Book Review: Brendan: A Novel, by Frederick Buechner

Brendan: A Novel, Frederick Buechner (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1987, 2000).

Brendan: A Novel, Frederick Buechner (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1987, 2000).

Brendan: A Novel, Frederick Buechner. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1987, 2000.

Summary: This is a fictional account of the life of St. Brendan, often known as the Navigator. Buechner traces his life from being taking by St. Erc at one through his early years, the establishment of his leadership in founding Clonfert and in making kings, and most of all his marathon journeys, one lasting seven years.

I grew up near a St. Brendan’s school, which was just across the field from the junior high school I attended. I never had any idea of the colorful life this saint lived, nor his sustained impact upon Irish Christianity through the foundation (monastery) at Clonfert, his base of operations for evangelizing Ireland and Wales. Because of his voyages, (which some believed reached the New World in the sixth century AD) he is considered the patron saint of all who go to sea.

Reading this novel reminded me of a series of CDs we listened to some years ago by Father Richard Rohr on the spiritual journeys and transformation of men and women.

Brendan is taken at age one from his parents Finnloag and Cara by St. Erc, who had worked under Patrick. He goes to a monastery under the tutelage of Father Jarlath. We follow both his awakening sexuality and the music he hears in the cave that is the revelation of God to him. He is sent out to anoint a Christian to be king of Cashel with Finn, who narrates his life and travels with him except on his first journey. They preach and destroy pagan gods along the way and Brendan performs his first miracle, in restoring the life of an “expendable” during the coronation games. He founds the monastery at Clonfert which becomes the center of Irish evangelization. And he is not content. The sea calls to him and he makes a curragh, a boat of skins named Cara after his mother. Both his parents die during this journey, as does Dismas, mourned for the rest of his life by his friend Gestas. His quest is to reach the “land of the blessed” or Ti’r na nO’g. In his journeys, first in this boat with five others, and later with a larger company of monks, he sees silver mountains, Jasconius the whale, that they mistook for an island, and eventually reached what they though the Blessed Land, only to be introduced to St Patrick, a comical ape. They reach a river they cannot cross, and despite his ministrations, his friend Crosan dies.

Rohr contends that many young men embark in the early years of “heroic journeys” where they realize their gifts and hone their skills. At some point during the years 35 to 50 they face a crisis of limitation, beginning a life of descent, relinquishment, and service. For Christians, these men embrace the way of the cross.

It seems that this is the way of Brendan, who confronts both limitations external in not reaching the blessed land, and internal, as his confessor, the disillusioned Malo, pierces through the piety and ambition to the man beneath. Brendan returns to Clonfert, and for a time is disillusioned until exhorted by Saint Ita to evangelize the Welsh, Malo and Finn accompanying him. he spends himself in the evangelization of Wales and Ireland with the foundation at Clonfert surviving for a millenium. Ambition is replaced by the humility in his last words as he dies in his Sister Briga’s arms, “I fear the sentence of the judge.”

Finn, his faithful friend has the last word, saying:

“I’d sentence him to have mercy on himself. I’d sentence him less to strive for the glory of God than just to let it swell his sails if it can.”

Perhaps a good word for us all.


Editor’s Note: Thank-you to Bob Trube for sharing his reviews with Emerging Scholars! Bob first posted the above review on Bob on Books. As this week I’ve been on a journey with family and preparing to share the journey of the Emerging Scholars Network in the coming week, I have found this a challenging story. Placing this book on my “to read after I finish my thesis list.” To God be the glory! ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network

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Bob Trube

Bob Trube is Senior Area Director for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministry team in the Ohio Valley (Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania) and leads the ministry to graduate students and faculty at The Ohio State University. He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.

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