12 April 2010

The Faces of Evil? or. . . Pride, Arrogance, and Humility

I attended a Bible study at a neighbor's house last night. It was an interesting mix of people, and overall, a good time was had. But early in the evening I was asked about my denomination, and from that moment on I was under attack by one of the attendees.

Like many an overly-zealous evangelist, he took it upon himself to set me straight about things. The more I ignored his attempts to start an argument, the more persistent he became. It was almost comical - to watch the wheels spinning in his head, watch his frantic thumbing through the Bible in his lap to find yet another out-of-context bible verse to hurl my way - he tied himself in knots. All his energy for two hours was going into fixing me. It never occurred to him that he was the one who came to a Christian gathering and went on the attack. I was not attacking. I was not engaging. I was confident and at peace in my faith. But in his arrogant view - I was the one who needed fixing, and by GOD he was the one fit to do it.

What are these people thinking? Christ's message and Christian love have nothing to do with that sort of behavior. The defiant unwillingness to question your own fallability - to insist on ignoring the log in one's own eye in spite of its obstructing the vision with which you might begin to take the splinter from your brother's eye - is so palatably un-Christian to me. I thought briefly of trying to explain the concept of "humility" in the Christian sense to this man, but the very thought made me tired. So I didn't.

A few years ago, I was subjected to a diatribe from the spouse of a friend. He told me with much delight about his having confronted his own mother about her misguided Christian faith. His eyes danced as he told me how he ripped about her psyche, stripped her beliefs bare. He could hardly contain his delight as he told me how she finally broke down in tears. His demeanor made it clear that he assumed I would applaud his feat, that I shared his commitment to ridding the world of this mythology called Christianity.

I was astounded that day as I listened to him, and I still am as I think of it. What I can't get around is the WHY of it. Why would he take pleasure in destroying someone else's belief? Let's put aside for a few minutes whether that belief is valid or not. The fact is that her belief was doing him no harm, nor was it doing any harm to anyone else. It was bringing joy and completion to his mother's life, whatever he thought about it. Why did he feel a need to destroy it? And why - beyond feeling a need - did he celebrate the destruction?

I don't have an answer. This kind of arrogance that impels a person to attack someone else's Christian faith just because they can. What is that about? I have to wonder, when I consider this phenomenon and its implications, if it is indeed a manifestation of Evil in the world.

I stumbled upon an article tonight by Stanley Lutz of the Hudson Institute. In September 2000 edition of Commentary, he offers some interesting insights as to the motives of gay activists in gaining the right to marriage. He quotes several who state that their goal is not personally to be married, nor to achieve domestic equality with heterosexuals, nor even to attain social respectability, but rather to empty the institution of marriage of its meaning. They wish to end the "bourgeois institution," simply because they want to. Lutz's conclusion is that too many gays share this hidden motive, even while speaking of economic and social motives for fighting to gain these rights. I don't know if that is true. But it doesn't matter: I would wish to address the radicals that he quoted. What evil is it in them that causes them to wish to destroy anything because they don't happen to like and agree with it? The ARROGANCE!

I have been asked to come back to the neighborhood Bible studies. My nemesis will be there as well - he is a regular. I know that in his limited mind, our conversation has yet to happen. It's his job, to set me straight. I suppose.

Oh, Dear Lord, grant me the patience to deal with these people when I encounter them. Help me to hear only your voice, and ignore the hurtfulness of theirs. If indeed Evil is at work in them, help me look it in the eye without engaging, without faltering, and remember that the instruments through which it works are only your poor children. Amen.

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11 April 2010

The Opportunity in Film...

An interesting thing is happening at theatres in recent days. The film Letters to God is attracting a large mainstream audience, and wowing critics as well.

Perhaps the first miracle is that it was made at all. Imagine - in the ever-secular, and often anti-Christian, atmosphere of today's society - trying to pitch an openly-Christian script to a producer. But Patrick Doughtie did just that, and says that the early success of this film has inspired him to start a few more like projects. Visit the official movie site at www.letterstogodthemovie.com.

