One time Snedgus and Mac Riaghta, clerks that were of the people of Columcille, got into their currach of their own will, and went out over the sea on a pilgrimage, and they turned righthandways and the wind brought them north-westward into the outer ocean.
— From “the Voyage of Snedgus” in Lady Augusta Gregory’s A Book of Saints and Wonders.
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Not all those who wander are lost.
You’ve heard the words before. They come from a snatch of verse found in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but the thought they express is far older. It is in fact ancient and timeless and fundamental to the Pilgrim life.
“Wanderer” (as the reader may recall) is one of the primary meanings of the English word pilgrim. Its Latin precursor, peregrinus, denotes a person on the way – someone who makes a journey through (per) the land (ager). From this primary sense comes a secondary meaning: stranger or foreigner. A traveler who is simply passing through a place can never really belong to that place. He’s bound for some other destination. He’s on a quest to find his own true home, and that true home is elsewhere. He’s what the Greeks called parepidemos: a temporary resident, a refugee, one who lives among a people not his own.
The apostle Peter uses this word to address the recipients of his first epistle: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims (parepidemoi) of the Dispersion (diaspora) in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia …” He was writing to Christians – Jews and Gentiles – who had been driven out of Rome by decree of the emperor Nero and were now sojourning in the province of Asia Minor. It’s consistent with their character and identity that these people were strangers to the vicinity in more ways than one: later in the same letter, Peter acknowledges that their neighbors were surprised to find them unwilling to “plunge into the flood of wild and destructive things they do.” Apparently these wayfarers were outlandish not only in terms of their place of origin, but also in their customs, values, and behavior. They were odd both culturally and spiritually. As a result, the locals called them “evildoers” and labeled them “haters of mankind.” As history and current circumstances teach us, this is just part and parcel of what it means to be a peregrinus.
Put differently, the Pilgrim life is in many ways a restless, rootless, unsettled, and misunderstood life. It’s a life characterized by a certain amount of pain, strain, and tension – the tension that comes from not belonging, of being in-between. The Pilgrim is a stranger because, like the Master (who said He had no place to lay His head), he is caught between two worlds or two conflicting realities. He has one foot in the kingdom and another in the kosmos.
So important was this aspect of the Pilgrim path to some of the early Irish saints that they made self-imposed exile a central element of their personal spiritual discipline. Patrick, for instance, was not a home-born Irishman. He was in fact a transplanted Briton who came to Eire originally as a captive slave and later returned of his own free choice as God’s willing bondservant. By way of contrast, Columba (Columcille) was not only a native of Donegal, but a member of the royal household. Yet in spite of his deep Irish roots, Columba turned his back on the Emerald Isle in order to embrace his identity as a stranger in the earth and “make a journey for Christ” (peregrinari pro Christi)*. He went out singing,
My foot in my tuneful coracle,
My sad heart tearful …
There is a grey eye
That will not look back again upon Ireland:
It shall never see again the men of Ireland nor her women.**
The result of his peregrination was the founding of Iona, the tiny island monastery from which the Christian message spread not only into Britain, but across most of the European continent, carried by successive waves of wandering Irish monks.
Brendan was one of these wanderers. Many have heard about his fantastical voyage in a hide-covered currach with twelve brother monks. Some have even suggested that he may have reached the shores of North America long before Leif Ericson’s Norsemen. But fewer are familiar with the underlying motive for his journey. For as it turns out, Brendan was no mere adventurer or explorer. He did not put out to sea in search of thrills, wealth, or fame. He was driven by a desire that ran much deeper than anything of that sort: “After that, then,” writes his anonymous biographer, “the love of God grew exceedingly in Brendan’s heart, and he desired to leave his land and his country, his parents and his fatherland.”***
When Brendan threw himself upon the bosom of Ocean, he was actually casting his lot with divine mercy. He was cutting his ties with the world and putting himself in a place of utter dependence upon God’s grace. At the profoundest level, he was seeking a homeland above, which he saw with the eyes of faith and hailed as if from afar.
In a word, he was learning by experience what it means to be a Pilgrim.
*Adamnan, Prophecies of St. Columba.
** “Columba’s Farewell to Ireland,” tr. Kuno Meyer; in Celtic Christianity, ed. Christopher Bamford & William Parker Marsh.
*** “The Life of Brendan of Clonfert, the Navigator,” in The Book of Lismore.