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Vol. 3 No. 1 - Pascha 2008

Saint Brendan & the Newfoundland Coast

The following excerpt from chapters XXI - XXIII of the travels of Saint Brendan the Voyager (c.486 A.D. - c.575 A.D.) details several encounters of the saint and his companions. While some have dismissed the account of Saint Brendan's transatlantic journey as a fanciful myth, several modern journeys using ancient sailing vessels and following the traditional route attributed to Saint Brendan (from the North Sea, past Iceland and Greenland, to northern Newfoundland) have proved successful. A number of modern experts now suggest - in keeping with Holy Tradition - that the voyages are historically factual, and represent one of the earliest Christian arrivals in Canadian waters. Newfoundlanders and others will recognize the gigantic icebergs described in the account, the monstrous whales and other fish; the human settlements could be either native camps, or (more likely) small Viking settlements.

They went to the island of Saint Alibe, to celebrate the Christmas festival, and afterwards taking leave of the abbot, with mutual blessings, they sailed about the ocean for a long time, taking rest only at Easter and Christmas on the islands before mentioned.

On a certain occasion, when Saint Brendan was celebrating the festival of Saint Peter, in the boat, they found the sea so clear that they could plainly see what was at the bottom. They, therefore, saw beneath them various monsters of the deep, and so clear was the water, that it seemed as if they could touch with their hands its greatest depths; and the fishes were visible in great shoals, like flocks of sheep in the pastures, swimming around, heads to tails. The brethren entreated the man of God to say Mass in a low voice, lest those monsters of the deep, hearing the strange voice, may be stirred up to attack them; but the saint said: 'I wonder much at your folly. Why do you dread those monsters? Is not the largest of them all already devoured? While seated, and often chanting upon its back, have you not chopped wood, and kindled it there, and even cooked some of its flesh? Why, therefore, should you fear those? For our God is the Lord Jesus; Christ, who can bring to nought all living things.' Having thus spoken, he proceeded to sing the Mass in a louder voice, as the brethren were still gazing at the large fishes; and these, when they heard the voice of the man of God, rose up from the depths, and swam around the boat in such numbers, that the brethren could see nothing but the swimming fishes, which, however, came not close to the boat, but swam around at some distance, until the Mass was ended, when they swam away from them in divers directions, out of the view or the brethren. For eight days, even with a favourable wind, and all sails set, they were scarcely able to pass out of this pellucid sea.

One day, on which three Masses had been said, they saw a column in the sea, which seemed not far off, yet they could not reach it for three days. When they drew near it Saint Brendan looked towards its summit, but could not see it, because of its great height. which seemed to pierce the skies. It was covered over with rare canopy, the material of which they knew not; but it had the colour of silver and was hard as marble, while the column itself was of the clearest crystal.

Saint Brendan ordered the brethren to take in their oars, and to lower the sails and mast, and directed some of them to hold onto the fringes of the canopy, which extended about a mile from the column, and about the same depth into the sea. When this had been done, Saint Brendan said: 'Run in the boat now through an opening, that we may get a closer view of the wonderful works of God'. And when they had passed through the opening, and looked around them, the sea seemed transparent like glass, so that they could plainly see everything beneath them, even the base of the column, and the skirts of the canopy lying on the ground, for the sun shone as brightly within as without.

Saint Brendan measured an opening between four pavilions, which he found to be four cubits on every side. When they had sailed along for all day by one side of the column, they could always feel the shade as well as the heat of the sun, beyond the ninth hour; and after thus sailing about the column for four days, they found the measurement of each side to be four hundred cubits. On the fourth day, they discovered on the south side, a chalice of the same material as the canopy and a patella like that of the column, which Saint Brendan at once took up, saying: the Lord Jesus Christ has displayed to us this great marvel, and has given to us two gifts therefrom, in testimony of the fact to others the holy father then directed the brethren to perform the divine office, and afterwards, to take refreshment; for they had taken none since they came in sight of the column. Next day they rowed towards the north, and having passed out through an opening, they set up the mast, and unfurled the sails again, while some of them held on by the fringes, or skirts of the canopy, until all was right in the boat. When they had set sail, a favourable wind came on in the rear, so that they had on occasion to use the oars, out only to hold the ropes and the tiller. And thus for eight days were they borne along towards the north.

When those days had passed, they came within view of an island, which was very rugged and rocky, covered over with slag, without trees or herbage, but full of smiths' forges. Saint Brendan said to the brethren: 'I am much distressed about this island; I have no wish to enter it or even to approach it - yet the wind is driving us directly towards it, as if it were the aim of our course.'

When they had passed on further, about a stone's cast, they heard the noise of bellows blowing like thunder, and the beating of sledges on the anvils and iron. Then Saint Brendan armed himself all over his body with the sign of the Cross, saying: 'O Lord Jesus Christ, deliver us from this malign island.' Soon after one of the inhabitants came forth to do some work; he was all hairy and hideous, begrimed with fire and smoke. When he saw the servants of Christ near the island, he withdrew into his forge, crying aloud: 'Woe! Woe! Woe!'

Saint Brendan again armed himself with the sign of the Cross, and said to the brethren: 'Put on more sail, and ply your oars more briskly, that we may get away from this island.' Hearing this, the savage man, above mentioned, rushed clown to the shore, bearing in his hand a tongs with a burning mass of the slag, of great size and intense heat, which he flung at once after the servants of Christ; but it did them no hurt, for they were protected by the sign of the Cross. It passed them at a furlong's distance, and where it fell into the sea, it fumed up like a heap of burning coals, and a great smoke arose as if from a fiery furnace. When they had passed on about a mile beyond the spot where this burning mass had fallen, all the dwellers on the island crowded down to the shore, bearing, each of them, a large mass of burning slag, which they flung, everyone in turn, after the servants of God; and then they returned to their forges, which they blew up into mighty flames, so that the whole island seemed one globe of fire, and the sea on every side boiled up and foamed, like a caldron set on a fire well supplied with fuel. All the day the brethren, even when they were no longer within view of the island, heard a loud wailing from the inhabitants thereof, and a noisome stench was perceptible at a great distance. Then Saint Brendan sought to animate the courage of the brethren, saying: 'Soldiers of Christ, be strong in faith unfeigned and in the armour of the Spirit, for we are now on the confines of hell; watch, therefore, and act manfully.'

Taken from The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot, Edition by Archbishop P. F. Moran, Translated by Denis O'Donoghue. D. O’Donoghue / Brendaniana Publishers, 1893.

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2008.