I have to wonder where such films have gone. Even in the midst of the anti-establishment mood of the 1960's, few films on St. Francis of Assisi were successful. Becket, the story of St. Thomas Becket, starring Richard Burton, was a blockbuster. Perhaps this was because Richard Burton palyed the part of the saint himself, and Peter O'Toole played his friend/nemesis King Henry II. Both were matinee idols at the time. Imagine now if you would, today's matinee idols consenting to play a religious figure. My guess is that they wouldn't - who would be brave enough to be so politically incorrect?

In 1989 a film was released on St. Francis of Assisi. It starred Mickey Rourke, and it flopped. The critics hated it; the public hardly knew about it. Perhaps the lesson is that if we are going to make a Christian-based film, we need to do it well. After all, the reputation of Christian feature film, needs all the help it can get, and we can't afford sloppy efforts to hurt it.

But that being said, it seems that the time may be ripe for the success of Christian-themed films in mainstream entertainment. People are cynical, having been forcefed anti-Christian rhetoric from all corners in recent decades - but they are also hungry for hope. In an era when militant Islam, which is arguably the ugliest of faith ideologies, offers hate, the hope of Christianity is an enormous weapon.

Preaching at people is a big part of what the current anti-Christian anger is about. For too long, evangelicals have not done well at spreading their message. Too often, they wore their pride on their faces as they used the Christian message to wag an accusatory finger at their fellow man at worst, and speak patronizingly to others at best. They have been slow to understand the error, and to learn a better way.

We need to give serious thought to what makes Letters to God successful. We need to think about its tone toward a mainstream audience, we need to think about the way it has been marketed. And we need to take advantage of the pain and uncertainty of our times to bring Christ's message in the ways that are most meaningful in today's world - through mass entertainment media.

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10 January 2010

Taking Our Faith for Granted?

My intention when I began this blog was to keep this site separate from my day job - I'm a professional writer. Not all, but some of my work is political in content. Over time I am finding that when I am inspired to add to this site, it often coincides with my interest in world affairs. I am realizing that for me, the subjects of ethics, politics, society and religion are in fact inseparable. With that in mind, I am throwing in the towel and posting the following.

Last week, the supreme court of Malaysia ruled that a Christian newspaper may translate the word "God" as "Allah." This ruling came despite protests and numerous threats from the Muslim community. As the ruling came down, Muslim men streamed from two large mosques in downtown Kuala Lumpur to gather in formal protest. Later in the day, three churches were firebombed.

Aaron J. Leichman at the Christian Post wrote the following in an article posted on Friday, January 8 when he tried to explain the Islamic logic behind this nonsense:

" . . . Those sentiments and more were expressed Friday as young Muslims emerged from two main mosques in downtown Kuala Lumpur, carrying banners and delivering fiery speeches, vowing to defend Islam.

"We will not allow the word Allah to be inscribed in your churches," one speaker shouted into a loudspeaker at the Kampung Bahru mosque, according to The Associated Press. About 50 other people carried posters reading "Heresy arises from words wrongly used" and "Allah is only for us."

Allah is only for us. Amongst those living in Christian-based societies, who can't quite stomach the traditional faith, is an all-too-common complaint about Christians seeming exclusionary in their speech and conduct. I've heard it too, and as a Christian it makes me cringe: a sort of a you-are-not-one-of-us thing, that I assume arises as a natural, albeit ugly, characteristic of human nature. Those who consider themselves part of Christ's family, even some of the leaders of churches, seem to miss the whole point - that the Good News is for everyone, that each of us falls short of God's expectations. In true Christian love, there is no place for exclusive clubs. I humbly submit - in the confidence that Christ would nod in approval - that we need to be careful that we never send a message to even our "enemies" that God is only for us.

