On the wild holiness at the edge of the world
"This was a faith of the edgelands; there was nothing comfortable about it." Makes me think: the period of 'rapid and extreme' change is also very deeply uncomfortable to me. What's the difference between the green martyrs discomfort and our/my current cultural discomfort? Is this difference purely fysical? Thanks for the story, looks like a great place to visit and to be visited by.
Looks wonderful. Do you have any recommendations for ancient Chinese poetry by any chance? Thank you.
Paul, what a great piece. There is of course a school of thought that the ancient Irish and British Christianity is the same faith as practiced in the East that eventually became Orthodoxy, and the arrival of the mission of Augustine represented the capture of the ole faith by Rome. (There is a book called The History of Early Christianity in Britain, written around the turn of the 20th century, that makes this case from original documents and the Fathers). The Orthodox of course recognize all early British saints pre-schism; my church has icons of Cuthbert and Aidan of Lindisfarne and David of Wales, among others. I think it’s a valid argument; early British Christianity was more contemplative, monastic and rural vs the more urban tendencies of Rome. Dmitri Lapa writes good pieces on the British saints at OrthoChristian, and I should also recommend Sabine Baring-Gould’s lives of the British Saints, available from Llanerch Press in eight volumes. He does a great job of working through the existing documents, much of which were lost during the Saxon invasions. And there are all the Northumbrian saints, including Oswald, on whom Tolkien based Aragorn. It is indeed “good” for the Orthodox in the west to have this tradition, another that needs wholesacale rediscovery.
Beautiful. You have succeeded in making a pilgrimage that I have tried and failed to make several times, once due to bad weather that almost drowned us. That wasn’t even the only time I’ve almost drowned off the coast of Ireland. The number of times that has happened is surprisingly high, given the limited amount of time I’ve spent in the place, and yet I love it still.
The story of the Christianization of the British Isles, and the way that the Christian religion evolved in and with and through the cultures of the British Isles, has long fascinated me. It is a rather green story, so to speak, at least in my reading of it, and it is not a story that is finished yet. But it is good to look back towards origins. I’ll be interested to see what you turn up in your researches into early British and Irish Christianity. If asceticism is a way forward, then the fierce and daring asceticism (and cenobitism) of early Christian Ireland and Britain is still important.
In another comment here I see Alexander Norman has mentioned Helen Waddell. I can't resist jumping in to say that she was a rare gem. All her books deserve to be back in print, but none more than the one that might appeal most to folks reading here, her little collection Beasts and Saints. These are are quite short stories from Latin sources in the Christian tradition. Three sections: the Desert Fathers (so translated from Greek into Latin); medieval Europe (including Britain); and Irish saints. I especially recommend the book to anyone with children. I don't believe Waddell ever learned medieval Irish and Welsh. I wish she had, because she would have worked wonders with the literary traditions of those languages, as she did with her knowledge of medieval Latin. She was the daughter of Presbyterian (I think) missionaries in Japan, influenced by her childhood in early 20th century Japan, a rather free-spirited Christian scholar, and a damn fine writer.
Great trip, good thoughts, and the pictures are very effective.
Some many years ago I caught a BBC radio 'newsy' interview with a man returning from a longer stay, perhaps a project, on Skellig Michael. It got my attention when he said that he had the very strange feeling that if he had been told he would not leave, then that would have been fine by him. I probably have had the same feeling about a place a few times. I remember an old heather thatched croft house on the Isle of Lewis, and the first trip we made to the inner Farne when our two oldest were very small.
A few years ago I returned to thinking about Skellig Michael and turned up this account online. I hope this might be a useful further source for contemplation.
I do not consider myself a climber but I have done enough technical rock climbing in airy places to appreciate this study of some of the dry stone structures on the South Peak. I like page 51: “On the way up to this traverse one views with amazement a fragment of dry-stone wall built by someone who must have been kneeling on clouds when he placed these stones on a narrow ledge that plummets into what appears to be eternity. (Fig.44)” https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft1d5nb0gb;chunk.id=0;doc.view=print
best wishes for the continuing journey
Wonderful essay. I truly miss that feeling of everything being holy. When I was a child it felt like superstition, but it grew into something more. It's gone now sadly.
I read this idea from Watchman Nee as a young woman: that if we desire the cross to work in our lives, to 'cleave flesh from spirit', we need not seek out trials. If we merely tell the Lord in prayer that we yearn for His work in us we will see Him bring the testing in due time. When it comes we must not refuse the cross. The difficulties He leads us through may be very different from those we would choose for ourselves in a monastic attempt. It seems true to me with my limited experience and understanding of theology.
I had just happened upon this book of his, The Spiritual Man, off a used book rack. Much of it is strange yet it influenced me at that time in the holiest way. Watchman Nee, or Nee To Sheng, was a Chinese christian at the dawn of Mao's regime. He died in prison but left behind a converted guard. A good biography of Nee is called Against the Tide, by Angus Kinnear.
One cinematographical aside: Skellig Islands are the setting of the final sequence of Heart of Glass - 1976 film by Werner Herzog, director who is also very "wild" and in some personal way also extatically mystical. The movie itself is unique and really really weird, probably the only film which was made while most of the cast was hypnotised and therefore also excruciatingly slow sometimes. It takes place in 18th century Bavaria is based on a story of some local folk prophet. It can be hard to endure but the opening sequence is monumental and I always found the finale very touching, especially the sentence which closes the film. You can se the finale here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arAdbEGVWOk
You know what this actually reminds me of—and I can’t believe i didn’t mention this first—is your novel Beast.
