Saint Swithin, also spelled Swithun, The meaning in Old English is “strong bear cub.” He was the Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester.  Winchester Cathedral in England and Stravanger Cathedral in Norway are both dedicated to him.  His feast day in England is July 15 and in Norway it is July 2.  Why Norway?  His veneration may have originated with English missionaries who worked with St. Olaf in evangelizing Norway. 

Swithin was born in Winchester around 800, counseled Saxon kings Egbert and Ethelwulf, and was bishop of Winchester for the last ten years of his life. One legend claims Swithin tutored young Alfred the Great. Another says he built the first stone bridge over the river Itchen that runs through Winchester.

One of St. Swithin’s most famous miracles is a simple act of kindness.  A group of workmen broke all the eggs in a poor woman’s basket as she was crossing a bridge. Swithin demanded the workmen apologize to the woman. He blessed her basket of eggs, which restored all the broken shells and runny yolks so she had whole eggs again.

His appearance to Queen Aelgifa, also known as Emma of Normandy, was another miracle. She was a half-sister to William of Normandy, later King of England. Aelgifa was the mother of Edward the Confessor, and a famous queen of England, Denmark and Norway, through her marriages to Aethelred the Uncounseled and Cnut the Great. Aelgifa was accused of adultery with Aelfwine, the former bishop of Winchester.

On the night before her “ordeal,” a trial which involved walking across white-hot ploughshares blades at Winchester Cathedral, St. Swinthin is supposed to have comforted the queen, “I am Saint Swithin whom you have invoked; fear not, the fire shall do you no hurt.” The following day the queen was able to walk barefoot across the blades and remain completely unharmed.

Swithin died of July 2, 862. On his deathbed, the bishop left instructions that his body should be buried outdoors and not in the cathedral. He wanted the rain from the eves to fall upon his grave.  100 years later Swithin’s body was removed from its simple grave and interred in the cathedral on July 15, 971. On the same day his bones were moved from the outdoors an extraordinary rainfall began.  It was said his spirit was so offended by the move that it caused rain to fall for 40 consecutive days.

In 1093 his bones were moved again into a huge new cathedral built by Norman invaders. His Anglo-Saxon reliquary was carried with great ceremony to its home behind the high altar. Swithin’s tomb became a major site for pilgrims, many seeking to be healed from illness. A short tunnel (the Holy Hole) allowed them to crawl under his shrine, as close as possible to his bones and miraculous healing powers.  In the middle of the night on September 21, 1538, King Henry VIII’s commissioners smashed the shrine and stole all the valuables.  Three years later workmen filled in the Holy Hole.  A modern memorial marks the spot where the shrine was located.

The name of Swithin is best known today for a British weather lore proverb, which says that if it rains on St. Swithin’s Day (July 15), it will rain 40 more days.

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain.  For forty days it will remain.  St Swithun’s day if thou be fair. For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare

There is a scientific basis to the weather pattern behind the legend of St. Swithin’s day. Around the middle of July the jet stream settles into a pattern which holds reasonably steady until the end of August.  If the jet stream lies north of the British Isles, continental high pressures is able to move it; when it lies across or south of the British Isles, Arctic air and the Atlantic weather systems dominate.

Emblems associated with St. Swithin are rain and apples.  Apple growers hope for rain on St. Swithin’s Day or St. Peter’s Day (June 29th). They see the rain as saints’ watering the orchards; or as St. Swithin blessing and christening the apples.

A verse by Anglo-American writer Elizabeth Sewell proclaims,

“High in the Heavenly Places/  I see Saint Swithin stand./  His garments smell of apples/  And rain-wet English land.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dazzling Whiteness: Antonio de Andrade’s First Look at Tibet

10 May 20 | Posted in Arts and Letters, Events, History

“It was all dazzling whiteness to our eyes, and we could make out no sign of the route we were to follow.” – Antonio de Andrade, S.J.  

Father Antonio de Andrade (1580-March 19, 1634) was a Jesuit priest and explorer from Portugal. From 1600 until his murder in 1634, he was engaged in diplomatic and missionary activity. Andrade set out from India in 1624 in search of rumored Christian communities beyond the Himalayas. He was the first confirmed European to reach Tibet, but two others may have preceded him several hundred years earlier. The first was Marco Polo in the service of Kublai Khan (1280-1295). Odoric of Pordenone, OFM, an Italian Franciscan friar and explorer, claimed to have traveled extensively throughout Asia in the early 14th century.  He may have visited Tibet between 1323-1328 on his way back to Italy.  