That being said, I think it's worth looking closer at the events in Malaysia because they speak to the state of Christianity in much of the world today. It is ironic - in Europe and North America, where Christianity has freely flourished for centuries, people have grown away from the church. Liberal progressive secularism looks down its elitist nose at a faith that it increasingly regards as outdated superstition. I don't think it is insignificant that we have an American president who sold himself as a candidate to a gullible public as a Christian who was currently without a church. He was looking forward, he said, to finding a church home in Washington with his family. A year and a half later, he does not have such a base, and rarely sets foot in a church. (Oh, I know, one doesn't need to actually GO to a church to have a relationship with God. But personally, much of this man's conduct, past history, and writing would suggest to me that he understands little of the Christian faith.) His children are being raised without the influence of Christian thought, as are too many children of their generation. As coming years bring greater societal and political strife, they won't have the faith foundation to lean on that generations past have depended upon in difficult times.

Meanwhile, as Europe reports fewer and fewer in younger generations who self-identify as Christian, the Faith is growing in places on the globe where being a Christian takes some serious commitment, work, and considerable threat to one's livelihood and life. Perhaps as things have become too easy, we in the West have become lazy - certainly not all of us, but far too many.

It is interesting to note that in such places as Iran and India, where Christians are persecuted regularly to the point of death, the Faith is actually growing. Imagine the courage it takes to risk beatings, arrest or torture because you attend a prayer meeting in a private home; or imagine being murdered after police invade your home and turn up six bibles. Imagine your child's school being subject to fire bombs because it is Christian. Imagine that the act of praying to Jesus Christ, or reading scripture, or wearing a cross around one's neck, is reason to put ones life at risk. Yet, brave Christians are doing this daily in places where praying to Christ is a joy because it is an act of defiance, a stolen forbidden moment of Christian light and peace in a dark world.

In Malaysia, Christians are permitted to exist. But often violent crime directed toward Christian homes and individuals is not even prosecuted. Malaysia, being primarily Muslim, recognizes the tenets of Islamic Shariah law that dictate that while Muslims should allow Jews and Christians to live amongst them, they are not to enjoy the same privileges as the Muslims do. To be screaming in the streets over who has the right to use an Arabic word is not so unusual, when you consider that Christians under Shariah law are often denied rights such as holding public office, voting, building churches, praying in a public place. (In many Muslim countries, under Muslim governmental structures, Christians pay a tax to the government simply for being Christian.) For further information on current conditions for Christians around the world who live in persecution, visit Persecution.org.

Lord, thank you for the freedom to worship you as I wish to. Help me remember this freedom at those times I'm too tired to go to church, too lazy to pray, too rushed and busy to consider those who are dying for our faith. Surely these martyrs hold a special place in Heaven for their courage and sacrifice.
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13 November 2008

Questions From a Young Person. . .

I feel a special warmth when answering a question from a young person who is searching. I will share some of them at this blog. I think too often we get bogged down in theological history and theory and quote scripture, when we should get to the heart of the matter, just answer the question and talk about Christ's love, and who God is according to what Christ taught us. Why make it so intimidating and difficult, for one who is just beginning to understand?

QUESTION: If God Loves all of us humans so much...
Why does he let natural disasters happen?
Why does he let us be exposed to such filth?
And why does 'god' have to be a man.
It's all a tad stupid to me...
Because he doesn't exist.

MY ANSWER: I hate it when people quote scripture to answer a simple question, so forgive me. But .... My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)

God is beyond our understanding. Our lives are such a small second in our existence. What seems so big to you in this life, is really so small in the grand scheme of things. His ways are not our ways, his thoughts not our thoughts.

There is another biblical passage that says, "for now...we see through a glass darkly, but THEN face to face" - in this life we don't see things clearly, it's like we are looking through a smoky piece of glass. But THEN, beyond this life, things will make sense to us.

Part of faith is accepting that God does have a plan for each of us, and learning to trust in that plan in times of trouble . . . . . . I don't believe God causes bad things to happen. However, once someone explained it to me like this: if you are a parent and have a toddler, sometimes they trip and fall. That is what they do. Sometimes they scream for half an hour after. But you don't always prevent the fall, and you don't always pick them up either. Why? Because you want them to learn to get up themselves, to be less afraid of the world, to brush themselves off - you want to allow them to have the opportunity to find out that they can pick themselves up, to find the self-esteem that comes with that knowledge. It is that way with God and us.

