Brendan of Ireland. Saint Brendan. Brendan the Navigator. Born in the late fifth century, this intrepid monk left few reliable records, but Frederick Beuchner has reimagined his life in this unexpectedly wild and bawdy novel. Through the voice of Brendan’s younger disciple, Finn, we follow his unhappy childhood, his youth and education in a monastery, and his growth into a monk whose magnetic personality drew others to join him in even the most reckless schemes, in particular setting off to the fabled Isle of the Blessed in a small coracle that they built themselves.
According to legend, Brendan landed in North America before any other European. Beuchner has him landing in ancient Florida and interacting with unpredictable native tribes. Throughout his adventures, Brendan grappled with faith and doubt, looking for signs of God in this world. Brendan’s mentor had been converted by Saint Patrick himself, so the church in Ireland was very young at the time and was filled with paganism. The people and even the priests freely mixed the beliefs of druidism and pantheism into their understanding of the new religion of Christianity. They blithely recited the psalms with their own words tucked in, replacing middle-eastern landscapes and rituals with Ireland’s green hills and superstitions. Brendan expected to find a physical Isle of the Blessed, and when he was unsure of its existence, his faith suffered. Visions and omens steered faith, and doctrine was slippery at best. The monks varied from huge, roaring wild men to pale, starving ascetics who lived on watercress alone for months at a time in order to atone for the sins of the world. Life was rough, and everyone was constantly filthy. And so the Irish church was born.
Frederick Beuchner is one of the finest writers I have ever read. This is the second work I have read by him, and his style is completely original. Brendan was written in 1987, and it is poetic, shocking, hilarious, crude, relentless, and altogether gorgeous. Although Beuchner is an American Presbyterian, this novel was thoroughly Irish. The worldview, the mannerisms, the sense of humor, and even the cadence of speech weave a tale that is completely Celtic, yet explores the depths of human guilt and hope that are universal.
This novel tells a great tale that is probably as true as it can be, while it makes a believer marvel that the Christian faith survived as anything resembling the gospel accounts. I frequently felt very grateful for the reformers who came along every few centuries, returning us to the scriptures and getting us back on track. On the other hand, as a twenty-first century American, I felt the tug toward a time when the veil between the physical and the spiritual was much thinner. Our cold, scientific way of thinking about all things, even faith, is like a neat, orderly room, with white walls and white furniture: practical, streamlined, and perfectly clean. It is correct and sensible, but not very inviting. What if we filled that room with rich textures and spangled it with color, even adding objects with no practical use except to show us beauty? It would be harder to keep clean, and things might get out of place, but our souls would be fed, and everyone would want to live there. The characters in Beuchner’s novel would burst into extravagant praise laced with dubious doctrine, extolling the glories of the world God has created. Surely we can find a way to embrace the exuberance without forsaking the one, true faith.
Brendan is recommended for all adults who love adventures in great literature.
Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, my church, or anyone else.