Andrade was one of the first Jesuits attached to the court of the 4th Mughal emperor, Jahangir (1605-1627).  He was head of the Jesuit mission in the capital, Agra. Andrade learned to speak Persian, the language of merchants along the trade routes from India to the north, and along the Silk Road to China. From these travelers Andrade heard intriguing rumors of a lost community of Christians in Tibet, the remnants of early evangelizing missions. He decided to try to contact them.

On March 30, 1624, Fr. Andrade and Br. Manuel Marques left with Emperor Jahangir who was on his way to Kashmir. When they were in Delhi on May 11, they discovered that a group of Hindu pilgrims was leaving for the temple of Badrinath, in what is now the northern part of the present-day Indian state of Uttarakhand. Andrade decided to take advantage of this unexpected chance to travel to Tibet. Disguising themselves as Hindus, Andrade and Marques joined the caravan.  They made their way north up the Ganges to Hardwar, “the Gate of Vishnu,” up the Alaknanda gorges to Srinagar in Garhwal and finally through the perilous Mana Pass. Braving hunger, snow blindness and frostbite, they crossed the pass at an altitude of 18,000 feet and became the first recorded Westerners in Tibet.

Andrade arrived in Tsaparang, capital of the western Tibetan Kingdom of Guge at the beginning of August 1624.  King Tri Tashi Dakpa extended a warm welcome to him and his companions. The king was fascinated by the foreigner’s story and his exotic religion. Although he was not interested in converting from Buddhism, he asked Andrade to remain and allowed him to build a small “house of prayer.”

Andrade and Marques left less than a month after they arrived since they needed to return to India before the snows blocked the passes.  They went back on August 18, 1625 with other Jesuit missionaries and supplies. With support from the king, the mission flourished. In 1627 Andrade received an invitation from the King of Utsang in Lhasa to visit his land. He also received an invitation from the King of Ladakh, the kingdom neighboring Guge on the west.  There is no record that Andrade went to Lhasa, although he may have visited Ladakh. Andrade was recorded as visiting Tholing, a half-day’s trip from Tsaparang. He traveled with King Tri Tashi Dakpa who went there to visit his brother, the chief lama of the Tholing monastery. 

Between 1624 and the 1630 Andrade made several journeys back and forth between India and Tibet. Accounts of his adventures, written in 1624 and 1626, were published in 1626. His vivid observations of the dangerous journey over the Himalayas, impressions of Tibetan society and Buddhism had a significant influence on Western knowledge and attitudes toward Tibet. A modern English translation of Andrade’s writings was published in 2017: “More Than the Promised Land” – Letters and Revelations from Tibet by the Jesuit Missionary Antonio de Andrade (1580-1634).

Andrade left Tibet in the spring of 1630 after he was appointed Father-Superior of the Jesuit province of Goa in India.  Shortly after his departure the Kingdom of Guge was attacked by the King of Ladakh. Andrade heard about the conflinct but was unable to return because of his post in Goa. The trouble may have started with the lamas in Guge, who were unhappy about King Tri Tashi Dakpa’s preferential treatment of the Jesuit missionaries. It is possible that the lamas and Buddhist monks, led by the king’s brother, encouraged intervention by the King of Ladakh. In spring 1631 Andrade sent Fr. Francisco de Azevedo to Tsaparang as inspector to Tsaparang. The Jesuit returned a year later with his report.  The loss of the presence of a friendly king, combined with the previous loss of Andrade as a strong leader led to the deterioration of the effectiveness of the mission. In 1631 lamas opposed to the Tibetan Christian community (nearly 400 members) destroyed the mission station at Tsaparang. Over the next decade the missionaries were persecuted or expelled, the Tibetan Christians were sent to Ladakh, and, by 1640, the mission was destroyed.

On February 4, 1633 Andrade sent a letter to Rome about the mission’s problems. Shortly after he was freed of his duties as the Jesuit Provincial and asked permission to return to Tibet.  However, just as he was getting ready to leave in January 1634, he was appointed as Inspector for Japan and China.  Andrade never returned to his Shangri-La.  He died on March 19, 1934.  Contemporaries said he drank poison mixed with his drinking water around a “fortnight,” or two weeks before he died.  His death was painful.

What person or group wanted to kill him can only be speculated.

