By Cynthia Bourgeault
My St. Brendan icon is arrived! It made its way across the waters (natch!)—by air (quite unknown to St. Brendan)—and in only three days (as compared to Brendan’s own seven years)—from its iconographer in Australia to the rocky New England shores. Have a look!
Thank you, Michael Galovic, peerless iconographer.
St. Brendan has been in my life for a long, long time now— four decades at least. I first made his acquaintance as a graduate student in Medieval Studies, when I took refuge in his Navigation Sancti Brendani as a swashbuckling relief to the innumerable Latin theological and devotional treatises I was at the time plowing my way through in pursuit of a Ph.D. That manuscript is the original medieval blockbuster. It’s an eighth-century account of a sixth-century monk who set out from Ireland in a leather boat to discover “the land promised to the saints.” His voyage over the seas with an equally swashbuckling monastic crew was so realistic that it led some to wonder whether it might possibly be describing an Irish landfall on North America eight hundred years (!!!) before Columbus. The realism of this possibility was confirmed in the 1960s when an adventurer by the name of Tim Severin meticulously recreated the journey recorded in the Navigatio (except for singing the psalms!) and actually made landfall on Newfoundland.
Over the years, St. Brendan has always been there in the backdrop of my life. I think it was through his doing, chiefly, that I decided to abandon an academic life in Pennsylvania for the wilds of Maine—the closest I could come, in my twenties, to the archetype of a seafarin’ hermit life. About a decade later, synchronistically, I was invited to serve as vicar of a small, seafarin’ Episcopal parish named St. Brendan the Navigator (!) , in Stonington, Maine. Those years were some of the most memorable in my entire ministry. I used to sail over from my home on more-or-less nearby Swan’s Island (depending on which way and how strong the wind was blowing). One of our parishioners, quite the old salt himself, used to await my Sunday morning arrival with his binoculars trained keenly on the bay; when he could spot my little boat emerging out of the fogbanks, he gave a nod, and his wife started the water running in the tub.
One of the members of that parish was (and still is) and extraordinary graphics artist by name of Siri Beckman. To honor St. Brendan’s and its crazy seafarin’ lady hermit vicar, she designed the following print:
Some of you may recognize it as the logo of the Contemplative Society. Correct! Its seafaring theme and spunk (contemplation and action, indivisible), seemed just the ticket for our upstart little BC organization. Siri graciously gave her consent, and we adopted it in 2000. It has been with us ever since.
St. Brendan came with me to British Columbia in more ways than merely a stunning graphic. For most of 1995 I worked on creating my own liturgical drama based on the life of St. Brendan. It premiered it at All Saints, the Anglican parish of Salt Spring Island, in June 1996, with Captain Charles Hingston, a BC Ferries captain (as well as All Saints parishoner and fabulous undiscovered theatrical talent) as St. Brendan, and Lottie Devindisch, one of our charter Contemplative Society members, as his mysterious bird-guide. The Rt. Rev. Barry Valentine, retired All Saints rector and organist, took the role of Judas Isacariot (as well as our musical coach and accompanist, something Judas himself never managed), and several of the All Saints vestry signed on as his crew. Needless to say, an uproarious time was had by all.
So the die was no doubt already cast by the hand of synchronicity that I would eventually cross paths with Michael Galovic, Serbian born, Australian-naturalized iconographer, whose remarkable repertory includes not only most of the traditional Russian Orthodox icons beautifully and energetically “written,” but also a few of a much more adventurous nature. I’m not sure that any of those great old Russian saints and staretsky had ever heard of St. Brendan, but Michael certainly had heard of him and rendered him with a wildness that went straight to my own seafaring heart. Don’t you just love the swirling sea? It’s Prospero and Brendan, all rolled into one.
I met Michael because—and yes, enter yet another hemisphere and continent to this wondrously global story—my extraordinary New Zealand friends decided to thank me for one of my teaching trips by commissioning a Mary Magdalene icon from Michael. It is NOLI ME TANGERE, one of the great treasures in the entire iconic visionary library, depicting Mary Magdalene and Jesus in their intimate encounter in the garden of the resurrection.
I brought Mary Magdalene home with me from my spring 2011 teaching trip, and she beautifully graces the altar in my Eagle Island hermitage. As part of the same outpouring, my NZ friends also gifted me with a beautiful catalogue of Michael Galovic’s work, and naturally, my eye was drawn to St. Brendan. I told myself, “if there’s ever a chance…if there’s ever a way…”
And so I am overjoyed, stunned—but not entirely surprised—that the occasion in question should prove to be the milestone of my 65th birthday. Through the incredible generosity of so many friends and supporters—and thanks as well to Michael Galovic as well, who “wrote” this icon at a cost barely enough to cover the “ink,” it has become a reality. I am deeply, deeply grateful.
“Old men ought to be explorers,” T. S. Eliot wrote in his The Four Quartets (I am assuming that “men” is in this case a gender-inclusive term). He continues:
Here and there does not matter. We must be still
And still moving, into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion…
And so, St. Brendan, you are still the master helmsman as I raise my sails and strike out into this “other intensity.” What a blessing!! What a crowning coupe de grace for this sabbatical year! To all who have helped, or been part of this wonderfully rich thread of my life— as actors, drawers of my bath, commissioning patrons, artists, or holders-of-the-space, THANK YOU! May we all take another step together on our journey to “the land promised to the saints.”
With blessings and gratitude, Cynthia