St. Brendan

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:

St. Brendan by Siri Beckman

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

9 replies
  1. Justin Coutts
    Justin Coutts says:

    I love this! I have also been very inspired by the life of St Brendan. I recently spent some time out in the bush where I live in Northern Ontario fasting in the spirit of Brendan. I don’t usually leave comments on other people’s websites leading back to my own (bad form I know) but in this case I feel like it might be appropriate? I hope so anyway ???? Here is my reflection I wrote upon returning from my immram into the wilds

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    air conditioningleads says:

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  3. Patricia Crandall
    Patricia Crandall says:

    I just finished reading The Holy Trinity. Last month I read the book Deciphering the Cosmic Number by Arthur I. Miller. Is the “cosmic number,” (137) that Wolfgang Pauli uncovered, connected to the Law of 3 and 7? Would the 1 be the Alpha and the Omega? Thank you for sharing your passion and your expertise.

  4. John Lawrence Gillis
    John Lawrence Gillis says:

    My interest in Brendan began around 1984, when I conceived of a “sequel” to the navigator’s story, with the working title “The Legend of Josh Brendan.” It’s an unfinished work, among many others, but when I find the right collaborators I do foresee it on the 3D widescreen (in our living rooms).

    The cinematography begins on the summit of Cnoc Bréanainn, where according to legend, the saint himself climbed “to see the Americas, before setting sail for them.” Through the mists he sees the promise of a new land, and immediately knows the Lord is calling him there. And then Josh Brendan awakens from his dream. It’s 1986, and he’s all of 13. His father’s side of the family claims a direct link within the saint’s lineage. His mother is skeptical. But Josh is the true descendant. He is a visionary who sees the new land with even greater clarity than his forebear. Stay tuned.

    So how can we best honor this legendary saint on his feast day? By asking God to help us see far beyond our current horizon, to where He’s leading us. We honor Brendan by asking how we can be citizens, here and now, of the new world God has promised.

    There is no better description of “the old world” than human nature and its addiction to comfort and predictability. There is also no better promise of the new world than adventurous hearts, willing to risk all for God and a better life. We are between worlds now. The old ways no longer work, but the way forward is uncertain.

    “Fear not,” St. Brendan said, “for God will be unto us a helper, a mariner, and a pilot. May God do unto us His servants and [this] little vessel as He willeth.”

  5. Sharon Osborne
    Sharon Osborne says:

    First, Cynthia, best hopes that you had a terrific 65th birthday! The Meaning of Mary Magdalene crossed my path in one of those outrageously synchronistic moments–my osteopath’s office person, a very interesting woman who sings Arabic music, was reading the book, so I got it from interlibrary loan. . A breathtaking piece of work, so profound and inspiring; itoften moves me, unexpectedly, to tears, then a couple of pages later, into uproarious laughter because you write exactly as you talk! Thank you, Cynthia, for staying always on your compass course. IThe St. Brendan saga–his and yours–is wonderful, as is the art work.. Peace. Hope to see you sometime.

  6. Michael
    Michael says:

    I am reading your book “Wisdom Jesus” and find it touching a part of me that I have not experienced in a long time. Thank you for the book. I did not realize there were “religious” people trying to actually follow Jesus teachings. There was a feeling deep in my gut – like a ray of hope. I have been “seeking”, since I was eighteen years old, almost fifty years. Your “Wisdom Jesus” has given me a different avenue and I am going to try it.

    Your St. Brendan is very definitive and I see why you admire it…… me, the picture of trust and devotion.

    Thank you for your work.

    • Patricia
      Patricia says:

      Michael — I am approximately your age and am one of those “religious” people doing my best to follow Jesus. There are many of us here in the Ozarks from all denominations, or no denomination. We share sincere gratitude for what we have received from God via Jesus and a strong desire to put our faith into action by reaching out to others in need, physically, emotionally or spiritually.

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