Years ago, I nearly died, twice. I was very very ill. It was terrible to go through. But I learned so much from the experience, in a spiritual sense! I grew closer to God. Everything became so much clearer to me. I looked at myself and life differently. I would do it again! If God wanted me to suffer like that, he was also giving me the opportunity for such growth! I welcomed that, and would welcome it again.

I want to speak to your frustration over the "he". God isn't a man. God is. . . God. A priest taught me once that for him, Jesus is the masculine, the Holy Ghost is feminine. (In Catholicism, Mary is given importance, and is feminine...) God is neutral. We say "he" because we don't have another word: there is no neutral gender in English, just he or she. And by tradition we say "he" when we don't know the gender of a thing. God created both male and female. He loves both equally - I'm certain of it.

Here is another good one:

QUESTION: Would I be absolved from sin if I marry the girl I lost my virginity to?
We lost our virginities to each other. I dont feel that it's a sin, even though it's premarital sex, because I love her and even the whole confession/repentance seemed odd. Now that we are talking about marriage, when we marry is that sin absolved? Was it even a sin because I heard that you are married in the eyes of God once you have sex, and we didn't have sex with any other partners. This almost feels like a formality because in our hearts we knew we were going to marry each other that's why we did it.
Or am I just being a stubborn or delusional sinner? I don't feel any guilt.

MY ANSWER: You are just being human. :)

Confession doesn't count, if you don't feel any remorse. I don't mean GUILT, I mean remorse.... Think of it like this: the Church teaches you that premarital sex is an offense to God - it runs contrary to his plan for us, and it runs contrary to what is a healthy lifestyle for us. You should confess to him (privately is fine) because it is offensive to him. Not because you find it wrong or feel guilty. You apologize for offending God , out of respect for him. Get it?

Everything that is taught to be a sin, is actually something that is ultimately hurtful to YOU the individual. God is offended because the act hurts you. It is not in your best interest. It doesn't bring you closer to Him, it doesn't work to make you happy in life. Premarital sex, because it is sex without a real commitment, is harmful to the individual - because in the context of a commitment it is much better for you. God hates what hurts you.

If you confess/apologize sincerely, you are absolved. You needn't marry or do anything else. If you ask sincerely for forgiveness, with real contrition (sorrow that you may have offended God by your behavior), you will be forgiven. God forgives anything, if you ask sincerely for his forgiveness, always. Simple.

God wouldn't want you to be fretting over it like this, or even to feel some horrible guilt. But I think he might want you to apologize to him out of respect, for mistreating yourself.

Lord, please send the Holy Ghost into my heart so that I answer in the words that you would have me use. Help me always remember that all wisdom comes from you, and help me to never stop seeking your guidance whenever I speak to Christianity. Amen.
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03 November 2008

A Little Guilt . . .

When did it become fashionable to avoid guilt? So many times, I've heard Catholics complain about the guilt they were taught. I'm not judging that - as I've mentioned I grew up Protestant. But my contemporaries that grew up before Vatican II obviously suffered; the fury over it is palpable even today, more than forty years later.

I just wonder if there is some middle ground, when it comes to guilt. I have often joked that I am probably the world's worst Catholic: having grown up liberal Protestant, I had no sense of guilt. Sure, I had enough to form Christian conscience, but not the kind of deep all-encompassing guilt that leads to self-loathing, which I see in some lifelong Catholics. I have to qualify the statement with "some Catholics" because so many grew up and lived devout lives and were not eaten up by guilt. Somehow, they had a different understanding of it - a healthier understanding of it. Why? . . .

Perhaps the chance that an individual would see guilt not as a monster but as a tool, depended upon the particular priest of the parish and the mood which was set; perhaps it depended more upon home environment - the way the faith was taught. It is fascinating to me as a bit of an outsider, that there is so little middle ground. Either an individual seems to have benefitted from the Catholic childhood, or they have vowed never to set foot in a Catholic church again.

