VISIONS: Saint Brendan And The Crystal Pillar by John Carey

Saint Brendan And The Crystal Pillar by John Carey

From Treasures of Irish Christianity: People and Places, Images and Texts, Salvador Ryan and Brendan Leaky, editors

Stories about other worlds, whether in ancient myths or in modern science fiction, are in fact usually stories about our own world, essential aspects of which are revealed through analogies or symbols.  Accordingly, it is not surprising that the monks who, in medieval Irish tales, venture to strange regions beyond the ocean, encounter there the mysteries of their faith.  We find this illustrated in one of the most enigmatic scenes in the ninth-century Voyage of Saint Brendan:

On a certain day, then, when they had celebrated Mass, a pillar appeared to them in the sea.  And it did not seem to be far away from them; but it took them three days to approach it.  When the man of God had approached, then, he gazed toward its summit, but could not see it at all on account of its height; for it was higher than the air.  It was covered, moreover, by a veil with broad meshes – so broad that the boat was able to pass through its openings.   This had the color of silver, but was harder; it seemed to them like marble.  The pillar was of clearest crystal.  Saint Brendan said to his brethren: “Put the oars in the boat, and the mast, and the sail; and let some of you in the meantime hold the fastenings of the veil.”  For the aforementioned covering occupied a great expanse: outward from the pillar in every direction, as it were a mile; and it extended on into the depths.

When they had done this, the man of God said to them: “Bring the boat inside through one of the openings, so that we may carefully behold the wonders of our Creator.”  When they had entered within, and gazed this way and that, the sea seemed to them as clear as glass, so that they could see everything beneath it.  For they were able to see the base of the pillar and also the extremities of the net lying upon the ground.  The light of the sun was no less within the sea than outside it.  Then Saint Brendan was measuring a single opening between four strands of the veil, four cubits on each side.

And so they were sailing for a whole day along a single side of that pillar; and through its shade they were able to feel the heat of the sun on the far side.  So it was until noon.  And the man of God himself was measuring one of its sides: the length of each of the four sides of that pillar was 1,400 cubits.  Thus for four days the venerable father was busy between the four corners of that tower.

Then on the fourth day they found a chalice of the same sort as the veil, and a paten of the color of the column, lying in a certain window in the side of the pillar facing the east.  Saint Brendan immediately took these vessels, saying, “Our Lord Jesus Christ has revealed this wonder to us.  And in order that it may be revealed to many, and believed, he has given me these two gifts.”  At once the man of God instructed the brethren to celebrate the divine office and afterwards to refresh their bodies; for they had not been worried about taking food or drink since they saw that pillar.

What are we to make of this vivid, mysterious vision?  Those who have sought to use the Voyage as evidence for actual Irish expeditions across the Atlantic have seen it as a fantastically exaggerated reminiscence of an iceberg.  But even if some such traveler’s tale lies somewhere in the background of the scene – and I am far from persuaded that it does – to regard this as adequately explaining what is described would be to ignore all of the details which the author has so carefully enumerated.  Here, as elsewhere in the Voyage, our only hope of understanding the story lies in attempting to enter into its spirit.  I am not sure that my own attempt has been successful, but I will offer it for what it is worth.

The precious materials, the radiant light and the precise measurements all recall John’s description of the “New Jerusalem”; but this resemblance does not seem to go any further. Rather, I suggest that the pillar can be taken as an image of Christ.  In Irish, words for “pillar” can be used of heroes, of kings, and of God himself; and this is a pillar which links Earth – and, indeed, the lower deeps – with the height of Heaven, even as one text describes Christ as a tree growing downward from Heaven to reach the Earth.  The clarity of its crystal renders it a peerless vehicle of light, warmth, and vision; but its summit, in the changeless spaces above the atmosphere, is beyond mortal sight.   And just as Christ is God clothed in human flesh, so the pillar is covered with a veil: also of radiant beauty, but differing from the crystal in its opacity.

Blood and water burst from Christ’s side as he hung upon the cross, and it is in the pillar’s side that Brendan finds the precious vessels: a chalice and paten, of the same substances as the veil and the pillar.  These “gifts” are to be carried back as a testimony of the wonders witnessed upon the ocean: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”



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