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Prayers Of St. Brendan: The Journey Home
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The great saints of the early Celtic church - Patrick, Columba, Samson, Aidan, and Brendan - were great travelers as well. In an age when most men rarely journeyed more than a few miles from hearth and home, they roamed the world, often with little more than the cloaks on their backs and the sandals on their feet.
The great saints of the early Celtic church - Patrick, Columba, Samson, Aidan, and Brendan - were great travelers as well. In an age when most men rarely journeyed more than a few miles from hearth and home, they roamed the world, often with little more than the cloaks on their backs and the sandals on their feet.For the Celtic saints, each outward journey was also a journey inward. They wandered as pilgrims for the good of their souls, and each new discovery was seen as a discovery of the hidden territory of their own inner hearts. But, as much as they liked to travel, they loved returning even more. It has been said the Celts often left home just so they could enjoy the homecoming. Indeed, a man like St. Brendan would have relished one of the Celtic worlds rare and special pleasures; to see ones homeland again, and know it for the first time.
- STEPHEN LAWHEAD, Author, The Pendragon Cycle, Byzantium
Every age has had men of courage and strong beliefs who have dared to risk it all to explore new lands and test the mettle of their souls. One such man was a humble Irish monk born around A.D. 489. In his own time he was called The Navigator, but he would be known to later generations as St. Brendan. Inspired by the tales of a traveler, he gathered a crew of fellow monks and set sail in search of the Promised Land.
On Prayers of St. Brendan, JEFF JOHNSON uses the story as a starting point for his own musical journey. While St. Brendan takes the physical voyage, steeped in myths, Johnson takes a parallel journey on an emotional level, seeking truth.
For St. Brendan, the quest would begin with seventeen men in a small leather boat, heading into the unknown. On the album's first song, "Oceanus," a lonely flute evokes the windswept coast of Ireland as the monks gather around their small boat. With prayers in their hearts, the band sets forth, letting the winds take them. These men were no ordinary sailors, they were exploring unknown waters and faith was their only compass. Tossed on the tides, they would face wonders never dreamt of at home in their monastic community. According to the legend, they encounter the giant "Jasconius," a fish so large that the brothers mistake it for an island and try to make camp upon its back. The beast awakens and swims to sea as the brothers scramble for their craft. Johnson's interpretation has whale-like sounds of the deep echoing though the music. The song fades out as the enormous creature swims toward the horizon. Nearby, they find an island covered with trees and beautiful flowers of a thousand colors. On this serene isle grows a remarkable tree completely covered with white birds. "The Isle of Birds" reflects the tranquillity and majesty of this quiet place.
Leaving behind the safety of the island, the explorers manage to successfully dodge demons and gryphons, and soon discover a pillar of bright crystal in the middle of the ocean. The pillar is of perfect dimensions and taller than a building. The monks take it as a divine sign that their path is true. For Johnson, it's all about evoking a sense of wonder. He captures the essence of that wonder on "The Crystal Pillar," with its lone piano as pure as glass and angelic voices that join in creating a moment of awe.
Next, they arrive at "The Fiery Mountain," a vision of Hell with its simmering fumeroles and pyroclastic flow. One of their number, who dares to step onto the mountain, is consumed by the savage flames. Despair sets in, and St. Brendan and his men must struggle to keep their faith.
"They saw that the mountain . . . was sprouting flames from itself up to the ether and then breathing back, as it were, the same flames again upon itself. The whole mountain from the summit right down to the sea looked like one big pyre."
After this final trial, St. Brendan and his men arrive in the Promised Land and are allowed to stay for 40 days. They meet a young man, who tells St. Brendan, "The final day of your pilgrimage draws near so that you may sleep with your fathers." Triumphantly, the Navigator returns home, but the young man's prophecy comes true. St. Brendan is laid to rest and embarks upon his final journey.
The visionaries of humankind have always had a desire to create a paradise in this world. In Johnson's musical interpretation, there is no such thing as heaven on earth. St. Brendan doesnt really find the Blessed Isle until he dies and takes the ultimate journey.
Johnson calls the original account "A typical medieval take on the expedition." He sees St. Brendan not as the imperturbable explorer that the story sometimes makes him out to be, but as a man with much more human qualities. "St. Brendan was obviously courageous and possessed a burning sense of adventure, but he must also have had some trepidation and doubts about the journey.
"Prayers of St. Brendan retells the story as an allegory for the lifelong quest for beauty, truth and goodness. The album is an adventure, a life adventure about overcoming loneliness, bad decisions, temptations and danger to a point where you can look back and be grateful for having made it through. A person doesn't see everything unless they walk fairly close to the edge of the cliff. But that can be perilous," says Johnson. "Sometimes you have to do things that are extremely risky to experience life. I don't know a lot of people who live that way."
This album is a way for Johnson to explore the parallels between St. Brendan's voyage across the seas and his own journey through life. At the heart of it, Prayers of St. Brendan is a journey of faith.
"Everybody puts their faith in something or someone," says Johnson. "And at the end of the day when we're alone, we all occasionally take pause to ponder the mysteries of life. Even those of us without the adventurous spirit of St. Brendan have, in our own way, embarked on our own search for truth, beauty and fulfillment. We all have our own 'Fiery Mountains' to overcome, and we can only hope that when the smoke has cleared we can glean a little wisdom from the experience. At these times we muse on our vulnerability to the fates and wonder if the winds of our lives will guide us to our own Promised Land."