I have read my previous posts which deal with my frustration at my own lack of spiritual strength, and I wonder if an angry former Catholic would read them and hear something they understand as guilt. This troubles me, and I feel a need to speak to it.

I suppose there is a little bit of guilt there, certainly, but it isn't something I feel beaten by, or attacked by. Rather, I feel challenged by it. For me, one of the very valuable things I have found in Catholicism is the emphasis on self-examination. It often seems to me that Protestants - and this is more true the more fundamentalist the group - like to look outside of themselves for sin; a lot of energy is put into critiquing the behavior of others, pointing out to others their shortcomings. But Christ told us to remove the log from our own eyes before looking at the speck in our brother's. This is so often forgotten in the Protestant churches.

That is my point: Catholic faith emphasizes self-examination through its prayers, the very act of frequent confession, the ideology of penance and contrition. Although Protestantism incorporates these ideas to an extent, the same emphasis on self-evolution isn't there.

I appreciate the challenge that Catholicism presents to me as an individual to look at myself every day, to set spiritual goals, to carry on a dialog between myself and Christ in order to improve myself. Not only is there little or no emphasis on worrying about others' sins, but to do so works against the virtue of humility. (I could write another essay on Humility!) The Catholic faith by its very structure demands self-examination above examination of others.

And Guilt - is that such a bad thing anyway? I can agree that we need not walk around feeling so guilty that we feel defeated; this ideology ignores the essential truth of Christian thought that we are all sinners and all have God's love regardless. But guilt that compels one to constantly evolve, set moral standards, seek new spiritual goals, can only serve to force one to spiritual development.

The guilt I feel as I contemplate my own spiritual failures is profound and causes me a lot of pain, but it isn't something that I feel victimized by. I hold it separate from my sense of self-worth - which in fact grows as I feel closer to God. If anything, guilt is a gift - it spurs me on in the journey. It's a necessary pain through which I find so much enlightemment when all is said and done, and I find this over and over again.

Lord, thank you for making me aware of my shortcomings. Every thought, every awareness of them is a grace from you - for it allows me to know how to keep working toward you. These thoughts illuminate the path to you. Please don't stop showing me how I can be closer to that which you want me to be. Please keep opening my eyes to my true self, a little at a time, so that I can change a little at a time. Amen

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31 October 2008

Carrying a Silent Cross

It's difficult to carry a contemplative nature in the secular world. I've never really found a mentor that I trust. I converted to Catholicism in my 30's, so I didn't have the example as a child to devote my lifetime to a religious model. By the time I realized I should have entered religious life, I was already married and had responsibilities. Prior to this awakening in early adulthood, I had no idea such an opportunity existed, or that such a world existed.

Now, I don't have so much responsibility, but it seems I'm too old. The vast majority of orders and houses wouldn't have me. Like most people of a certain age, I've had some health issues. That would be another reason for rejection . . .

I think about the saints of past centuries. So many struggled with illness, psychological troubles, even old age. Many joined or founded orders after 50. Why are we barring that now? Oh, to live in a time and place where serious or even terminal illness is seen as a special grace - an opportunity for spiritual development. (I dont know something about that - I faced death directly twice in the past, and would do it again for all it taught me.) I do understand that care of elderly members of a monastery is a great financial burden, made more difficult in this time when vocations to the religious life are few. I understand the practical reason for these boundaries. But at what cost have they been established?

I've lived a full life, and most of the time a good one. I've dabbled in sin, I've seen trouble and pain in others lives. I know worldly life thoroughly. I could come to a vocation with clear sight, no delusions or fantasies, with complete comprehension of the things I leave behind in the world. But in the current mode of thinking, that isn't worth much.

I recently saw the film Into Great Silence, made a few years ago, following daily life of the French Carthusian monastery, The Grand Chartreuse. I was surprised by my reaction to it. It is difficult to explain, but nothing surprised me in it. It was all strangely familiar. I was comforted by the silence, by the routine, and the isolation. In one scene, an airplane - barely heard - flies overhead; I felt the intrusion of this bit of modern machinery into the peace of the ancient routine. Reminded me of years ago, after a weekend's camp in the backcountry, driving back through the city: back then I would take that bombardment of city and noise very personally, feeling a defensive anger rise as I drove through the necessary transition time, toward my home back "in the world".

