Sometimes, when the world is broken - and the world is always broken - it is right to take to the water. It is right to leave the shore and set out beyond the horizon, to see where you are sent and what work you will be given when you arrive.
In the sixth century, a small group of Irish monks launched themselves into the Atlantic Ocean on a currach, a type of boat unique to Ireland’s western shores. They were looking for their destiny beyond the world, and they were leaving it in God’s hands. In his fascinating history of this episode and where it led, Sun Dancing, the author Geoffrey Moorhouse imagines the journey:
Their course had already been providentially determined before the moon rose on the day they set out. They had reached the estuary and, where the river met the seas, Fionán told the oarsmen to rest and wait, to find out which way their boat would drift. That had been Brendan’s counsel, whispered urgently as he lay dying, his eyes burning as brightly as ever while he awaited his own last journey, and gave his final instructions to the man he had carefully fostered from youth.
‘When you reach the sea’, he told Fionán, ‘the moment the waves begin, there you must surrender to what will be and wait for the sign. Wherever the boat begins to lead, that way you must go from then on. It will be meant.’
Brendan, in this imagining, is Brénainn maccu Alt - in English, St Brendan the Navigator - the legendary sailor-monk whose sea journeys took him to both literal and mythical destinations. When the monks in this story left the estuary, and threw their destinies to the ocean, the current took their boat, and led them here:
This is Skellig Michael, a rugged, isolated stone peak nearly ten miles out into the Atlantic from the coast of County Kerry in southwest Ireland. Nobody knows how many monks arrived here that day, or quite when that day was, but what we do know is that they founded one of the most remarkable early Christian sites in the West, and perhaps the world.
For a sense of the wild remoteness of the Skellig, which in the winter is dashed by furious Atlantic storms, this is what it looks like from the air:
The island in the distance is Little Skellig, home not to monks but to Europe’s largest colony of gannets (the monks used their dung as fertiliser for their gardens; since the gannets are still there today, this means that this gannet city, too, is over a millennia old). Sceilig in Irish means ‘splinter of stone’, and this is exactly what this rock is: a splinter of stone, on which a group of men, using only very basic tools, with no material on hand but rock, fashioned an astonishing ascetic monastery which survives to this day, 1500 years later:
I’ve wanted to visit the Skellig since moving to Ireland seven years ago. It’s not easy to get to. It can only be reached by boat, of course, and the numbers of visitors are strictly limited, to protect the site, as is the time you are allowed on the island (two and a half hours only). If you do book a boat trip - which you have to do months in advance these days - you then have to pray (which would be appropriate) that your trip is not cancelled by bad weather, which it often is. Landing on the Skellig is tricky even today.
A couple of weeks ago, my family and I got lucky and made the trip. It was an astonishing experience in every way. The sea was calm as glass, and dolphins leapt around the boat on the journey. A whale breached as we landed. And on the island itself, and on the way, were literally thousands and thousands of puffins:
Puffins are one of Earth’s most excellent birds, and alone would be enough reason for me to take a boat trip to an island, but on the Skellig the wild creatures are just the hors d'oeuvres. The main course is the astonishing monastery, abandoned since the twelfth century but still, somehow, radiating an undeniable aura of stillness, and some wild holiness. I saw something there that is still with me, processing maybe, and which is related, I think, to what I have been writing in my essays here.
The early Christian ascetics who journeyed to places like this came to do God’s work. They came to set themselves a hard task; as hard as the land could give them. Inspired by the example of the desert fathers of Egypt - who some have surmised they may even have been in direct contact with - the monks of Skellig Michael came to put themselves to the test. Surviving on any vegetables they could manage to grow on the rocky peak, and on fish, seabirds and their eggs - often uncooked - and living in unheated stone cells throughout the harsh Atlantic winter, these brothers were very consciously seeking their own form of martrydom.
To early Christians, martyrdom was the ultimate sacrifice, but since the Emperor Constantine had Christianised the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the chances of being executed for the faith - known as the Red Martyrdom - were minimal. This was one reason that people like St Anthony took to the deserts of Egypt: now that death was not available as a sacrifice, a new form of askesis was needed. This was known as the White Martyrdom: giving up everything worldly in pursuit of theosis: union with God.
Here in the Irish west, the early monastics developed their own form of martyrdom, described by Thomas Cahill in his intriguing book How The Irish Saved Civilisation, which is my own entry for the scriptorium here in the Abbey. Ireland, Cahill tells us, is the only country in the world which converted to Christianity without bloodshed: disappointingly for those monks who had sought martrydom as missionaries. So:
The Irish of the late fifth and early sixth centuries soon found a solution, which they called the Green Martyrdom … Green Martyrs were those who, leaving the comforts and pleasures of ordinary human society, retreated to the woods, or to a mountaintop, or to a lonely island - to one of the green no man’s lands outside tribal jurisdiction - there to study the scriptures and commune with God.
