Saint Brendan the Navigator, commemorated on the 16th of May, was an Irish priest and monk who lived in the late 400’s and early 500’s. He was well educated by the early monastic missionaries on the island, and traveled across the British Isles founding more monasteries from which the evangelistic mission would continue to spread.
(It is frequently assumed that monasteries are static places of contemplation where nobody comes in or out, everyone is silent, and there’s no impact on the world. While some monastic institutions are indeed places of silence, devoted entirely to prayer, there was in fact a major movement of monastic communities that inspired locals to come and see, participate, learn the Scriptures and the liturgy, and send out new clergymen, missionaries, and monastics to continue the project elsewhere. For the British Isles and much of Northern Europe, the Gospel was most effectively spread by the foundation of monasteries and the growth of villages around them!)
What makes Brendan stand out from the rather large collection of evangelistic priest-monks is a document about him, The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot. In this story, Brendan is inspired by the story of another monk and sails West in search of “The Island of the Blessed,” perhaps the lost Garden of Eden. A sea monster is encountered along the way, and new lands are discovered across the ocean.
A great deal of ink has been spilled over the nature of this story. Is it pure legend and myth? Is it a religious allegory, using familiar nautical language to speak of the challenges of the Christian life? Is it based on a true story of early Celtic monks discovering North America?
Saint Brendan enthusiasts have built currachs, the sort of boats used there and then, and traveled to North America. They argue that the travel details recorded by Brendan’s Voyage proved useful for Christopher Columbus’ own journeys across the Atlantic a thousand years later. It is a point of pride, for some, to claim that Irish Celts were the first Europeans to reach the New World, a millennium before Columbus and 500 years before the Vikings.
In lieu of hard evidence, it may be reckless to assume Brendan’s success on that front. What we can appreciate, however, is the voyaging spirit of early saints like him. They sailed the treacherous seas, literal and spiritual, in pursuit of the better life, for the glory of God, and for the spreading of the Gospel.