One thing struck me about the film: I was surprised to see little joy. I don't mean peace, contentment, even a smile - there was plenty of that. I mean JOY. These men have the grace of living every day - every day - in the seeking of God's presence. If I had that, I am certain that joy would radiate from me! I'd be grateful every day for the opportunity to live such a life!

For now, I take comfort in stories of tertiaries, anchorites, lay orders, and other historical manifestations of combining calling with life in the world. I find no one - although I've searched for years - to whom I can take questions, find guidance. I rely on my books. I have been blessed to know many a kind priest, but always had the feeling they would think me a bit crazy if they knew my heart - they'd think me fanatical. Once I befriended a person in a Carmelite order but correspondence abruptly stopped - I wonder if it was because connection with the secular world on such a level was frowned upon by a superior. I do understand the obedience, and the theory, and forgive. But for me, it was a shame.

Perhaps the point is my isolation. The outside world knows me as an extroverted, community-involved person. They would never guess what is behind that. . . I can only offer my loneliness up in prayer, hoping to give some purpose to it. The dichotomy between my true self and what I offer the world around me, is enormous. I have to wonder how many people live within a similar shell.

I'm not saying it's always bad. In my case, it offers me protection from those who wouldn't understand, and my outer shell is a good one - I know I put joy into other lives, lessen hardship in other lives. I try hard to live as an example of Christian love, even with never giving voice to it. (I do feel the example teaches as well or better than any preaching I could do.)

Lord, help me remember with every person I meet that the true heart will rarely present itself. If I am afraid - knowing your love and support - surely many are just as fearful, and remain hidden. Help me see the person Christ knows and loves, in each person, especially those most difficult to love. Show me how to embrace my own cross with more willingness, and patience, and remind me see it as a grace (I need a lot of reminding, by the way - I'm pretty slow). Amen.
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30 October 2008

Thoughts on a Hermitage

The facts we know: sometime in the late 6th century, an Irish monk called Fionan and his companions, rowed out eight miles from the western Ireland mainland to the rugged, pointed pinnacle of rock they later dubbed "Sceilig MhichÍl" (Rock of Michael). Skellig Michael was nearly impossible to access: its steep, rough crags offered few footholds and most of the terrain was vertical.

But in those early Middle Ages, Celtic Christianity was monastically based - some women and men lived austere, isolated lives in silence and physical hardship, alone or in small groups (forming the early monasteries), feeling that in losing themselves to the world they could approach the mystery of God. The common people and nobility alike looked to these men and women for wisdom, and often offered practical supplies and monetary support for the upkeep of their lifestyles - assuring that Christianity maintained a presence in everyone's lives. As long as someone was communing with God on mankind's behalf, all were better off; and the spiritual wisdom these hermit monks and nuns offered was truly valuable to secular spiritual lives . . .

At least 23 islands off Irelands coast contain monastic ruins from the early middle ages. Elsewhere in the world's remotest places - on mountaintops, in caves, at desert retreats, and on windswept islands, hermits of Christian and other faiths have established dwellings from where they could freely search for God's truth, away from the distraction of the outside world. Often, these places were less a refuge than a self-imposed Hell on Earth.

In the first days at the island, the boats of the monks - common fishermen's curraughs - could be turned upside down and covered with animal hides to make a warm, solid shelter from the fierce weather. Skellig Michael is violently windy in the best times, wet and slippery much of the time, and in winter cold and harsh. The eight miles between the mainland and the island make it near inaccessible even now - weather by boat or helicopter: all depends on the cooperation of the weather, which often stirs up waves too rough to brave. In 1994, when I was there in July and had the opportunity to visit Skellig Michael, a storm blew in for days, making it impossible. I couldn't even glimpse it from the mainland in the dark, misty air.

