To Skellig Michael, Monastery in the Sky
A saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects.
Skellig Michael is a 700-foot-high pinnacle of water-and-wind-worn rock that rises like Excalibur out of the Atlantic waves off the southwest coast of Ireland. If you have ever been there, you do not need it described; if you have not been, no description is adequate. The same is true of that part of reality called the sacred.
I make my reluctant pilgrimage to Skellig Michael in near total ignorance, based solely on three sentences in a guidebook. I expect the usual visitor center and gift shop. Instead, the voice of the fisherman's wife on the phone says, "Be at the Portmagee pier at 10:30 tomorrow morning. If the weather is good enough, my husband will be there in his boat to pick you up." The weather the next day is unusually fine, and down the inlet we watch him chug, my son Nate and I, his only passengers for the day.
We hop on board and start out toward the sea. The engine of the fishing boat is loud enough to make talking difficult and it fills the air with diesel fumes. It's just under an hour out to Skellig Michael, depending on your boat and the conditions. You don't see the island when you start out from the harbor, but soon you are passing looming Bray's Head and there it is on the horizon, the first step into the Atlantic. Tiny at first, it's shrouded today in a thin white haze. It looks mysticalâ€”in part because I expect it to look mystical. I think of Avalon, the island to which King Arthur was carried on the barge of singing women, there to recover from his wounds and, someday, return again to a new Camelot. Will my own wounds be soothed today?
Approaching Skellig Michael from the north, we are following a path taken so many centuries ago by a boatload of monks looking for a place to battle the flesh and the devil. They saw themselves as engaged in a war whose object was to be like Christthat is, to be more like what they were created to be. They saw themselves as spiritual warriors. Their aim, however, was not to kill someone else, but to destroy false selves, to shed counterfeit versions of their own life, so that they might help bring into reality the kingdom of the High King of Heaven.
As is so often the case in fable and tale, we have a harbinger that we are approaching a special place. About half way out, I spot a dart of color winging past the boat at frantic speed. It is a puffin, that compact burst of bird and bill that spends the majority of its life in air and water, touching the land only in obscure places to devote a short time to the birth, feeding, and protection of a puffin chick.
Puffins come to Skellig Michael at the same time we had come to England, in late March, their bills in the process of changing color from the dull yellow of winter to bright red, blue, and yellow of summer. It is May now and they have taken over Skellig rabbit holes and other burrows. But they have approached Skellig Michael cautiously, as I am doing. When the puffins first arrive from unmarked journeys in the North Atlantic, they keep their distance from the island, floating for days in the sea, within sight, but not venturing on the island itself.
I understand their caution. If Skellig Michael is, as they say, a sacred place, then I'm not sure I want to be there. I remember what happened to the poor sap who tried to steady the Ark of the Covenant when it was falling off the wagon. Iona and Lindisfarne have small numbers of people living safely on them today, undoubtedly a few no better than I am. But Skellig Michael is now alone again, severe and solitary, not a place you'd want to spend the night. Perhaps it does not suffer tourists gladly.
Skellig Michael, like two other famous monastic islands I have visited in years past, is named for the archangel, who reputedly came to Ireland to help Patrick with the snakes and the demons. But that name came later. When that first boat load of monks approached, it was only a skeilicâ€”a stone islandâ€”one of many islands off the west coast of Ireland. Why did they choose this one? What seemed promising? What made them hopeful? What told them that God was better to be found or served here than at the place they came from?
Perhaps they liked that it points to the sky. Skellig Michael is 714 feet of stony verticality, a natural Gothic cathedral with narrow spikes of eroded rock decorating it like gargoyles. It has twin peaks, one at each end, like the fingertips of two parted hands lifted to heaven. Making no compromise with horizontal reality, it thrusts straight up from the sea floor to the clouds. Any living thing that dares to ride its audacious breaching of the sea will have to hold on for dear life.
Fittingly, there is no place for our boat to tie up. Skellig Michael is little more accessible now than it was 1,400 years ago when the monks arrived. Nate and I jump off the boat onto a concrete platform that has been stuck like a limpet to the base of a cliffon an island that is all cliffs. The captain backs the boat away, telling us he will wait out in the ocean until he sees we have returned to the platform. I find myself hoping he is a vigilant and reliable man.
We walk a few minutes on a narrow 19th-century concrete path built to service a lighthouse that once provided the only human beings on Skellig Michael but now is fully automated. The path circles around near the base of the island toward and intersects some medieval steps that will take us higher.
Actually there are three ancient pathways to the top of Skellig Michael. An eastern ascent begins near the landing platform and another path starts out from Blue Cove on the northern side of the island. Today there are only a handful of days a year during which a boat could successfully approach the northern steps, part of the evidence that climatic conditions were different in the first few centuries of monastic life than they are today.
Three paths up the mountain. It reminds me of the favorite metaphor of religious universalists. "There are many paths up the mountain," they say, suggesting that most all quests for the spiritual are equally valid. It is a tempting view, one that certainly fits nicely with our modern let's get along, affirm everybody, who-are-you-to-say mood.
But the metaphor takes a mysterious turn on Skellig Michael. In addition to the southern ascent, there are also on the south side 14 steps carved into solid stone that begin in the middle of nowhere in particular and lead further on to more nowhere. They do not start at the sea nor do they end in the heights. They are simply there, testimony to an unfulfilled ideaâ€”begun in hope, buttressed with sweat, but left hanging, in process and in stone.
No, I do not believe that all paths lead to the top of the mountain. Some lead off cliffs. Some rise promisingly for a ways but then descend back to the base. And some, like the 14 Skellig steps, lead nowhere at all.
Where, I wonder, is my own path leading?
The lighthouse road intersects in a few hundred yards with the southern ascent. I am glad for it. Here, finally, is the real thing, the authentic stuff, the guidebook-promised tangible evidence of ancient spirituality. I am thankful for the stepsâ€”until I start to climb them.
I let Nate go first. No use standing in the way of eager youth. The first fifty are a delight. I study each one, trying to picture the monk who dug with maddox into the side of the cliff and the no less than two monks who would have been necessary to wrestle the thick stone slab into place.
The next fifty are also no problem for this now travel-hardened pilgrim. If after still fifty more steps I am now breathing a bit heavily, what of it? Pilgrimage is supposed to include discomfort; besides, the view is growing more spectacular with every step.
And so fifty more steps, and then another fifty.
Have you ever noticed how irrelevant spectacular scenery is to a hiker in pain? How the scope of the world narrows to the tips of your shoes and the few feet of ground immediately in front of you? It is the same with spiritual climbing. The books and brochures promise mountaintop vistas, closeness to God, serenity and peace; they don't mention that getting there, if one ever does, is a lot like a death march.
But what are another fifty steps among pilgrims? Nate is patient with me, stopping whenever he sees me staring too closely at the steep steps just a few inches from my bowed and bobbing head. So that makes, what, 300 steps?
It is good that I don't know at this point what I will learn later. There are some 2,300 steps on Skellig Michael, not counting the lighthouse road. I have only climbed a bit over ten percent of them and already I have forgotten why I came. I have forgotten everything I have read and seen in the last six weeks. I do not recall Columba or Aidan or Cuthbert or hills where angels came down. I know only that my thighs are burning and I am again in danger of feeling sorry for myself.
Does the spiritual have a snowball's chance in hell as long as we are tethered to these bodies? I know I shouldn't use a word like tethered. I know I am supposed to celebrate the God-created physicality of thingsâ€”that's what all the balanced people tell me, the Celtic saints included. But the body is a nuisance sometimes. It is so needy and whiney and insistent on getting what it wants. It is the perennial two-year-old child of our existence. And so I sit for a while and rest.
The rest does me good. The sun is warm and the breeze coolâ€”these are physical too. I feel lucky to be here, a place I hadn't even heard of a year before. I feel lucky to be here with Nate. And I am luckier than I know. There may indeed be 2,300 steps on Skellig Michael, but only 600 are on this southern ascent. I am halfway thereâ€”though at this point I don't know where there is.
Another few hundred steps take us to Christ's Saddle, the only open patch of ground on the island, and the place I assume I am climbing to. Christ's Saddle, so named by the monks, is a small scrap of ground (less than half an acre it appears to me, though I am no good at estimating such things) that lies between the two peaks of Skellig Michael, which tower over it on either side.
It would be too generous to call it level; there is no such thing on the island. It is more of a humpâ€”a saddle. Walk a few dozen yards across to the north side and you find yourself staring down at birds flying beneath you, the sea acting as a green backdrop 500 feet below. It's disorienting to be looking down at flying birds, and I back away from the deadly attraction-repulsion of great heights.
Nate and I walk toward South Peak, climbing a few yards up its base until the grass runs out and further climbing seems impossible. We sit in the warm sun and look at the small place where I imagine the monks working this bit of soil, which some think was brought here from the mainland, basket by basket, by the monks themselves. After this tiring ascent I have both great admiration for the successive groups of twelve or so men who lived here for 600 yearsâ€”and great questions about their sanity.
After visiting in 1910, George Bernard Shaw called Skellig Michael "an incredible, impossible, mad place. I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in; it is part of our dream world." I understand what Shaw is saying, but the sweat running down my back is not a dream. And it was real sweat for those monks who scampered up and down the cliffs, snatching eggs from bird nests on rocky ledges high above the sea. And it was real sweat when they were killing seals for meat and skins to trade with passing sailors for fishing hooks and staples, and when they were growing small patches of grain in this little bit of soil hundreds of feet in the air between the two peaks of the island. It is important to remember the reality of that sweat, because we must keep these men like us if they are to do us any good.
I am also feeling real hunger at the moment. Nate had refused breakfast this morning because he had decided to fast for the day. I was unprepared for it but not surprised. My kids often do in practice the things I heartily support in theory. Given Nate's plan to fast, my uneaten bowl of cereal before me had seemed suddenly gluttonous. I announced I would be happy to join him, and now my stomach was asking whether I hadn't been a bit impulsive.
I look out over the sea and spot our boat, waiting patiently, as promised, for us to have our pilgrim experience. The sight of it is comforting, assuring me of the needed escape when I've had enough of the sacred.
It is not hard, however, to picture another time and another boat whose sighting would have brought a gasp and a sick feeling in the stomachâ€”a Viking boat. Viking raiders first struck an Irish monastery in 795, two years after their initial attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne in northern England. It was just a matter of time before they found the little community of monks sitting atop this isolated rock off the coast of Kerry.
The Irish called them Finngaillthe fair foreigners. They were the stateless terrorists of their day, which is exactly how John Henry Newman described them: "They ravaged far and wide at will, and no retaliation on them was possible, for these pirates â€” had not a yard of territory, a town, or a fort, no property but their vessels, no subjects but their crews."
They traveled on the superhighways of the timeâ€”the open seas. Their dragon-headed longboats could be up to 130 feet in length and carry hundreds of men, and could land almost anywhere. More often they were smaller, with a typical crew of thirty to forty, but these smaller craft could attack in fleets of dozens.
Or alone. It would not have taken a fleet to pillage Skellig Michael. One ship could appear on the horizon. It would not have had to be in a hurry. Where were the monks to go? Iona, though small, is filled with rocky hills and crags that could provide some protection. Lindisfarne, though open and flat, is very near the mainland, to which the monks could flee. But Skellig Michael is the equivalent of a modern-day office tower. If death is approaching from below, there is nothing to do but wait or jump.
The Skellig Michael monastery, unlike others, was not a rich morsel for the Vikings. Barely a crumb. It would have had a minimum of the liturgical instruments made of precious metals, and sometimes jewels, that the Vikings were looking for. But it was a place to pillage, and pillaging was their call.
The first recorded Viking attack on Skellig Michael took place in 812. They had a habit of coming back, checking in every few years on places they had raided before to see what restocking might have gone on. They paid another visit to Skellig Michael in 823 and this time took the abbot with them. The Annals of Innisfallen does not tell us much, but enough to give an insight into Viking cruelty: "Scelec was plundered by the heathens and Etgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger on their hands." A man hardened by a lifetime of fasting does not starve quickly. But the Vikings apparently were in no hurry.
The Annals calls them "heathens." That is not an acceptable word today. We are told it is intolerant to use any word that suggests that one way up the mountain is superior to another. One man's heathenism is another man's indigenous religion. But as I sit now next to South Peak on Christ's Saddle, imagining a Viking boat sailing patiently but inexorably toward me, laughter and taunts coming over the water, mixing with the cry of birds, I am not inclined to imagine that I am seeing the approach of fellow spiritual seekers.
The Vikings came again in 833 and 839. It must have changed the way the monks of Skellig Michael perceived their place in the world. They had come there in imitation of the Desert Fathers of the fourth century, whom Irish Christians greatly admired. Early Christians went to the deserts of Egypt and elsewhere for many reasons, but primarily to escape everything that would distract them from their dance with God.
Most of those distractions were embodied in civilizationâ€”in cities and empires, in getting and spending, in making and selling, in marrying and child-rearing, in all the endless activities and contacts entailed in living with others. All these horizontal demands were seen as the enemy of the main purpose of our creationâ€”to know and be in right relationship with the God who made us. The desert was attractive to these earliest of Christians, as Thomas Merton has pointed out, precisely because there was nothing there. It was an empty spaceâ€”empty of people, governments, markets, and trivial demandsâ€”waiting to be filled with spiritual significance.
We are quite sure today that these people were, to be polite, misguided, possibly disturbed. Some sat for years on tall pillars, some starved themselves into vision-filled stupors, some competed with each other to win triathlons of the soul.
We moderns think they were deluded, but the Irish thought they were grand. They lamented that they had no deserts of their own to retreat to, so they settled for the wooded deserts of the forests, and the stony deserts of the anchorage, and the blue-green deserts of the sea.
When the first monks saw Skellig Michael, they saw a desertâ€”a place away. Sitting in their cells at 600 feet they were higher and more isolated even than Simon Stylites on his sixty-foot pillar. They were free to do what was important in life.
For 200 years that dearly loved isolation must have seemed almost complete. They surely had some regular contact with the mainland for they would have needed to be supplied bread for communion. And they had the occasional visitor or new member. But contact with the rest of the world was infrequent and at their own choosing.
The Viking raids changed all that. The Irish desert had been violated, and could be again at any time. The monks likely did not fear death from the fair foreigners. They feared violation of their sacred space and their sacred routine. It was no longer possible to leave the world. The world had come to themâ€”bearing swords.
I say they did not fear death from the Vikings, but of course that is true only in the abstract. A monk, watching from Christ's Saddle as a group of axe-wielding, blood-seeking Vikings climbed up the very steps Nate and I had climbed, could not have helped but be afraid. No amount of piety and prioritized thinking can keep the heart from racing in the face of someone wanting to put a hatchet in your forehead.
But at the same time that their adrenaline was surging, they were likely to be more concerned that they die well. As Geoffrey Moorhouse has put it, "If they were to die, they hoped to do so fully recognised for what they were." He imagines them gathering to say the Lord's Prayer after they first see the Viking ship, and then scattering to hide what few holy objects they possess among the rocks.
I am both intrigued and convicted by the phrase "fully recognised for what they were." We live in a culture in which serious religious faith is slightly embarrassing. Faith is seen as possibly a valueâ€”something hoped forâ€”and not as a factâ€”something known. It is benign or even useful for food drives and homeless shelters, but ugly and even dangerous when it publicly asserts its claims as truth. Therefore it is asked to stay private, to speak only when spoken to, to stay in the corner and mind its very limited business.
The Celtic Christians could not have imagined such a thing. All of life was to be organized in light of spiritual realities. There was not a separate truth for monks and for kings, and when kings needed correcting, they were corrected. In the meantime, daily life was an ordered rhythm of worship, work, and studyâ€”all as an offering to God. That at least was the intent, though of course human nature often exacted its due.
I am more a modern man than a Celtic Christian in this regard. I want to be polite. I want to get along. When alone in a restaurant, I do not bow my head over meals. I do not cite the Bible in making arguments to people who put little value in it. I do not want anyone organizing prayer in public schools. I do not want my political leaders invoking God as the source of their every policy. And, in the same spirit, I try not to roll my eyes when my colleagues start talking about going to psychics or of prosperity energy fields in their homes.
But I wonder if I am so eager to fit in that I am afraid to be "fully recognised" for what I am. Would I have knelt in prayer as that out of breath Viking raised his axe over me on Christ's Saddle, or might I have offered to show him where the treasures were hidden in hopes of staying alive a bit longer? More to the point, how willing am I to organize my own life and actions and relationships around those spiritual truths that I claim should define every life? How eager am I to be fully recognized?
Some tell usâ€”and have been for 200 yearsâ€”that Christianity is dying, hopelessly outdated, destined to be dug up and puzzled over by distant anthropologists as we do now with Easter Island statues. Others say no, the spiritual is again reasserting itself, as it always will, and it is militant secularism that has had its brief moment in the sun.
Sitting on Skellig Michael, I do not particularly care whether the Vikings or the monks are presently in the ascendancy. I have never placed my bets based on the odds or opinion polls. I feel the pagan instincts of my own life, but also hear the one who stands at the door and knocks. I will make my choices, like the good, individualistic westerner that I am, based on the inclinings of my own heart and the cogitations of my mindto the extent possible given the vagaries of my will.
I did not know what to expect on Skellig Michael, and I am more than pleased at what I've found. After the sea journey and hundreds of steps, I feel I have earned the exhilaration of this view and the satisfaction of imagining monks living and working and worshiping on this bit of holy ground floating in the clouds.
But as usual I am settling for too little. As I consider how long I should sit here with Nate before we head back down, I spot what I should have seen immediately after reaching Christ's Saddle. There, across the way, running up the side of and disappearing behind the north peak, is another set of steps.
I will admit to having mixed feelings about this discovery. I had thought I had arrived. I had done my climb, with the required pilgrimage pain, and had every reason to be satisfied with myself and with what I was experiencing. The views from Christ's Saddle were mind numbing, the imaginative possibilities rich. Why did there need to be more?
Why in fact does there always seem to be more in the spiritual quest? Why does every level of discipline, of service, of intimacy with God seem inadequate? Why do our spiritual guidesâ€”living and deadâ€”always call us to go further? Why does our goal always move, mirage-like, just beyond reach?
I find myself too easily satisfied. I am happy enough simply to be on the team. I have no great desire to be a star. Is this humility? Peaceful resting in God's mercy? Perhaps. More likely spiritual sleepiness. More likely a failure to recognize and follow my own best interests.
I point out the newly noticed steps to Nate. He is delighted and bounds toward them. We climb up, pass through a short tunnel, and then step onto the place that everyoneâ€”except the ignorant and too easily satisfiedâ€”comes to Skellig Michael to see.
Here, clinging like an ecclesiastical barnacle to the sheer cliffs, is the tiny monastic village. It comprises six stone huts, two oratories, two cisterns, the foundation of a later medieval church, and a graveyard with eroded stone slabs and crosses. The huts have rectangular bases and beehive-shaped roofs, their flat stones held together only by that accommodation to gravity known as corbelling. Four of them have maintained the structural integrity imparted to them at the time of their making. They still stand fourteen centuries later, without mortar or prop, because they were built realistically. That is, they were built in keeping with the vectors of force inherent in the pull of the earth on everything that aspires to rise above it. They work with, not in defiance of, what is. May your life and mine be so constructed.
On the exterior of the monks' cells, stone pegs protrude here and there. Perhaps they held sod or thatch in place, a small allowance for the harsh winter winds in a place where there were never any fires or hot food or any sources of heat beyond the sun and their own bodies. The lack of warming fire is hard enough to imagine in spring and fall, but think of a harsh, North Atlantic winter. Some speculate that the monks may have left the island in winter, but that is more a testimony to what we would do than a reflection of any historical data.
The placement of the monastic site on the southeast side of the north peak, however, may itself have been a minimal concession to comfort. The winds strike the base of the island 600 feet below and ride the stone straight up into the sky. Set back slightly from the cliff face, the cells and oratories enjoy a microclimate that is slightly milder than the rest of the island. It heartens me that perhaps they did not think it a sin to ease the conditions just a bit.
They did not build the monastery here because this site provided a piece of flatness on the island. Only extensive retaining walls, constructed one must imagine with their hearts in their throats, make possible the buildings at this place. Just beyond the outside retaining wall is a long drop into the sea that would give you just enough time to briefly review your relationship with God and man before you entered eternity.
Nate and I look into each cell and then into the larger oratory shaped like an upturned boat. It is dark and does not feel holy. I try to picture the monks here at worship. Their daily offices, the six appointed times of formal worship (a seventh added in the 7th century), centered on recitations from the Psalms, sometimes as many as seventy-five of them in one service. Novices newly entered into the monastic life, usually between the ages of 15 and 17, would have first memorized all of the poems of the Psalter. A mighty feat by our standardsâ€”my students think themselves tortured when required to memorize 75 words of poetryâ€”but not difficult for an oral culture that preserved all that it knew in the mind and passed it on with the tongue.
In addition to chanting psalms together, the monks would have readings from the Old and New Testament, pray, and sometimes sing hymns. Their prayers were for themselves and the world and the world's leaders. At various times they would perform their worship on their knees with arms outstretched in the crossvigil position, imitating the crucified Christ. Other times they would prostrate themselves completely on the floor.
Nothing about standing in their oratory inclines me to prostrate myself, or even say a prayer. I am not a good pilgrim. The hoped-for feelings never come on cue. They did not when once I visited Dachau, another terrible-holy place, and they do not now.
But then I see the little window in the eastern wall. I walk over to it and look out. There in the cemetery just behind the oratory is an ancient cross, apparently marking the grave of one of those early monks. And behind the cross is the sky and sea, and in the sea, like a waiting companion, is a smaller companion island, Little Skellig.
It strikes me that this view, tiny window framing sea and island (and cross?), has not changed since the day the oratory was enclosed. On that day this space was marked off as a sacred place within a sacred place, a kind of holy of holies. The monks are long-since departed, but perhaps they left behind more than stones.
As Nate and I sit among the beehive huts, looking over the graves of ancient monks to Little Skellig in the sea beyond, we are joined by fellow pilgrims. Some blond-haired Germans or Scandinavians emerge from the tunnel, perhaps distant relatives of earlier Viking visitors. We nod at each other, separated by language but not, it may be, by quest.
We decide to leave the monastery site to them. Skellig Michael is not a place that improves with company, beyond a friend or two. It's time anyway to return to our boat. I see it down below as we come again to Christ's Saddle and then begin to descend the southern steps.
Part way down, those steps take a sharp turn to the right, and at that point is a protruding weathered rock that I imagine to be a medieval Station of the Cross. I tell Nate to stand in front of it so I can take a picture. He looks a bit Viking-like himself: tall, wild red hair, and cunning smile. I am glad he has come with me on this pilgrimage to Skellig Michael. And I am glad we are leaving.
Daniel Taylor is professor of English at Bethel College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. This essay is excerpted from his book In Search of Sacred Places: Looking for Wisdom on Celtic Holy Islands (Bog Walk Press). Copyright Â© 2005 by Daniel Taylor. Used by permission of Bog Walk Press.
Copyright Â© 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.