Jan 31: The Voyage of Saint Brendan

Just as in Exodus, where the Hebrews are made to spend 40 years wandering in the desert before they reach the Promised Land, Saint Brendan and his monks are made to face the challenges of the ocean and unknown islands for seven years, during which they are continually reminded of God’s ultimate providence.

Since they return to the same islands (and a whale) to celebrate Holy Week and Christmas, it’s clear that the seven years is not meant to suggest that the island they seek is so far away it takes seven years to get there. What is it about the desert and the ocean both, that make these landscapes compelling and meaningful in journey stories like these? What does the depiction of the sea as a proving grounds say about the poet’s view of nature, and humanity’s relationship to it?

7 thoughts on “Jan 31: The Voyage of Saint Brendan

  1. The sea and and a dessert are both wastelands in their own rights. They provide no shelter, no water, and often no food. In these types of narratives humans see nature as an adversary, something to be overcome. The fact that these are both religious narratives is a manifestation of the belief fostered in Genesis “Let them be masters over the fish in the ocean, the birds that fly, the livestock, everything that crawls on the earth, and over the earth itself!” (Gen 1:24-31). This mastery over nature can be seen as the true goal in the survival stories of Bernard and in Exodus. Achieving mastery over the harshest form of nature might be seen as bringing man closer to God. Therefore nature would be the enemy in this context, since it is keeping man from God.

  2. The ocean and the desert can be seen as extreme contrasts. Both are harsh and rough forces of nature but in different ways. The ocean is made of rough waves and tides, where water is the force, and the desert is the opposite. The desert has very little water and plagues the explorer with excessive heat and sand. Both settings serve as trials for the hero to withstand. Nature in the form of an environment can be the biggest force of them all. The explorer must battle through rough storms and lack of resources to survive. The poet uses nature to test and make him learn to appreciate it.

  3. The ocean and the desert are both seen as unforgiving landscapes that make survival difficult.These settings are compelling because they challenge the heroes to go above and beyond to survive. They test the true merit of these heroes. Although nature in the form of the ocean seems to be the antagonist to our heroes, I think that being on the ocean brings them closer to God by making them realize how blessed they are when they find food, water, and land. I think this shows that the poet thinks humanity is always connected to nature through God.

  4. Both landscapes are extremely brutal. They are considered trials that must be overcome in order to bring man closer to God. Through perseverance the traveler may strengthen their bond with God and become better Christians. As seen in multiple Biblical stories of how people managed to overcome harsh environments, the same applied to this poem.

  5. What I find interesting about the use of ocean and desert in stories like this is not that they are wastelands so much as they prove a canvas on which the characters are forced to interact with themselves on a deeper level. They aren’t able to rely on the environment surrounding them for anything, and therefore are stripped down to the most basic versions of themselves. They are experiencing a side of nature which man can neither understand nor thrive in, and it is how they react to these circumstances that tend to define them.

  6. The characters’ relationship with nature in either environment raises interesting questions about all of man’s relationship with nature and God. As noted previously, nature is clearly working against the characters as they try to get closer to God. However, nature is unanimously understood as willed by God Himself. Further, the physical effects on the men by either environment, whether it be dehydration or the threat of drowning, reinforces the idea that men are so far from God (men who are threatened by nature and God who wills it). While at the surface level, it seems that the characters’ are to be cheered on, the utilization of nature to deter their mission enforces the idea that Man will never be so close to God.

  7. As everyone has noted, these landscapes act as harsh forces of nature that often work against Brendan’s goal. I like what Sarah pointed out, that the most interesting part of this dynamic is how the men react and adapt to these forces; I think that’s the main point of these landscapes in the first place, to act as a test of sorts of their faith in God. In this sense, these landscapes are God’s designed temptations—temptations to abandon Him, and hope, to become corrupted. I find this especially interesting in contrast to the animals in the poem. The animals, of course, are as much a part of nature as the landscapes and yet, they tend provide for the men rather than test the men (the fish/island gives them shelter, food, drink; the bird acts as a guide and messenger from God). Perhaps this contrast, between animal and landscape reveals more than anything how the poet feels about nature. It is both a challenge and a blessing, and always acting under God’s design.

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