Thursday, March 18, 2010

Facing the Unknown: St. Brendan’s Prayer

by Susanne Dietze
One of my favorite saints, Thérèse of Lisieux, once said that if the saints in heaven came back to earth and read what had been written about them, they wouldn’t recognize themselves. I think St. Brendan would agree with her, as the legend surrounding his ministry has overshadowed his personal history.
Book illustration Manuscriptum translationis g...Image via Wikipedia
I first heard of Brendan as a newlywed. My husband had been called into ministry, and we prepared for a cross-country move for three years of seminary. We were young, but not naive enough to think that we could succeed without God's help. As two kids fresh out of college, we did not feel spiritually equipped for the life to which we’d been called.

At least we were financially set, or so we thought. But right after our honeymoon, we both became ill from a rare respiratory ailment. Neither of us could work for almost a month. Though we were blessed that our parents could help us with our expenses during that time, the cost of our medical treatments and other needs ate away the savings we’d intended to pay for our moving van and ultilities once we arrived.

As we stood on the verge of an adventure we still felt called to undertake, we were completely humbled. Through prayer, we held confidence in God’s plan for us, but we wondered how He expected us to manage the move, emotionally, physically and financially. Would He really provide for us?

We had no other choice but to trust Him.

One afternoon, the Christian radio station broadcast a song I’d never heard before. It was by rock band Iona, and (in a gleeful, carefully-planned splurge) we bought the CD. It turns out that the majority of the songs on this particular disk were inspired by the ministry of a Celtic saint named Brendan. The last song on the CD struck me:

Beyond these shores, into the darkness
Beyond these shores this boat may sail
And if this is the way then there will be
A path across the sea*

I knew nothing about Brendan, but in Iona's interpretation, this guy was unsure what would happen when he climbed into his boat. Despite his fear, he believed there'd be a "path across the sea" if he was following the Lord. I needed the reminder that if God had called us to seminary, He’d get us there. And we’d never succeed without His provision, His knowledge, and His help every step of the way.

Disused CurrachImage via Wikipedia
I know a bit more about Brendan now. Here are the basics: he was born around 484 in what is now County Kerry, Ireland, he became a priest, and he founded monasteries. In the course of his ministry, he discerned God's call to step into a currach – an open-air boat made of wood and animal hides – and set sail, preaching the Gospel beyond his native land.

Brendan obeyed, climbing into a currach more than once in the course of his ministry. His largest voyage lasted seven years and took him into unknown territory. He returned home and died peacefully after a long life of service to God, already revered for his legendary journeys.

Those facts say nothing of how he may have felt stepping into the boat. And that unknown land I mentioned? Well, it’s said that Brendan crossed the Atlantic Ocean and visited North America one thousand years before Christopher Columbus.

Amazing stuff, isn’t it? Many folks have dismissed the account of his great journey as religious allegory (and yes, just as the above icon shows, there are tales aplenty which describe Brendan celebrating Eucharist atop whales, or engaging in adventures which sound like other immram, or Irish voyage stories.) And the idea is ridiculous anyway: he couldn’t really have sailed across the Atlantic in a little leather boat, right?

In 1978, a writer and historian named Tim Severin proved the possibility of Brendan’s voyage when he successfully sailed a currach from Ireland to Newfoundland.

To me, however, Brendan's visit to North America isn't the point of his story. What humbled me to my core is that Brendan, a guy just like you and me, heard a call from God, and despite the huge and scary element of the unknown involved in that call, he obeyed.

Before his great voyage, Brendan offered a prayer, and it’s one that I love:

Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home?
Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?

Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy,
without silver, without a horse,
without fame, without honor?
Shall I throw myself wholly upon You,
without sword and shield, without food and drink,
without a bed to lie on?
Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?

Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness,
tears streaming down my cheeks?
Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach,
a record of my final prayer in my native land?

Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict?
Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean?
O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?

I have struggled with placing myself under God’s yoke, wondering if Christ is with me in the unknown. I have begged for His help as I sailed wild waves, and I've sat awake and afraid on nights far darker than those I spent fretting about God’s provision before and during seminary. (I should take this opportunity to praise Him, because of course, He did provide for us in every way, even financially. Someone whom I still have not met sent us a check to cover our rent for one month while we were sick. Our next-door neighbors suddenly moved away, leaving us the food in their freezer, and the sale of my husband's truck exactly covered the cost of a moving van.)

The Iona song concludes,

Wherever I may go Your love surrounds me,
For You have been before beyond these shores.*

Romans 8:39 tells us, “neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

There is no unknown place to Him; He has been everywhere we can possibly go. He created the air beneath the wings our airplane, the watery depths below our ship, the crevice of every cave and the innermost parts of our bodies, and He is and has been and will be wherever we go or need Him. When we face the unknown, we would do well to follow Brendan’s example and throw ourselves wholly upon the God who made us and loves us. Like Brendan, as we leave the “prints of (our) knees on the sandy beach” before we shove off from shore, may we trust that God is with us in the boat, and trust that He waits at our destination, too.

Have you ever been asked by God to get into a boat, and you didn’t know where it would sail? How did it work out? I’d love to hear any testimonies of God’s faithfulness.

To hear Iona's "Beyond These Shores," click here.

*"Beyond These Shores," music and lyrics by Iona, 1993, copyright SGO Music.

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  1. Good morning, Susanne. What a lovely prayer. Thank you for sharing it with us, and an amazing story too.

    I've been reading a lovely book of contemporary prayers. I know prayer is just communing with God, but as a poet, I really enjoy beautiful prayers too.

    Not to harp on an old refrain, but I think this writing journey is the scariest boat I've ever been on, and this from a girl who had to take a refugee ship through an area being bombed by Hezbollah. I'll have to let you know how it turns out in a few years.

  2. Hi Dina! Thanks for your kind words. It's soooo early here. I'm in my jammies with a cup of coffee in one hand. Hey, I'll send someone out for donuts for us.

    Isn't that prayer beautiful? The gut-wrenching fear is made clear, but so is the trust and love Brendan had for God.

    I agree with you that the writing journey is scary. Not life-threatening scary, but to do it properly, we must make ourselves vulnerable, exposing our secret thoughts and imaginings -- which are then judged and evaluated.

    I'll have to look into your book on prayer. I find that journaling my prayers (which sometimes come out almost like poetry) can be a rich experience. (Then again, many of my prayers never get past "help!", JK).

  3. The book I'm reading is in our sidebar, Susanne. A Heart Exposed: Talking to God with Nothing to Hide.

  4. Susie, I needed this today. We're on the sea of the unknown today. But it helps to know that we're not going anywhere that God hasn't already been. There is so much comfort in that concept for me. Thank you!

  5. Wow! Excellent post, Susanne. Now when I'm tempted to have a pity party I can be thankful our call didn't involve a giant canoe.
    Thank you for sharing St. Brendan with us!
    Planting this church would have to be our scariest boat adventure. And yes, God has proved Himself faithful in SO many ways over the last 12 years. He's always faithful... would that WE would always be so faithful to Him.

  6. Thanks, Dina! I love the title. I am always amazed by how much of myself I try to hide from God, when He sees it all anyway. In those times when I fully accept that through His grace, I'm forgiven and saved, I approach Him differently. I wish I approached Him that way all of the time, instead of rebelling and fighting against Him.

  7. Lisa, you've been in my prayers. These times of blindness and uncertainty are so difficult. I am the biggest whiner about getting into the boat. Every time! I so admire your willingness to serve the Lord with love and courage, to sail wherever He leads you, even when, like Brendan, you're not sure where the destination lies. May God grant you peace today.

  8. Good morning Niki! Hard to follow your post and the other fabulous posts this week. I am laughing at your giant canoe comment; it makes me feel like Davy Crockett or something. Or Lewis & Clarke! Ugh! I am so, so glad God didn't ask me to kayak off into the sunset.