For some reason, the St. Fionan and his fellow monks had chosen this most remote and harshest of places to establish a retreat on the way to God. They spent months moving and piling rocks, builting rounded stone huts (beehive huts were common to early celtic monastic settlements), steep stairways, terraced gardens, chapel. For over two hundred years they lived in peace and prayer, gaining the respect and awe of much of western Europe. They grew herbs and plants, kept sheep and goats, caught seabirds and fish for food, seals for lampoil and hides. They made rare trips to the mainland for supplies such as firewood or other fuel, domestic equipment, writing supplies and books, cloth, and news of the rest of the monastic world.

In 812 A.D. the Vikings first raided the community. This occurred several times over that century, with the worst at the end. Finally, the Vikings - in addition to kidnapping and butchery (their special favorite was kidnapping and deliberately starving) - destoyed the boats of the monks, and without access to the mainland they eventually all died of exposure. But the spiritual lure of the place persisted, and not until the 13th century did monks leave the island for good, moving to a monastery nearby on the mainland within eyesight of the former haven.

Through the centuries the monastic ruin existed as an inspiration and historical record of the spiritual fervor of those who once spent their lives there. People went there for pilgrimage - to think on it, and perhaps to pray, staying for an afternoon's picnic or an overnight camp. In the nineteenth century two lighthouses were built, and even a road in 1820 - hanging on the cliff - to access one of them. Lightkeepers and families lived there full time, a few children born there. When the lighthouse was no longer needed, they left all quiet again.

The remoteness of Skellig Michael has ensured that the ruins - early stairways, beehive huts, graves, chapels, garden walls and oratories - have remained largely untouched, affected only by the wearing of the elements. A major archealogical dig occurred in the 1950's on the near mainland, uncovering artifacts which suggested some facts about the lives of the holy men. First in the 1960's and through the following decades, researchers began to explore the monastic site itself in earnest. With mountain climbing equipment for safety they climbed cliffs that early monks had daily climbed and built stone structures upon. A few particularly interesting things were discovered: the huts contained the remains of firepits for cooking, shelves for storage, hooks for hanging supplies. Walls and stairways were so well constructed that even the wind had left them intact for some 1500 years. One stairway of 14 steps led to nowhere but a rocky point and the sky.

Odder still, a hermitage for one monk had been built upon a rocky peak, away from the rest of the monastery and barely accessible at all. Archeologists have determined that it took several men to build it, all for the use of only one. First built likely in the ninth century, it was maintained for hundreds of years. It consisted of a shelter, terrace garden and plot. Horrified by the vertigo-inducing location and stupified by the technical feat of its creation, one modern researcher has suggested that perhaps this peak was the closest to the heavens that was possible on the island, and indeed in the nearby world with which such men would have been acquainted.

I feel something sick with fear in the very pit of my stomach, when I think of the danger of the heights, the real possibility of a misstep, the harshness of the elements, the loneliness of self-imposed isolation. Did the ones who lived in this hermitage find God? Did they hear a voice in the isolation - in the depths of their humanity-deprived souls - that one could never hear elsewhere? If so, what was it like to experience that grace? To live that life, to brave that journey?

As we scoff from the 'heights' of the 21st century, we might do well to consider: hundreds of them, through at least six centuries, thought that the reward was real enough that the risk of starving, falling, drowning, being slaughtered at the hands of invaders, freezing to death - paled in comparison to the chance to reach for and touch God. Thousands more sought the wisdom born of their sacrifice - and still look to it with awe today. Perhaps they understood something we don't?

To read more on Skellig Michael, its history, and in particular the study of the hermitage, see this excellent work, The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael offered online by University of California Press.

An excellent arial view of the monastic ruin on Skellig Michael; monastery ruins in the center right, showing the beehive huts. Note the stairs leading to entrance and the gate and walls surrounding the community; the narrow green plots served for grazing and crops. The separate hermitage is located atop the peak in the background, a precarious path leading up to it. (Photo from Office of Public Works, Ireland.)

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