Praying in St Brendan’s monastery is one of the most spiritual experiences of our pilgrimages. To get to the isle is itself an adventure. We wake up very early in the morning, then we find our way to a small loch on Mull, where we are met by two local fishermen and their boat. They will take us to the isle, although they themselves have never been there. It takes a group of American and British Orthodox pilgrims to get these local men to the site of St Brendan’s Monastery.
After about three hours in cars, motor boats and inflatable dinghies (yes, indeed!) we finally get to the island. A sign tells us that ‘you stand amid the ruins of the most complete early Christian monastery in Scotland.’ Most of us associate the Celtic Isles of Scotland with St Columba’s monastery on Iona. And yet, two decades before St Columba landed on Iona, in the very early 500s, St Brendan had already founded a monastery here.
Unlike St Columba, though, St Brendan’s presence seems to have had less impact on the local history. My instinct is that the two saints had very different callings. St Columba was clearly a missionary monk, and the tales regarding the hundreds of monasteries and churches he founded testify to that. St Brendan also founded many communities all over the British Isles. His heart, though, seems to have been elsewhere, more focused on the transformation of one’s own being.
It is relevant that we associate St Columba with missionary monasteries, while St Brendan is directly connected with the Celtic pilgrimages for Christ. After all, St Columba is known as ‘Columba of Iona’, while St Brendan is remembered as ‘the Navigator’. One is defined through his link with a particular island, while is other is defined precisely through the lack of any such link with an earthly place. They perfectly express two different paths towards the same destination: Christ.
The two saints have certainly met during their lifetime, and St Columba returned many times to St Brendan’s Isle. Most historians agree that this is St Columba’s secret island of Hinba, the place where he would regularly come for periods of private prayer in silence and seclusion. By tradition, this is also where St Columba buried his mother.
The ruins of the sixth century church are still standing. So are the ruins of some of the original monastic cells, common rooms and a later, medieval chapel. Yet, for us, pilgrims looking for a way to enter a relationship with the saints, perhaps the most important place is the humble beehive cell close to the coast of the ocean. I shall tell you all about it in another post.
In the meantime, keep praying for the monastery, and do join us for one of our pilgrimages next summer.