Having been so blessed as to attend a Catholic high school that put an emphasis on studying the humanities, particularly the classic literature of Western civilization, I was introduced early to Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid and became quickly enthralled by the fantastic voyages of the heroes of the Trojan War and their many colorful adventures. However, I was not aware until recently that a Christian counterpart to these extraordinary nautical sagas exists in the account of the fabled journeys of St. Brendan the Navigator.
St. Brendan, whose feast is celebrated on May 16, is venerated by Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians as the special patron of sailors. His deeds are shrouded in legend and little is known for certain about the details of his life. He is thought to have been born in the year 484 in County Kerry, Ireland. By age twenty-six, he was ordained a priest. He is listed as one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” who studied under St. Finnian at the monastic school of Clonard Abbey. He seems to have been a traveler from early on in his career, founding several monasteries across northwestern Europe.
Despite these impressive achievements, St. Brendan is probably best remembered for his supposed voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the earthly paradise known as the “Isle of the Blessed” (or “Saint Brendan’s Island”) as recounted in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), a work which probably dates to sometime in the eighth century. In the Navigatio, Brendan sets out west across the sea with over a dozen fellow monks. On their voyage, they discover many lands and meet an assortment of delightfully interesting people and creatures.