Pilgrimage (peregrinatio) has occupied a central place in Celtic Christianity and spirituality. For many Celtic monks, participating in pilgrimage was regarded as “the highest form of penance and self-renunciation.” In a sermon, the famous missionary monk Columbanus (543-615) described the entire Christian life as a pilgrimage:
We are travelers and pilgrims in this world . . . as guests of the world, free of lusts and earthly desires . . . let us fill our mind with heavenly and spiritual forms . . . turning our back on evil and laying aside all apathy, let us strive to please him who is everywhere, so that we may joyfully and with a good conscience pass over the road of this world to the blessed and eternal home of our eternal Father.
As Celtic monks pushed out on pilgrimage to the edges of the known world, they encountered the God of creation in worship and also put themselves in danger. Those who took to the sea on pilgrimage were known as “green martyrs.” Many Celtic monks also became missionaries, leading pagans to Christ and planting new churches and monasteries along the way.
In this paper, I probe more deeply into the spirituality of pilgrimage by exploring the famous eighth-century hagiographical work, The Voyage of Brendan. In particular, I discuss the rhythms of pilgrimage through daily worship and through the church year. I conclude by summarizing themes of Celtic pilgrimage that might also encourage pilgrims on the way today.
Background on St. Brendan and The Voyage
St. Brendan of Clonfert (484-577), also known as “the navigator,” was born in County Kerry in southwest Ireland. Remembered as one of the one of the Twelve Apostles (monastic saints) of the Irish church, Brendan founded the monastery at Clonfert in western Ireland. Though Brendan imitated other Irish monks and traveled widely in pilgrimage and ministry, The Voyage of Brendan has never been regarded as an authentic historic account. Rather, the story, a theological allegory, conveys the salvation journey of the Irish church as a whole with a focus on its ascetic values. The Voyage is about Brendan (and the pilgrim Irish church) going in search of the “Promised Land of the Saints.”
Brendan’s voyage to the Promised Land begins when he hears the testimony of the monk Barinthus, who had previously made the journey. Though inspired and eager to push out to sea, Brendan first enters a period of discernment that included fasting, prayer, and seeking the counsel of his community. After, Brendan sets out on his own voyage with a community of fourteen monks.
Sacred Time and Spiritual Rhythms
Brendan’s journey takes a total of seven years where he and his community are met with obstacles and hardships at sea—a lack of wind, lack of food, demons, and sea monsters—before they reach the Promised Land and return home. This journey is framed by sacred time—spiritual rhythms shaped by both the daily office and the major feasts of the church year.
The Daily Office. Let us first examine how Brendan’s journey is shaped by faithfulness to daily worship. After being at sea for an initial forty days and running out of food, Brendan and company are led to an island where they find a community of monks who feed them. Immediately after eating, all of the monks pray compline (nighttime) prayers. During the night, Brendan and one of his monks are attacked by a demon, which leads Brendan to spend the night in vigils. After the monk succumbs to temptation, Brendan leads him through the Eucharist as a means of confession and penance.
Arriving at another island where God has again provided for their physical needs, Brendan’s first action is to sing the daily office. Moving on to another island, they spend the night in prayer and vigils. The next day, Brendan directs each monk to pray their own individual masses. Once back in the boat, Brendan leads the community in mass.
Arriving at another island, they are welcomed by a community of monks into the refectory for a silent meal. Afterward, all of the monks enter the church and sing the nighttime office. Emphasizing the community’s commitment to silence, the abbot tells Brendan that “it is only when we sing praise to God that we hear a human voice.” Here, it seems that Brendan’s monastic vision is being enlarged by the community’s vow of silence.
On two additional days of the journey, Brendan and his monks are remembered praying each of the daily offices, including nighttime vigils, terce, sext, vespers, and compline. These days are completely organized around the office. The appointed Psalms are especially highlighted.
With the exception of Brendan leading the community in mass aboard the boat, every other instance of daily worship takes place on an island where they have found nourishment, rest, and refuge from the dangers of the sea. In The Voyage, the daily office seems to represent daily withdrawal from the world where believers find refuge, nourishment, and rest in God. Green martyrs are sustained by faithful worship.
The Church Year. In addition to daily worship, Brendan’s voyage was framed by the major feasts of the church year. In the first year of the voyage, they arrive at one island on Maundy Thursday and stay through Holy Saturday. The monks also receive a lamb in order to celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection. From that island, they secure enough food to last them until Pentecost. At the end of the first year, they return to the same island—an island of birds—to celebrate Easter. The birds tell Brendan and his monks that the first year of their voyage was complete—starting and ending with Easter—and that six years remained until they reached the Promised Land.
At Easter the following year, they are met by someone who offers them enough provisions to last until Pentecost. From there, they learn that they will travel and reach another island by Christmas and that they will stay there through Epiphany. Setting out again, they receive enough supplies to last them until Lent. They continue their journey to their usual island destination to celebrate Holy Week. Then they depart from the island on the same path with enough provisions to last them until Pentecost.
