When the saints are mentioned in the Irish sources, it is primarily as the exemplars and prototypes of the eremitic life, and hence of monasticism. Thus the Life of St Columcille in the Book of Lismore gives the monastic life as the first way by which men are summoned to knowledge of God; and the monastic vocation is described as ‘the urging and kindling of men by the divine grace to serve the Lord after the manner of Paul, and of Anthony the monk, and of the other faithful monks who used to serve God in Egypt.’ In the Stowe Missal, likewise, Paul and Anthony are named as the exemplars of the eremitic life.Ó Carragáin goes on to contrast this appreciation for the pair among the Irish with the attitude of the Anglo-Saxons:
Saints Paul and Anthony seem to have been popular in Celtic lands because the Irish, and their Scottish settlements, revered them as prototypes of monasticism. For Anglo-Saxon monks, St Benedict of Nursia would usually have occupied this position of pre-eminent reverence. Wandering anchorites who met, however providentially, in the desert could not be honoured with unqualified reverence by communities founded on a vow of ‘stabilitas loci’. For later Anglo-Saxon homilists, ‘instability of place and wandering from place to place’ was a product of sleacnes (sloth), one of the eight capital sins.Saint Brendan finds ‘Paul the Spiritual Hermit’ living on a small circular-shaped island. For thirty years he has been fed by an otter, which brings him a fish and firewood for cooking every three days. When Saint Brendan arrives, however, the hermit has moved to occupy ‘two caves, the entrance of one facing the entrance of the other, on the side of the island facing east’. The otter no longer brings food, as the hermit now subsists entirely on the waters of ‘ a miniscule spring, round like a plate, flowing from the rock before the entrance to the cave…when this spring overflowed, the rock immediately absorbed the water’.
Ó Carragáin comments:
We clearly have here, not another version of the life of Saint Paul the First Hermit, but a different figure, set in a new landscape which develops in an original way the themes of the desert scene in the Vita Sancti Pauli. This Irish Spiritual Hermit inhabits a landscape which is entirely symbolic; and its symbolism is primarily eucharistic. We have already seen the eucharistic significance of the symbol ‘fish’. The eucharistic significance of water that is miraculously given from a rock is equally central to Christian tradition. St. Paul’s gloss on the ‘wandering rock’ which accompanied the Israelites in the desert [1 Corinthians 10:1-4] is relevant to the island-rock which sustains this Spiritual Hermit. [In a footnote the author also says: in his use of the spring as an image for Christ’s giving of himself as drink, the author of the Navigatio is probably thinking also of such texts such as John 7:37-8 and John 19:34.]The writer argues that the point of all this eucharistic imagery is revealed at the end of the chapter when the hermit gives Brendan and his crew a supply of water from the spring to act as the sole sustenance for their next forty-day voyage. The symbolism is further brought into focus when we note that Saint Brendan’s voyage comes to an end on Holy Saturday and thus the meeting with the hermit must have taken place on or close to the first Sunday of Lent.
Ó Carragáin has many more interesting points to make on the meeting of Paul and Brendan, but for now I will conclude with his tribute to the writer of the Navigatio and his use of the Vita Sancti Pauli:
The wit of the Navigatio depends on an unobtrusive mastery of paradox: the author demonstrates that the famous scene of the meeting of Saints Paul and Anthony can be re-enacted, not with bread alone, but with other images of how man is fed by God’s word. He transforms the famous scene in the Vita in such a way as to suggest that fasting gives sustenance to the spirit, and that the contemplative vocation (the vita theorica) can provide fulfillment even on stony ground.
The details of chapter xxvi of the Navigatio can thus be seen to interact, as it were in a form of counterpoint, with the corresponding details in the Vita Sancti Pauli; and it can be seen that to appreciate the sophisticated virtuosity of the Navigatio it is necessary to have some recollection of the Vita. No doubt the author of the Navigatio felt he could depend on his monastic readership for such a recollection. In the scene in which St Brendan meets St Paul the Spiritual Hermit, the author clearly was just as preoccupied with the eucharistic themes of the recognition of and union with Christ as Jerome had been in the Vita Sancti Pauli. The Navigatio therefore provides strong confirmatory evidence that for Irish audiences the meeting of St Paul and St Anthony had primarily a eucharistic significance. The way in which the Spiritual Hermit is made to greet St Brendan with the verse ‘ecce quam bonum et quam iocundum habitare fratres in unum’ suggests that the author of the Navigatio is making explicit another theme which he saw Jerome’s account of the meeting of Paul and Anthony to imply: that friendship and community could, miraculously, be found even in the desert. This theme may also be relevant to the ‘Paul and Anthony’ panels on the high crosses, those monastic scenes of courteous friendship which the sculptors consistently placed in eucharistic contexts.
Éamonn Ó Carragáin ‘The Meeting of Saint Paul and Saint Anthony: visual uses of a Eucharistic motif’ in G. Mac Niocaill and P.F. Wallace, eds. Keimelia – studies in medieval archaeology and history in memory of Tom Delaney (Galway University Press, 1988), 1-58.