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Celtic Christianity

The Legend of Saint Brendan

14th century, Middle English: British Library, London; Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The island was brighter than the sun. All on board were joyful. This land was full of trees and plants, growing everywhere, and precious stones also, shining brightly.

Sein Brandan, ├że holyman, was yend of Irelonde. Monke he was of hard lyf... Saint Brendan was a holy man living in Ireland, happily enduring a hard life of fasting and penance at a monastery with a thousand monks, where he was abbot. And one day it happened, by the will of our Lord, that another abbot arrived at the monastery; a man named Barint. Saint Brendan met him at once in order to learn about the journey he had made and to find out what he had discovered in other lands. When Barint heard that Saint Brendan wished to question him about his adventures, he began to sigh terribly - started to weep and fell to the ground in a faint. Saint Brendan took him up in his arms, but the man shouted as though he was mad before his wits finally returned.

'Father!' replied Brendan. 'For charity! Take another course! You have come here to bring us comfort, not to drown us in tears! What is it that you have seen, in the great sea of Ocean? What have you encountered in this sea to which our Lord directed you, that encircles the world, and with which all other seas are connected? What have you found in this sea that separates ourselves from the land of the hereafter?

And Barint, this old man, still groaning and weeping, related what had happened to him. He told of his son, Mernok, who was a monk just like themselves, a man of great courage who had wished to retreat into the solitude of an isolated monastery, to serve God.

'And with my blessing, he went, alone, to an island far out to sea,' he explained, 'habitable enough, beside a mountain of scree. And he spent so long there that he acquired a sizeable community of other monks for company.

'When I heard this I prepared to visit him and made plans to set out; but in a dream I was told by our sweet Lord that my son had already set off on a further journey. So we got together a ship and sailed after him, in the sea of Ocean, with torments enough.

We sailed so far towards the east that we came at last to a place of darkness, where the clouds hid the sun so completely that day was like night; but at last, our sweet Lord led us to where we could see a new land. We thrust our ship eagerly through the waves towards it, and the island was brighter than the sun. All on board were joyful. This land was full of trees and plants, growing everywhere, and precious stones also, shining brightly; and each plant was covered with flowers and each tree with fruit. There was no doubt among us that we had arrived in heaven.

'Joyfully, we stayed for a while, and journeyed until we believed the land to be endless; but at last we came to water, clear, bright water, lying in our way. We stood and looked around, for there seemed to be no means of crossing it. Then a young man approached, a very fair and noble young man, who addressed us individually with every courtesy, each by his own name, greeted us all and welcomed us to the private world of Jesus Christ; this was the land of the hereafter, he said, at the very end of the world.

'"The land is divided into two, as you can see," he explained, "and the other half lies across the water. But you are not allowed to see it, and you have been here for a year already, without eating, without having drunk anything or having felt any need to sleep, and you have felt neither heat nor cold and have not seen the darkness of night. For this is God's private place and all this light derives from him. And if your souls were pure and unblemished with sin, you would have been able to stay here, and your son also," he said to me. "But you may not stay. You may remain for no longer than it takes you to make ready to sail again."

'So he brought us to our ship and took his leave, and then we found ourselves travelling homewards across the ocean. This fair young man had vanished away, just like my son; and the waves soon carried us back to the other monks that we had left behind, in the land of our home.'

When Saint Brendan heard this, he stood deep in thought for some while. He wished to know more about this place, this land at the gates of Paradise, if it was God's will, and so he chose twelve of his monks whom he trusted most and put it to them that, subject to their approval, he would like them to accompany him on a similar voyage of discovery.

Story fragment recounted in Modern English translation from: D'Evelyn, Charlotte, and Mill, Anna J., (Eds.), 1956. Reprinted 1967. The South English Legendary. Published for the Early English Text Society by Oxford University Press. The Middle English story of Saint Brendan from the SOUTH ENGLISH LEGENDARY in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 145.

See for yourself

Saint Brendan – Wikipedia

The Voyage of Saint Brendan – Canterbury Cathedral, recitation of a translation of the Irish legend – video.

The Voyage of Bran – Wikipedia

Complete text of the 14th century South English Legendary, edited by Charlotte d'Eveyln and Anna J Mill, 1956, reprinted 1967 (3 volumes, volume 1 contains the story of Saint Brendan, reprinted 2004) available through the Early English Text Society (EETS)

…or direct from Oxford University Press

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