In his grumpily entertaining tour of Ireland The Back of Beyond, the American historian James Charles Roy has this to say about the early Irish ascetics:
We tend to think of monkish people as shy, retiring, withdrawn. But in fact the Irish came to ... the bleak and remote western isles as warriors. They wanted to test their mettle against the worthiest foe to be found, the Prince of Darkness, just as knights-errant left the safety of their castles to seek out the metaphorical dragon. Their armour, as an old prayer put it, was faith; their buckles, the Psalter; their sword, prayer.
That ‘old prayer’ is the wonderful, mystic and very Irish St Patrick’s Breastplate, which dates from the fifth century, when the former slave St Patrick was working to convert the warrior chieftains of Ireland to the new faith. It is both a wild incantation of praise and a call for protection. Here is part of it:
I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.
I arise today, through
God's strength to pilot me,
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and near
Alone and in multitude.
St Patrick’s Breastplate is an evocative indication of the kind of Christianity that was being practiced here. In early Britain and Ireland, in the first centuries after the collapse of the Roman empire, a version of this strange, new foreign faith developed which was quite unlike the more codified, centrally-controlled, Rome-centred version that we know from the European middle ages. This was a wilder Christianity. It was localised and sometimes anarchic, centred around islands, rocks, caves and mountains, and it undeniably incorporated what we would now call a ‘panentheist’ spirit: a sense that the divine is active in the world, moving in the swiftness of the wind and the depth of the sea: that everything is contained within God. You can feel on the Skellig what you can feel in other ancient Christian sites across Britain and Ireland: that everything is holy. That the world itself is a book in which the nature of divinity can be read: that the sea and the rock and the sun’s last setting are a daily revelation.
In the recent poetry collection Cinderbiter, a collection of retellings of Celtic poems by poet Tony Hoagland and mythologist Martin Shaw, there is a beautiful little poem called The Hermit’s Hut, which evokes this green island Christianity so well that it makes me immediately want to live the life. It reminds me, in both tone and content, of ancient Chinese poetry. It also makes me wonder whether W. B. Yeats had been reading this poem before writing what almost looks like a twentieth century update in The Lake Isle of Innisfree.
The Hermit’s Hut
I’m well hidden,
no one but God knows my hut;
enclosed by ash, hazel and heathery mounds.
Lintel of honeysuckle, doorposts of oak;
and the woods thick with nuts
for the fattening pigs.
My small hut on a path
smoothed by my own feet
is crowned by the song
of the blackbird in the gable.
There is no quarrel here, no hour of strife.
Bright song of the swan, be with me always,
and the nimble wren in the hazel bough,
and swarms of bees, and wild geese.
The wind in the pines makes music sweeter
than any harpist.
I know where a patch of strawberries grows.
How could I not think
that God has sent these things to me?
All of this was happening at a time when the outside world was in freefall. The Roman Empire was retreating from northern Europe, and the barbarians were moving in. Thomas Cahill’s book is an exploration of how the monks of ‘the isle of saints and scholars’ kept safe the writings and history of both classical and Christian society, until they could begin to reseed them amongst the tribes who had conquered the Atlantic lands. St Patrick in particular, says Cahill, was doing his work almost alone, in a time of chaos, with no guarantee that he would survive:
The thirty-year span of Patrick’s mission in the middle of the fifth century encompasses a period of change so rapid and extreme that Europe will never see its like again. By 461, the likely year of Patrick’s death, the Roman Empire is careening in chaos, barely fifteen years away from the death of the last western emperor …
This was the background to the genesis of places like Skellig Michael. Maybe it’s clear enough why I’m writing about it. We’re living now in another time of freefall, and we don’t know where it is headed, but we do know, if we are paying attention, that we are looking at a future of ecological collapse, advancing technologies of control and manipulation which are already playing havoc with our cultures, and the breakdown of the structures and mores which have underpinned our world in the recent past. Another period of ‘rapid and extreme change’ is enveloping Europe and the world, and it is only going to get deeper and faster.
It’s in this context, I think, that Skellig Michael had such a powerful impact on me. There has always been something about early British and Irish Christianity - the ancient faith of both my homeland and my adopted land -which has drawn me in, long before I ended up a Christian myself. I see there something of what that wild faith was, and it tells me something about what it could be again. This was a faith of the edgelands; there was nothing comfortable about it. In another time of collapse and coming chaos, where our relationship with the sacred is broken and we are all swimming against the tide of the deep spiritual crisis of modernity, there are answers to be found in these ancient places. The coring of life around the work of the spirit, the integration of creator and creation, the retreat back to life, restoration and guardianship: some things are eternal, and can be rediscovered whenever we choose to start looking.
I don’t know quite what any of this means yet and maybe I don’t have to. I just wanted to share these stories about the green martyrdom because I have an inkling that this notion may not only be an echo from the distant past, but a call towards one kind of future.
If this seems to grab you, I recently appeared on this podcast, in which I talked with the host - another Orthodox Christian - about how (and if) this tradition might be applicable today, amongst other things.