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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