Andrade’s assassination was attributed to a servant or hired Moorish assassin. The killer was used by a local merchant family or Portuguese native to escape punishment by the Inquisition.  Andrade was the local Inquisitor. His investigations included an accusation of heresy against a Portuguese native, Joao Rodrigues. Rodrigues’ son was a servant in the Jesuit compound and allegedly poisoned the water Andrade drank.  The case could not be proved, but the young man fled to Manila.  A “new Christian” merchant was also a suspect.

“Murder in the Refectory: The Death of Antonio de Andrade, S.J” by Michael Sweet, was published by The Catholic Historical Review in January 2016. It makes the case that Andrade was murdered by a handful of Jesuit malcontents. An Inquisition inquiry into Andrade’s death that was brought to light in the 1990s suggests that the murder was committed by priests and brothers who had been punished by Andrade for their infractions of Jesuit rules. The motive was personal animosity.  They got away with it.

Andrade’s explorations and mysterious murder remind me of another famous explorer:  Merriweather Lewis, who died of gunshot wounds on the Natchez Trace in 1809.  It may have been a simple robbery, but historians and others have suspected political intrigue was behind his death.

 

 

 

 

St. Botvid of Sweden

21 April 20 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints, Supernatural

St. Botvid could be a patron saint of good fishing luck, and/or what happens when a good intention takes a fatal turn.

Botvid was a successful Viking or trader who encountered Christianity on a trip to England and converted during his visit. When he returned home to Sodermanland he began to evangelize in the surrounding area. The year of St. Botvid’s martyrdom was traditionally thought to have occurred in 1120 A.D.  However the Swedish historian, Johannes Messenius, proposed that Botvid returned to Sweden from England in 1055 and died in 1076.

St. Botvid is usually shown holding a fish and an axe. The fish represents his “fishing luck” miracle. After Botvid returned to Sweden, he went out to fish with some neighbors. The best fishing spot was near an island owned by a man named Bo. Bo claimed one-quarter of the catch from anyone fishing his grounds. He sailed out to tell Botvid and his group when he saw their boats approaching. Knowing it was a rich fishing area, some of the people decided to stay and comply; but Botvid left and went to another spot. The fish followed him. His catch was so great that he was able to share with his neighbors and other local fishermen who went to his spot. When Bo sailed over to see what was happening Botvid invited Bo to fish for free, and his heart was won over. 

Another tale associated with St. Botvid is his encounter with a man for sale. The man was a foreigner, Wend, Finn or Slav – the stories vary. Botvid’s plan was to convert this pagan to Christianity, and then emancipate him so that he could return home to evangelize. After baptizing the slave, Botvid and one of his tenant farmers, a man named Esbjorn, set out to return him to his homeland. As they headed toward Gotland, they stopped to camp on Rago Island in Sodermanland. The new freeman took Botvid’s axe and killed both Botvid and Esbjorn in their sleep. He took the boat and sailed away.

According to legend, Botvid’s brother, Bjorn and a priest named Henrik began searching for the missing men. Guided by a white bird, they found Esbjorn’s bones and Botvid’s intact body. A well of clear water was streaming from the place where Botvid’s blood had dripped from his wounds. Botvid is associated with another spring as well. Saint Botvid’s Spring (Sankt Botvids Kalla) is located at the southeastern tip of Lake Bornsjons. The water began to flow after Botvid’s casket was set down in route to his final resting place. 

His brother, Bjorn, built a wooden church on the family land in Botvid’s honor. The miracles reported at Botvid’s grave over the next nine years led to the conversion of the local people. The original wooden church was replaced by a stone structure in 1176 A.D. It is in Botkyrka (Botvid’s Church), a town not far from Stockholm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Muskrat on Lenten Fridays

3 April 20 | Posted in Animals, Food, U.S. Catholic

Michigan Catholics have a few options for Friday night dinner during Lent:  fish frys, fish sticks, pizza or muskrat.

A long-standing permission allows local Catholics to eat muskrat, a rodent native to the area, “on days of abstinence, including Fridays during Lent.” The custom dates to the region’s missionary history in the 1700s.  Missionary priests realized food was scarce in communities close to the Detroit River, so they did not want to deny settlers an available source of protein. 

The Rev. Tim Laboe, dean of studies at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, grew up in an area of Michigan where muskrat dinners have long been a tradition.  He remembers eating muskrat with his grandfather.  “I don’t know if I enjoy more eating the muskrat or watching people try it for the first time, because it doesn’t look in any way appetizing.”

Laboe, who said he enjoyed muskrat, recalled a quote attributed to the late Bishop Kenneth Povish, the former head of the Lansing Diocese: “Anybody that eats muskrat is doing an act of penance worthy of the greatest of saints.”