Tuesday, December 18, 2012

St. Flannan of Ireland: a saint, a king, and the 'life of Brians'

O God, with your judgement endow the king,
And with your justice, the king's son —Psalm 72:1-2, from today's Responsorial Psalm

St. Flannan, one of the main saints for December 18, seems (in light of the Newtown tragedy) both the right guy for this day and this date in general. For whether you seek comfort for the loss of a young one, or simply need some inspiration and energy for your holiday baking, there can be little doubt that Flannan is your man.

Flannan (the word "flan" means "red" so he was probably one of those wiley Irish redheads) was the son of the chieftain Turlough, who ruled the Thomond district of western Ireland. Turlough often led wars to keep his land peaceful, but Flannan dreamed of another solution to the problem of peace, and was not long in finding it. He spent his youth under the tutelage of Saint Blathmet, soaking up Sacred Scripture and longing to make a pilgrimage to the pope in Rome—which as it turns out, was not long in coming either.

For as soon as he was of age, Flannan entered monastery at Killaloe, where he became a model monk in both hard work and prayer. Legend has it that one day, after he had been baking for thirty-six hours straight, a heavenly light shone through the fingers of Flannan's left hand, lighting up the darkness to enable him to continue with his heavenly cooking. Upon learning of this feat, the Abbot was so impressed that he immediately retired, appointing Flannan the new Abbot of Killaloe.

And, after several years as abbot, a period which legend proclaims that "the fields waved with the richest crops, the sea poured [forth] an abundance of large whales and...smaller fish, and the apple trees drooped under the weight of the fruit," not to mention "the most restless nations were at peace, and the poor of...experienced open-handed hospitality," the people of Thomond nearly unanimously agreed that Flannan should become bishop, literally punching his ticket to Rome.

Although in those days Flannan's nomination did require papal confirmation and thus a trip to the Eternal City; fulfilling his childhood dream was not so easy back then as booking a flight on United. Legend has it that Flannan made it to Rome by floating on a millstone, which, after having been consecrated by Pope John IV, he used as an altar for his first mass as bishop. And, on after making converts in Tuscany and Burgundy on his return journey, he arrived back in Ireland to find not only the prelates and nobles but the entire population of Killaloe there to greet him. For the people were not only anxious to hear what the pope had said, but to hear how Flannan would say it.

As Bishop, Flannan developed a great reputation as an itinerant preacher, although his greatest convert may have been his own father, who in his old age gave up the ways of violence to become a monk. But when Turlough found his heart still in grief, he was said to have asked a special blessing from St. Colman of Kilmacdaugh (apparently there for the ceremony) on his family, for in war he had lost three of his sons. Colman blessed him, took seven steps forward, and proclaimed, "From you shall seven kings spring." And so it was: not only did seven kings come from Turlough's descendants, but they were all named Brian. Monty Python, eat your heart out.

Although Butler's Lives of the Saints (surely the wet blanket of saint stories) dourly deems Flannan's "legends...late and unreliable," the land itself seems to say otherwise. There is a church of his at Inishlannaun, in Lough Corrib, and another on Inishbofin. There are traces of his ministry in Hebrides and western Ireland, while the cathedral at Killaloe long housed his relics. Meanwhile, the Flannan Islands, located west of Lewis and Harris and long a center for prayer, could hardly be a coincidence. So whether this day finds you grieving, cooking, or merely wishing to be king for a day, call on Flannan. For just like the Christ Child, whose day is soon to follow, Flannan was, in the truest sense, the King's son.


Michael Maedoc said...

Great post Thomas, I've linked to it on the Saints calendar.

Tom O'Toole said...

Thanks Michael,

It's always great to make your Saint Calendar. (Hint, hint to FIT readers: Check Michael's Saint Calendar out!)