Monday, May 22, 2006

St. Brendan and Singing the Psalms


Recently I've been listening to the cassette-tape program, Singing the Psalms by the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault. I think we've mentioned this tape set earlier on this blog.

The passage I want to quote today is from Tape 2, in which Bourgeault tells the story of the 6th century Irish saint, Brendan, who went in search of a long-lost Christian land to the west of Ireland. He sailed away with 14 fellow monks, and, according to medieval legend, visited a variety of fantastic lands. Their quest was to find "a land where light never dropped: [it was] always illuminated by the light of Christ."

A few years ago, the National Geographic (I believe) funded an expedition by Tim Severan to see whether a crew sailing a leather-covered Celtic boat really could sail from Ireland to the New World. Tim Severan's crew made it, so perhaps St. Brendan actually arrived in Newfoundland.

Was this a real voyage? Was the legend an account of an actual Irish landfall in America 1,000 years before Columbus?

According to the manuscript, everywhere Brendan landed, he encountered monks who joined him in the Daily Office. In fact, on one island, "The Paradise of the Birds," the monks were joined in singing vespers by the birds of the land, who sang beautiful Latin.

Bourgeult notes that the modern expedition recreated everything about Brendan's voyage except one important thing. They failed to recreate the one aspect of the voyage that the medieval manuscript was the most specific about: every day the monks would raise their voices to chant the psalms together. They sang the Divine Office seven tmes a day, just as if they were back at the monastery.

"They [the National Geographic expedition] did get to the land," Cynthia Bourgeault writes, "but the question is, did they arrive at the same land that St. Brendan found?"

The modern explorers expected to arrive at the wind-swept coast of Newfoundland, and they did. St. Brendan and his monks expected to find a holy place, and indeed they arrived at "The Paradise of the Birds." There, the very birds sang, "My lips shall sing the praises of the Lord."

Brendan and his monks did not report seeing bare rocks, cold surf, and rude gulls pecking at the sand. Far from it. They found a land bathed in the light of Christ.

She contines, "For the secret is--and I think it's a very important secret--that the world that you get to in the Psalms is a different world than the world you get to without them."

Bourgeault continues, "The world that you find by going from place to place with the Divine Office as your backbone, is a different world than you find when you just get out there and go for it in linear time."

I love the suggestion that the Psalms have the power to change the way we experience reality--in a sense to change reality itself, at least for the believer. I really have no particular desire to visit the cold, rocky coast of Newfoundland, but I would love to arrive someday at the Paradise of the Birds.

Best wishes,
Mason Smith


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