The Saint Brendan of Frederick Buechner’s novel is like all the saints who learn that the greatest journey is one that leads from the glorious but seed-like natural energy and strength of youth, to the final flowering of spiritual life and power that are only attained through prayer, surrender, and many crosses.
For Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Anglicans, May 16 was the feast of St. Brendan (484-577), the Irish priest and monk known as “the Navigator” for his legendary voyage in the Atlantic in search of the Garden of Eden. Comparatively little is known of the historical Brendan, a founder of monasteries and a builder of a cathedral. The earliest-known written mention of him is over a century after his death in Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba. The most famous text is the twelfth-century Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), which some scholars believe was developed as early as the eighth century. One litany from that earlier period invokes “the sixty who accompanied St. Brendan in his quest for the Land of Promise.”
Brendan has been the subject of a great many retellings, poems, and songs. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote two versions of a poem about him. While no major film has told his tale, he makes an appearance in the 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel. Apart from the cream liqueur named for him, the only other bit of Brendaniana into which I’ve delved is Frederick Buechner’s tragicomic 1987 novel, Brendan.
Mr. Buechner, now in in his nineties, has published more than thirty books including novels, sermons, memoirs, and essays. He has won the O. Henry Award and been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The work of Mr. Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister, is explicitly spiritual without being preachy, though some of it is preaching and some of it has preaching. In fact, a great many of his greatest works have been about preachers. The Book of Bebb (1972-1977) was a tetralogy concerning a shady Southern preacher named Leo Bebb who would today need to be registered as a sexual offender. He now runs The Church of Holy Love, Incorporated. Is he a fraud? Does he really believe? What does faith really mean? What about holiness? Questions like these run through the four volumes narrated by his son-in-law. The same goes for Godric (1980), which has the twelfth-century saint Godric of Finchale telling his own story. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Brendan was published to wide acclaim in 1987, winning the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize that year. Like the Bebb series, Brendan has as its main narrator another person: in this case an ordinary man named Finn who has been drawn in to service of Brendan. Finn tells his story in a demotic English that doesn’t always get tenses or moods right. He is our everyman who is also a somebody, something of a skeptic who starts off not liking the odd-looking young monk but eventually coming to believe in his friend “Bren” without complete surety about Brendan’s Christ.
The use of a narrator who is a religious skeptic lends the tale a particular kind of strength. Mr. Buechner’s sixth-century Ireland is a time of transition from a pagan world to a Christian one. There is true belief not just in God but also in many of the gods. Like every age, there is a lot of true belief, superstition, practical atheism, and also anger at a God who seems hidden, silent, unable or unwilling to right the wrongs that pile up year after year. Readers who are not convinced Christians find themselves with a sympathetic teller.
Finn recounts Brendan’s beginnings: he was taken from his parents, Finnloag and Cara, by the druid-turned-bishop Erc, and raised by the Abbess Ita who was said to have sent a hind to suckle young Brendan when his own mother’s milk dried up. Finn recounts asking Ita about the story, only to have her cackle and tell him she was indeed the hind that suckled him. “I don’t know to this day,” Finn recounts, “if it was truly a joke she told or if the joke she told was the truth.”
Finn is witness to what are surely miracles—healings by and indeed mysterious revelations of facts to Brendan—but he is also witness to the young Brendan’s penchant for telling his own tales with an eye to what Brendan’s audience wants to hear. The young Brendan has what later Irish would call a bit of blarney when it comes to his evangelistic feats. Finn notes of one such report back to Bishop Erc: “As to the tinkers and herders and bog women and fishers we met on our way, it’s true he’d tease them with holy matters till some of them pestered him for more, but to hear the way he spun it out to Erc you’d have thought he won most of the people of the world on the way out and all the ones left over on his way home.” Finn sees Brendan’s flaws but becomes devoted to this charismatic and odd monk. He understands Brendan’s desire to go out to sea and become a kind of second Patrick. And he understands his sadness.
In the middle of the book Mr. Buechner does allow Patrick his voice. Finn explains that he was not able to go out on a first voyage in search of the Land of Fair Hope, thus he will have to copy down the parchments in which Brendan recounted that first voyage. The voyage was at once exciting, with the meeting of a great whale known as Jasconius but also the encounter with Judas Iscariot, abandoned in the middle of the ocean in the neighborhood of a volcanic hell. Like Odysseus, Brendan loses a man, a monk named Dismas after the good thief, an event that has a more lasting shattering effect than it did the Ithacan.
After the first journey, Brendan goes on with activity but is not satisfied. Finn detects in him the growth of a fearsome temper and a kind of loneliness that he cannot help. “You need somebody bigger than yourself to comfort you. Maybe he never had a comforting friend.” Being accidentally responsible for the death of another monk, Brendan sinks a bit deeper into sadness. One friend who is bigger than he, the Abbess Ita, gives him a mysterious strength but also a penance: to search again for the Land of the Blessed, but this time with Malo, a monk who hates him.
Brendan’s second journey, like the first, is full of wonders, but ultimately not satisfying to him. The terrestrial paradise he finds is not the one he was searching for. Presumably it is an island close to America (legend has it Patrick arrived in Florida), and he does not find any of the dead in Christ he sought. But it offers to him a new inwardness. Finn, who was allowed to go on this voyage, notes several times that his friend’s “only voyaging was away inside himself.”
So it goes. Buechner’s tale has Brendan go off to Wales and meet one “King Artor”—not the young man of the round table, but an old one near death. Brendan gains less from his connection than from the poor of Wales, particularly an old widow woman for whom “It wasn’t his name that mattered but only himself.” Brendan’s journey is one of discovery of the presence of God in the midst of his life here and now and in himself apart from his own legendary sailing.
There is a natural truth to the words of the Water Rat in The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” But the Brendan of Mr. Buechner’s novel is like all the saints who learn that the greatest journey is one that leads from the glorious but seed-like natural energy and strength of youth, to the final flowering of spiritual life and power that are only attained through prayer, surrender, and many crosses. These include acceptance of one’s natural weakness and the overcoming of the pride that afflicts even, nay especially, those who do great works for God.
At the end of Brendan’s life, Mr. Buechner imagines him stopping a potential war by the raising up of a mist that drives off the raiders. Though he is clearly pleased with the action, Finn notes, “Brendan never said much about it afterwards though as a younger man he’d have added it to his other tales surely.” The older Brendan is a man who leaves behind both the captaining of boats and the administration of monasteries in order to commit himself to greater prayer of thanksgiving and true penance. He embraces the angry Malo, whose cause against the Almighty is a challenging one to Brendan, but whose spiritual growth is such that Brendan will appoint him abbot of one monastery afterward.
Mr. Buechner, as a Protestant, does not succumb to the temptation to make Brendan at ease on his deathbed because he is “saved.” Brendan is a man for whom conscience is not a word taken lightly. His fear of the Lord has only grown in his old age because he has seen enough of King Christ’s glory in and around him to know that it is bright and shining but also purgative. Influenced by Chesterton, Mr. Buechner understands that the true saints are those who keep both sides of the paradox going. As Orthodoxy puts it: “One can hardly think too little of oneself. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.” Mr. Buechner’s Brendan remains a beautiful and lyrical fictional portrait of one who learned that messing about in boats is wonderful but the legendary voyage on the Divine sea is available everywhere and to all.
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The featured image is a detail from “The Voyage of St. Brandan” (1908) by Edward Reginald Frampton (1872-1923) from the exhibit in the Chazen Museum of Art, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.