There is something unique about St Brendan’s island, something I find very difficult to put into words, because I have no term of comparison. These Celtic Pilgrimages are filled with places of such spiritual strength that they can be overwhelming. About Iona, there is a saying that no pilgrim will ever come here just once. You will always return because you need to hear once more the things you’ve heard in your heart the first time. This is true of all the isles; in some ways, it is even stronger on the smaller, more secluded ones, precisely because of their very remoteness and silence.
Let me tell you a secret. Of all the amazing places we see during our pilgrimages, my heart aches for four in particular: St Brendan’s beehive cell; the hermit caves on St Kenneth’s Isle; St Columba’s Bay on Iona; and the Nuns’s Cave on Mull. It is revealing to me, as the leader of these pilgrimages, that people tend to wander alone here. After we pray together, each of us instinctively looks for solitude to pray alone. It is as if we all answer a personal silent call from the cliffs, the hills or the coast of the ocean.
There is something deeply unsettling about these sites, something that immediately throws you out of your spiritual comfort zone. The things we learn to avoid, the aspects of our faith we gradually learn to ignore somehow become the essential, central themes here. These are un compromising places, dangerous places for anyone except uncompromising characters of dangerous, uncompromising faith. I hope to tell you about all these places over time, but let’s start with few words about St Brendan’s cell.
The ‘data’ concerning the cell is itself impressive beyond belief. Dating back to the very early 500s, it is stunningly well-preserved. Fifteen centuries later, its unmistakably Irish character is perfectly obvious, building a direct link with St Brendan’s first monastic community. All the original monastics were Irish, and they built their first cells as they did in their own country. The beehive cell on St Brendan’s are identical with those you find on the Skellig Islands, for instance.
What makes this cell even more remarkable is that it is an extremely rare example of a double beehive cell. From what I know – please tell me if this is not true – the cell on St Brendan’s is the only example of a double beehive cell in Scotland. We don’t really know why the Christian Celts built these double cells, just as we don’t know why they are so rare. The most likely explanation is that they were intended for the use of the Abbot of the monastery, who would have needed the second space to hear the brothers’ confessions and to offer them private guidance.
It is a unique experience to kneel in this cell and to pray for St Brendan’s guidance. Just kneel down and ask him to accept you as one of his community, and to cover you with his protection after your return home; just ask for the unspeakable, ask with boldness, ask with the positive desperation of the one who feels lost but refuses to give up the fight. Hope against hope. ‘Christ beside me, Christ within me.’ – these words come from the heart of a tradition that knew this feeling very well.