At the island of the birds, one of the birds summarized the circular pattern of Brendan’s seven-year voyage:
God has appointed four places for you for each season of the year where you shall stay until seven years of your pilgrimage are over. You shall spend Maundy Thursday with your steward who is there each year, the Easter vigil on the back of a whale, the Feast of Easter until the octave of Pentecost with us, and the Nativity of the Lord with the community of Ailbe. At the end of seven years, after great trials of various kinds, you will find the Promised Land of the Saints which you seek and there you shall live for forty days before God shall lead you back to the land of your birth.
At last, Brendan and the monks reach the Promised Land of Saints. They are told: “This is the land which you have sought for so long. You were not able to find it immediately because God wished to show you many of his wonders in the ocean.” Having reached their destination, Brendan and his community return home and Brendan dies shortly thereafter.
What do we learn about Celtic spiritual pilgrimage in The Voyage? First, Celtic Christians and monks became impassioned to imitate the examples of those who had gone on pilgrimage before. Brendan was inspired by the example of Barinthus. This account resembles St. Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430) conversion to Christ and the ascetic life after he learned of the example of St. Antony in Egypt.
Second, Brendan’s story emphasizes discernment about the call to the ascetic life. After hearing Barinthus’ testimony, Brendan takes time to fast and pray and seek the counsel of his community. The Voyage teaches us that the ascetic life should not be entered into lightly or alone.
Third, in Brendan’s pilgrimage—a difficult journey—God provides for their needs along the way. Like St. Paul, Brendan and his community relied on the hospitality of people (monastic communities in his case) to provide for his needs.
Fourth, the seven-year journey is characterized by faithfulness in daily worship. In almost every case, Brendan and his community land on an island, are refreshed by food, rest, and hospitality, and then they pray the daily offices. A remarkable parallel exists between physical nourishment and rest and spiritual nourishment and rest. Tom O’Loughlin notes that The Voyage presents a community of monks growing in their liturgical practice until their worship is perfected in the Promised Land of Saints.
Finally, their circular “map” to the Promised Land is comprised of the major feasts on the church calendar. Each feast offered them nourishment, rest, and renewal needed to continue the arduous voyage. In the midst of their voyage, they could also look forward to the next feast on the calendar to keep them going. While the feast day pattern was revealed feast by feast in the first year, in the six years that followed, the rhythm was revealed to them and they knew what to expect. As the rhythms of the church year became ingrained in them, they grew in their faith and became mature pilgrims.
While The Voyage of Brendan is an allegory of the medieval Irish church’s salvation journey, the spiritual truths presented in these five summary points can serve as a guide to Christian pilgrims today. We embark on the life of faith in part because of the examples of others. We do it in community with others. We recognize that following Christ is a spiritual battle. Finally, we must develop spiritual rhythms around daily worship and the church year in order to stay faithful on our spiritual journeys.
 Edward L. Smither, Missionary Monks: An Introduction to the History and Theology of Missionary Monasticism (Eugene: Cascade, 2016), 25. See further Marilyn Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Middle Ages (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 140, 149-150; also Elva Johnston, “The Voyage of Saint Brendan: Landscape and Paradise in Early Medieval.” Brathair 19 no. 1 (2019): 38.
 Columbanus, Sermon 8 in Oliver Davies and Thomas O’Loughin, eds. Celtic Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1999), 356.
 John E. Lawyer, “Three Celtic Voyages: Brendan, Lewis, and Beuchner.” Anglican Theological Review 84 no. 2 (2002): 322.
 See further Smither, Missionary Monks, 64-81.
 See further Johnston, “The Voyage of Saint Brendan,” 36.
 St. Brendan the Navigator (web site). Online: http://www.saint-brendan.org/history.asp (accessed November 23, 2020).
 See further Ted Olsen, Christianity and the Celts (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2003), 125.
 Davies and O’Loughlin, Celtic Spirituality, 34; see also Lawyer, “Three Celtic Voyages,” 321.
 The Voyage of Brendan in Davies and O’Loughlin, Celtic Spirituality, 155-158. All subsequent references to The Voyage are taken from Davies and O’Loughlin.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 159-161.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 161-163.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 168-170.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 170.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 163-164, 170; see further Johnston, “The Voyage of Saint Brendan,” 44; also Lawyer, “Three Celtic Voyages,” 324.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 161-165.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 166-167.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 171-173.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 174.
 The Voyage of Brendan, 189.
 See Augustine, Confessions 8.14.
 See further Acts 16:13, 21:4–8, 28:14; Rom 12:13.
 See further Thomas O’Loughlin, Journeys on the Edges: The Celtic Tradition (London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 2000), 93-95.
 See further O’Loughlin, Journeys on the Edges, 95-97.