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Going in Circles?

In the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, May 16 is the feast day for the Irish monk St. Brendan. Legend has it that Brendan and 14 companions set sail from Ireland in search of the Promised Land. The monks had many adventures. They landed on an island to celebrate Holy Communion for Easter and discovered that the island was actually a large whale. They sailed by the gates of hell, where demons threw down lumps of fiery slag. On a nearby rock sat Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Because he had been a disciple once, the Lord would let him out one day each week. Brendan and his fellow sailors also discovered monastic communities and hermits living in a near perfect state of existence. After seven years, they reached the Promised Land, but God did not permit them to stay there long. Brendan returned to his monastery and died peacefully.

Stories about Brendan’s voyage have fascinated people for centuries. Medieval cartographers would draw “St. Brendan’s Island” on the edge of their maps. In 1976, Tim Severin built a boat out of yew wood and oiled hides in the style of medieval Irish vessels and attempted to sail from Ireland to Canada to prove that St. Brendan’s voyage was no myth. If you like books by Jon Krakauer, you will enjoy Severin’s The Brendan Voyage. Some of the legends associated with Brendan do seem to have a basis in reality. Were the gates of hell the volcanic island of Iceland?

Brendan’s voyage was not a point-to-point pilgrimage. He and his companions journeyed in a circular motion. They would re-visit the same locations at the same time of the Christian year—Easter on the back of the same whale, and Christmas with the same community of silent, ageless monks. Brendan’s circular voyage resembled the repetitive schedules that his fellow monks kept day-by-day and year-by-year.

Boredom is the enemy of everyone who lives a predictable life, both inside and outside monastic communities. It gets tedious when the kids have the same argument day after day, or when your co-worker voices the same gripe week after week, or when you have to fix the same problem over and over again. To bored monks and to all people who are sick and tired of the same old same old, the Voyage of St. Brendan says, Your life is more exciting than you realize. Along life’s journey you will face temptations and threats and cross paths with extraordinary people. But you aren’t just going in circles. You’re bound for the Promised Land.

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