For those who don’t know but might be interested: the narrator of that book, a contemporary man, is on a mad quest to discover some asceticism in his life. He’s absolutely desperate for it, and he does achieve it in a way, living off little more than water on some desolate moor. (Reminds me of great ascetic saints like Catherine of Siena, living off of the communion host.) What really strikes me now, even more than when I read that book, is that that Buckmaster (the narrator, and literary descendant of the Buccmaster of The Wake) had to leave behind his wife and child for his insane but visionary, sort of redemptive exile. But here you are writing about visiting the site of one of the triumphs of Christian asceticism with your family.
My very earliest living memory was of being a child in western Ireland on a day my parents took me to the beach. I remember the sun shining on the water and the darkness of the sand.
Places such as the Skellig are often referred to as 'thin places', places where the veil between the transcendent and the earthly are wafer thin and the light of some vast 'otherness' comes flooding through.
Each day now I am online looking for remote rural land in the alpine country of Australia near the city where we live. The desire for escape and simplicity and most of all...silence, is becoming so very strong.
Since St. Brendan has been mentioned let me pop in here with a book recommendation. It’s for “The Brendan Voyage” by Tim Severin. A fascinating recounting of his attempt to build a leather curragh and follow Brendan’s legendary route to the New World. Very much like the voyage of the Kon-Tiki.
This is beautiful. The wild, green, panentheistic spirit of early Christianity it evokes, is beautiful. Until recently I was averse to Christianity. My spiritual path took a similar direction to yours – for Zen Witch read Yogic Celtic Faery. I never thought of Christianity as wild but I’m beginning to see that it can be. It’s drawn me in.
The prayer and poem you quoted recalled some lines from the Katha Upanishad:
The Self is the sun shining in the sky,
The wind blowing in space; he is the fire
At the altar and in the home the guest;
He dwells in human beings, in gods, in truth,
And in the vast firmament; he is the fish
Born in water, the plant growing in the earth,
The river flowing down from the mountain.
Maybe I’m a Yogic Christian? I think not but that ancient faith will inform my yogic path from now on.
Yes, I think you are onto something here: the relationship between wildness and the Christian (especially Roman) tradition. Given that nothing could be more wild, more elemental than the nailing of an innocent man to a tree on a barren hillside, the domestication of the crucifixion is a puzzle. Yet the eucharist itself is the re-enactment, the instauration, of that very event. Rome, with its slavish legalism, often seems to smother the life out of what is the momentous of all events. Setting your altar up at Skellig seems like a way of reintroducing wildness.
Probably what this tells us is that we need both. If you shun what is canonical, you end up back with the Satyricon. If you shun wildness, you end up with the banality of soft-shoed tambourine masses!
The Spirit always seems most potent amid risk and uncertainty, and most stagnant and hard to find in safety and predictability. A choice to live in closer relationship with nature, and with a less dominant stance toward it, leaves nature free to be itself, which means not only more beautiful, but more dangerous and therefore more likely to bring us closer to the Spirit and to each other. I lived for several years on another puffin-populated Atlantic rock, the island of Newfoundland, where the winter regularly poured yards-deep snow onto the island, entombing cars in their driveways, and where even on the finest of days the fog could sweep in, obliterating sun and warmth in a vast gaseous chill. But something about that dismal weather brought people together, pulling them away from their individual goals and distractions and bringing them into something more fundamental; a reminder of our fragility amid the enormity of nature, a reminder of our need for each other, and how solidly real that is. And it seems to me all of life ought to be close to those “edgelands” (such a wonderful word!). In that sense, it is not the faith of those “lands”, but the faith of “edges”—of walking narrow paths, walking in fog, and with trust in the deeper Reality.
Starting with Skellig Michael as the norm rather than the outlier is wonderful: but were there not also other ways of Christianity being alternative to the Roman/imperial power-based structures? My old friend Ray Simpson, in the early chapters of CHURCH OF THE ISLES: Amazon.co.uk: Simpson, Ray: 9781844171071: Books (which I’m afraid might appear very unacademic and over-practical alongside those already quoted), asserts that the early model of Irish Christianity was not militant as in say Saxon England or in Germany, but exemplary and companionable, living alongside the population, and absorbing much of its life and ritual, until the local kings recognised that they could only hold their peoples’ allegiance if they too took up the new ways. Famously, the pagan festivals were taken over and Christianised by this route.
The attempt was not to secede from the empire of the Machine (Skellig Michael), and not to capture the head of the Machine and oppress more efficiently in a better cause (missions to Germany and the Augustinian mission to Canterbury), but to produce a less hierarchical and less Machine-like society. Simpson states that, in this model of organisation, power was divided: a bishop had pastoral responsibilities for which he answered to nobody except God, but on matters of organisation came under the abbot of the local monastery, whoever he or she was. It was the abbot who negotiated with the king, as personification of the Machine. He agrees with you that, between the 10th and 12th centuries CE, the Roman Imperial model took over – perhaps inevitably, since it offers advantages to the wielders of power.
It is also my understanding that, perhaps not at Skellig Michael but at places like Glendalough, some moved back and forth between withdrawal from the world to do battle, and engaging with the world to do healing.
The possibilities here are what interest me about your whole project. I accept entirely Jonathan Geltner’s comment that “There is no religion that cannot become ossified and legalistic”. Yet the flight to some modern Skellig Michael has always seemed to me both impractical (how could we get away from planetary degradation?) and irresponsible (can anyone, let alone the majority of modern populations, be held responsible for the Machinations of the Machine?). After 40+ years building corners of organisations that were un-Machine-like within the very belly of the Machine – with very mixed success, but some success all the same – I find myself in touch with small, weak groups of people who want ways to undermine the Machine where they live, for the good of the people where they live. That they wouldn’t use that language, except when reading RS Thomas, doesn’t make it less true, or less worth doing.
To quote you back at yourself, “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.”