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I purchased this book from a Storytelling motivation.  Brendan’s Voyage is a wonderful story, told by my favourite Monk and Bard, Columba, and I wanted to see if it was something I could or would want to tell or adapt for telling as part of my repertoire.

I got a lot more than I bargained for, but there were challenges to accessing it.

The first thing I loved about this book, which I learned on reading about the author on the back cover, is that the author is a Greek Orthodox Christian.  It has been frustrating as a ‘Celtic Evangelical’ to have so much material on Celtic Christian faith and practice, excellent though much of it is, come from Benedictine or other Roman Catholic writers.  As good as many Benedictine practices may be, this is the form of monasticism that by edict of Rome forcibly replaced the indiginous, diversly practicing Celtic monasteries of Scotland and Ireland with One Rule to rule them all, and I do carry something of a grudge.  Not very monk-like, I know.

Among my ‘Canadian Mutt’ mix of ancestry, I have a Ukranian Orthodox  heritage that I know little of, though all of  Eastern Orthodox faiths come from the Desert Fathers and Mothers originally, as did Celtic monasticism.   This book has sparked my interest to learn more.

I’d be willing to bet this book began as an academic paper of some kind, written in the context of a Greek Orthodox school where there is an understood  “lingo” and assumed knowledge of practices and history that left me often confused, though with an interesting list of terms and unfamiliar saints to Google at a later date.

The introduction is by the author’s husband, a Greek Orthodox priest, who shares the name Father Brendan with the hero of the tale. (Celtic monastics in some expressions were also permitted to marry).   As the book has no ‘summary’ chapter, a return to the introduction is satisfying, and for me cleared up a lot of confusion I started out with, reading as I was from an unfamiliar church culture.

The introduction talks about the incredible wittiness of the poem and its meter in the original Latin,

In this volume and its companion, Honor et Gloria, Poetry of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, we now have a literary examination of the original text in light of historical maps and traditions that  cast light on the Brendan tales.  Careful scholarship recently performed by the translator reveals that the original Latin was not accidental or fantastical prose, but deliberately-constructed poetry, conscious of classical forms and apparently designed to teach Gaelic and Pictish school children.  The patterns of rhyme and meter follow intricate formulae linked to Pythagorean mathematical progressions, the likes of which delighted the ear of Gaelic bards.

It also brings up the plausibility of Brendan’s Voyage as being geographically accurate, as pre-Columban maps indicate it was considered literally true.  The book often also sites Paul Chapman’s The Man Who Led Columbus to America.

Then it goes right into an English translation of this Irish epic (which was written in Latin and follows some Classic forms). Engaging, often humourous  language was used, but I had to take a couple runs to get my rusty mind into the place of hearing and understanding the poetry.  Using economic word choices, the story goes quickly.

Brendan faces exile, and those who followed him hear about the  island “reserved for God’s own”.   They prepare and set out for this island, but over seven years encounter many islands, several inhabited by monks following different practices.  They are provided for consistently by the hand of God  and experience signs and wonders, sometimes in the midst of danger, before reaching this final Paradise, and then returning to Ireland just before Brendan’s death.

Following the poem’s translation is the commentary, the literary examination.  Due to my own ignorance, from the introduction I was expecting more on the ‘real geography’ end of things (that came more towards the end of the book) and so I had to switch mental gears again.  It has been decades since I was in a formal literary class, so I cannot comment on the quality of the literary examination, but it unexpectedly spoke to so many things I am passionate about that at times I was nearly in tears.

As someone who dreams of being part of a monastic community, and spends significant time researching historical models and dreaming up new ones, I did not expect to encounter such a clear description of some models I had not yet seen, and with them a profound and compassionate comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of each.

I did not expect to discover in Brendan himself such a beautiful and human example of the kind of leadership I dream of existing in the monastery I wish to one day be part of.  The explanation of what it means to be ‘spiritually proficient’ made me crave to be so.As leader, Brendan graciously puts up with his less mature brothers, but leads by example.  He humiliates no one, no matter the faux pas.

“Throughout the tale, Abbot Brendan is father, not tyrant, and his “boys” are learners, not sinners.”

These monks joined Brendan in exile freely.  While they observe the liturgical seasons of  the year, there is no mandated form for exactly how one must observe them, leaving their free will intact.

I purchased the book for Storytelling benfits.  I didn’t expect to have my musician side so intrigued by the concept of ‘tonal chant’

…tone-based singing was quasi-improvisational, as it is in Orthodox Christian churches to this day.  The tones themselves madate certain notes, intervals, timing and flourishes…this form of choral chant is not fully melodic, though not devoid of melody.  Like jazz, it’s performance aspect is a creative spiritual exercise, even while remaining communally inspired…the music modes support chant[ing] with [the] freedom of inspired worship

As someone who as been a ‘worship leader’ for many years, I find this, as well as the examination of liturgy,  intriguing!

Finally, as someone seeking to make my life a ‘thin place’ where heaven and earth can be perceived as very near to one another, the ongoing discussion of  ‘sacred space’ and ‘space/time’ gave a lot of food for thought as well.

Some of the depths plumbed in order to bring context to the work went over my head, though I do mean to follow up on several of them.  I see this as a deficiency in me, not the writing.

The biggest problem I had with the book was a sad lack of copy editing.  Article adjectives and prepositions were sometimes missing, jarring my concentration as I struggled to comprehend so many new-to-me concepts.  Most distressing in the translation section was that colons were frequently replaced with question marks!  I’m not sure how they missed that one!

In all despite the need to ‘work’ for it, I found this an inspiring read that I know I will return to in future.


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One Response to “Book Review of ‘O Honored Father, Theater of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis'(The Sacred Voyage of Saint Brendan, ascribed to Saint Columba of Iona, translation and commentary by Sharon Pelphrey)”

  1. j says:

    Excellent review!


    Most distressing in the translation section was that colons were frequently replaced with question marks!

    This might be related to problems with converting between different types of text encoding.

    If there’s no equivalent for the Unicode code point you’re trying to represent in the encoding you’re trying to represent it in, you usually get a little question mark: ? or, if you’re really good, a box. Which did you get? -> �

    That would suggest a problem at the printer’s end. If so, the publisher must have been fit to be tied!