Home, journeys and St Brendan's pilgrimage
An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Whole School (Pri)
To consider what ‘home’ is, homelessness and what Saint Brendan’s pilgrimage teaches us about both.
Preparation and materials
- You could simply read out the different parts of the assembly or use drama to help tell a certain part or several parts. For example, at the beginning, as you read out the words, a child could spin a plastic bottle as described, then move off in whatever direction it points to. Similarly, some older children could act out the stories about Brendan and the whale and Moses.
- Note that a separate assembly about Moses could be developed and held either before or after this one, but still making the link with pilgrimages.
- Have available the first two and a half minutes of Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus and the means to play it during the ‘Time for reflection’ part of the assembly where indicated.
- Begin by asking the children to tell you a little bit about their homes. What's their address? What kind of house or flat do they live in? Do they like their home?
- Everyone needs a home. We feel sorry that some people do not have a home, such as the homeless or ‘refugees’, who are people who have been driven out of their homes by war, famine and so on and have nowhere to call their own.
No one would abandon their home freely, would they? Can you imagine spinning a plastic bottle on the pavement and then simply walking in the direction it pointed?
When it got dark, you lay down and slept. The next day, you would spin the bottle again and wander where it pointed.
For food you would beg from the people you happened to meet. You would do this day after day and never go home. Would you like that kind of life?
- Strange as it may seem, there have been people who really did seem to like it.
- The most famous person to have lived like this was Saint Brendan. In the year 891, three Irish monks turned up at the court of King Alfred the Great. They had set out from Ireland in a boat made from just animal skins and twigs and hadn't bothered to take any oars with them – they had simply drifted on the sea according to the currents. They said that they were on a pilgrimage, but ‘they cared not where they went'.
- Have any of you ever travelled on a ferry to go on holiday? Modern ships are so big that the decks are many metres above the sea. The ‘deck’ of Brendan's boat was only a few centimetres above the dark, cold seawater.
The stories about him say that demons, gryphons and sea monsters attacked him. Also that he found an island covered with birds, but the birds turned out to be angels that had disobeyed God and been thrown out of heaven.
His most famous adventure happened when he and his friends landed on a low island that had only a few trees growing on it. His friends got out the raw meat and fish they had brought, lit a fire and began to cook their supper. Fish stew – lovely!
It was just about ready when the ground began to shake. The cooking pot fell out of the fire. The monks started to tumble as the ground began to thrash up and down.
What was happening? An earthquake?
The ground began to plunge and the icy waters of the sea poured over them. It was like the sinking of the Titanic. The monks struggled back into their flimsy boat and it was only then that they realized it wasn't an island they had landed on, it was a whale!
- Do you think this story is true?
Who knows, but Brendan did exist and he did go on voyages that lasted years and must have involved many adventures. We know that some monks drifted in their boats as far north as the Faroe Islands and even Iceland. These monks lived on the cold, treeless (though very beautiful) islands long before the Vikings discovered them. Some people think they even reached America.
- This is the really hard question – why did people like Brendan go on long journeys without knowing where they were going? What do you think?
Time for reflection
There's a passage in the Bible that seeks to explain why so many people mentioned – Abraham, Moses and others – spent their lives wandering about in the burning hot deserts rather than living comfortably, enjoying home comforts. It says that Abraham:
made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents . . . For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God . . . they were foreigners and strangers on earth . . . If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.
(Hebrews 11.9–16, NIV)
The person who wrote this is trying to remind us that we have another home – not just 15 Smith Street or 27 Green Avenue or wherever we live but also in heaven. That is where we belong.
Brendan and his friends left their homes and went on long journeys to constantly remind themselves of that. Some vowed that they would never return to the place where they were born and their families lived so that, by being always refugees, they would always remember that their real home was with God in heaven.
Brendan, in fact, did return home to Ireland, where he died, a white-haired and venerable old man. Most of us would, like him, want to go back to our family and friends if we had been travelling. Still, it is good – sometimes – to think about another place. That place we cannot see, but it is where we really belong; a place where we are surrounded by God's love. We call it heaven.
Let's listen to some music now. This piece was written by a modern composer from Finland. It starts with a flute playing and then, gradually, recordings of birdsong are played. Close your eyes, listen to it and try to imagine Brendan's little boat drifting among the cold, beautiful islands of the far north.
As you listen, think, too, about the beautiful world that God has given us to live in. Think of somewhere special to you – maybe it's your own home and garden, maybe it's the home of your grandparents or friends, maybe it's somewhere you've been for a holiday or a day out. Picture that place in your mind and remember how glad you are for such a place.
When the music finishes, let's stay quiet for a moment and think about the meaning of Brendan's story.
Play the first two and a half minutes of Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus.
Let's think now about the many people around the world who have been chased out of their homes, where they felt comfortable, and are now homeless or refugees. Ask God to be with them. Is there anything we could do to help them?
Finally, let's remember that, wherever we live, wherever we go to, wherever we may end up in our old age, God loves us and has promised us a home with him in heaven.
The first two and a half minutes of Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus.