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Daniel Taylor

To Skellig Michael, Monastery in the Sky

In search of sacred places

A saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects.
—G.K. Chesterton

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 mystical—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 Christ–that is, to be more like what they were created to be. They saw themselves as spiritual ...

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