St Brendan, patron saint of extreme sports?


This saturday (tomorrow) some people will celebrate the feast day of Saint Brendan. Brendan of Clonfert was the Irish monk who according to the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, the epic tale of his crossing the Atlantic in a small boat made out of animal skins, was so dedicated to his God that he would set off into the unknown with no realistic expectation of return.

The story of Brendan might seem completely irrelevant to you, especially if you hold no respect for his God or his history. But the story of Brendan can hold useful truths for all of us, and in the spirit of ‘you tell me your truth, I’ll tell you mine’ – here’s mine. Please feel free to tell me yours (I can just delete it if I dont like it 😉 )

Firstly we must acknowledge that there are many ways to read the Navigatio text: one might be tempted to take it as a historical text, albeit with some adjustments to be made for allegorical language.  Alternatively one might take it as a romantic myth, which doesnt necessarily reduce its importance, just gives it a different frame of reference.

Some have suggested it was an attempt by the church to Christianise the immrama or echtrai of Celtic mythology,  certainly that is a possibility, retelling stories with new emphases or characters is one way of propagandising in a culturally relevant way. Whichever way you choose to read it, it’s a good tale.

Although the Navigatio was an Irish story, it seems that it was first written down elsewhere, I suspect that is probably because in Ireland it remained oral history, whereas elsewhere, particularly on the continent of Europe, it needed to be preserved in written form. Whatever the development, it will have changed a bit over the years, but it remains inspirational.

If you’ve never read, or perhaps never even heard of the story, you can read a version of it here, and read a very (rather too) brief precis of it here. If it was in my gift, I’d make Brendan the patron saint of extreme sports, and name a few gnarly downhill runs after him.

Anyway, back to the point of this blog: there are certain threads I take out of the story.

1) Adventure: without adventure, our lives become dull and empty. Today we’ve attempted to rule out any element of adventure or risk in our lives, because we’re afraid of potential disaterous consequences. (‘Don’t go out on your bike, you’ll get hurt’; ‘dont play out in the street kids, you get snatched by a paedophile’; ‘dont eat that plant, you might get ill.’ ‘Don’t pee on an electric fence…’ – actually that last one is right.)

But life without risk and adventure is dull, it becomes the antithesis of itself, lifeless. Certainly in church we’ve lost the element of risk and adventure which saw Christianity spread like a virus across the world hundreds of years ago. Now we’re safe, secure, and a bit fearful – what a rubbish way to live.

Why are we so afraid of risk? We’re too sold on our consumer culture attitude of safety and security as provided by banks and belongings (ha!) – well perhaps that notion is changing…

2) Dream: without dreams we’re nothing. To dream is to transcend the present reality, to enter a place where the impossible is possible, and to live a life full of hope and mystery. My kids have crazy dreams, they make no sense, they are impossible, but when they tell me about them, their eyes burn with excitement, and their minds expand. I want them to make their dreams come true (except that one about the flying elephant.)

With dreams we need the first element too, adventure, risk, the ability to suspend disbelief long enough to just give it a good try. I’m obviously not talking now about those crazy childish dreams of flying elephants and so on, I’m talking now about the kind of dreams we all harbour in our hearts, the things we’d love to do, the places we want to go, the adventures we want to take. To see dreams come true, we need to risk them not coming true too, we need to invite risk back into the equation.

In the navigatio Brendan and his monks make an impossible journey, with all kinds of adventures along the way. If we manage to engage our sense of adventure with our dreams, and suspend our disbelief long enough to take a few risks, then we too may just see the impossible become possible, and have a blast along the way.

Christians would say (I hope) it’s about having faith in God… I’ll leave that one up to you, but whatever your opinion, why not celebrate the feast day of Saint Brendan by doing something exciting, for me this year, it’s all about an elephant and a massive helium tank…

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