    Ministry has been a huge "boat" into the unknown for us too, and I can see a new canoe tied to the pier with my name on it. I am trying hard to confess my fear but, like Brendan, throw myself wholly upon God. He is faithful, and I know it, but I'm astonished sometimes by my own utter faithlessness.

  9. Hi, Susanne: What a lovely post. I didn't know of St. Brendan before reading your story. I'm kinda in a small boat going over unchartered (for me) waters at the moment and have found myself relying on God even more than usual to show me the way and to be there with me as I take this new road. He's there at every turn, thankfully! And the people He's thrown into my path for guidance and support has no limits thus far.

    Thanks for reminding me that with God, all things are possible. Happy moments, praise God. Difficult moments, seek God. Quiet moments, worship God. Painful moments, trust God. Every moment, thank God. How true it all is!

  10. Connie!!! I am so happy to see you! You are in our hearts, thoughts and prayers as you sail this difficult sea. Praise God that He is always with us, sends others to guide and help us, and holds us in the palm of His hand.

    You're in my prayers and I thank God for you.

  11. Connie!!! So glad to hear from you! We've been praying! Oh, I am sending you hugs.

  12. I was thinking about how we fear getting into a boat and crossing uncharted paths and the amazing bravery of St. Brendan. It even holds us back from full relationship with God because of what He might ask us to do. I've been there.

    Sometimes we have no choice, and it's the last thing we want to do, but we get in that boat and let God guide us, knowing He's there through all the calms, the storms, the dark nights. I'm referring to someone special who's an inspiration to us all here in Inktropolis.

    Connie, you always did like to travel, eh?

  13. Great point, Deb, about how our fear can hold us back from being in a full, right relationship with God. I've been there too.

    I am so tickled that Connie was here today, too.

  14. Susie, great post! Thanks for challenging us to step into the boat. And Connie, it's wonderful to hear from you :-)

  15. Hi Narelle! Good to see you today. I'm praying for all of us as we step into whatever boats God's calling us to sail.

  16. Up here in Canada, we have a commercial airing that shows the dwellings the Vikings built in the ground in Newfoundland all those years ago. For all we know St. Brendan might have been the first inhabitant and the Vikings followed in his footsteps.

    Thanks for this informative post, Susie.

  17. Ten years ago, I set out on an unknown sea in a frail barque. I left an abusive relationship finally and had no idea on what I would live, where I would live, or with whom I would... That journey took me from VA to IL, from IL back to VA, and now to TX. And it's not over yet. Although Ihaven't always been happy about where the currents have taken me, each trough or tsunami teaches me to trust God more. In fact, the first wave brought me back to the Lord, brought me my husband... And then to my writing career... It's been a wild ride, and I'm not a brave person.

    Frankly, I have no problem believing that Brendon came here. Markings like the ogham alphabet--Celtic--hae been found in New England. Runes have been found in Oklahoma, of all places, and rock carvings exactly like those on the Sinclair castle in Scotland built in the fourteenth century, have been found in this country by settlers too early to have created them. And we mustn't forget the mummies with blue eyes found in caves in Appalachia.

  18. Susanne, what an interesting, fascinating story. I love this. I love the prayer. This is the first time I've heard this story and I'm just intrigued by it. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  19. Anita, that sounds cool! I wish I could see that commercial. I'll have to check it out online. How astonishing! Those guys (Brendan, the Vikings, and others) were indeed brave souls, heading out to unknown territory. I fear there is very little of the explorer in me!

  20. Laurie, thanks for sharing your beautiful testimony. I praise God for His faithfulness, and I also thank Him for your trust in Him. He has blessed you mightily!

    I, too, have no issue with Brendan making a voyage to North America and back. If God's call was on him, whyever wouldn't it work? So many mysteries. I hadn't heard of the blue eyed mummies. Wow, I've got to google that.

    Thanks for visiting and sharing today.

  21. Hi Suzie! Good to see you! Thanks for your comments: I love Brendan's story and his faithfulness is such an encouragement to me. I'm glad his prayer and story interested you.


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