The Secret Of Skellig Michael

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11.6 km off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland there lies an ancient holy site with ambiguous beginnings. 

Skellig Michael is an early medieval monastic site that is isolated, breathtakingly beautiful, and remarkably well preserved.

Embracing the extremes of Christian monasticism this island and its nearby counterpart, Little Skellig or Bird Island, is a hotbed for burgeoning scholarship. With archaeology ongoing since 1986 there has been limitless potential for discovery. Scholars and modern day visitors alike all leave Skellig with one resounding and awe-inspired question: why did monks settle on this island? 

The answer embraces the heart of Irish asceticism and resonates with modern pilgrims and sci-fi nerds alike. The Cambrai Homily, one of the earliest known Irish homilies dating to the 7th or 8th century, is best known for its mention of red, green, and white martyrdom. 

White martyrdom is when someone “departs for the sake of God from everything that they love, although they may suffer fasting and hard work thereby.” Peregrinatio pro amore Christi, wandering for the love of Christ, is an example of white martyrdom. This self-imposed exile was previously found in Irish law and reserved for individuals whose crimes were so great that they could not be saved.

Perhaps if these lost souls wandered long and far enough they would find God along the way. Later adopted by monastics, peregrinatio became a term used to describe an important spiritual journey. As guests of the world, individuals who partake in this journey do so because of an inner conviction to seek their true spiritual home. 

21st century pilgrims and tourists have been drawn to Skellig Michael for its beauty and mysticism. Now, with the release of Star Wars Episode VII, tourists are journeying to a famous filming location. The visit is not for the faint of heart as it requires a 1.5 hour boat ride along choppy water and an arduous climb to the top of the island. 

The steps are uneven, there is no railing, and the mist from the ocean can make the path dangerously slick. As your legs start to ache around step 150 you can’t help but admire the tenacity and zeal of the monks who accomplished this remarkable architectural feat. With no fresh water source and very little area for farming the monks would have been forced to capture rain water, birds, and fish in order to survive. 

The peak of the island was particularly susceptible to severe storms, offering no natural shelter from the wind and rain. Surely, just as the Cambrai Homily states, these individuals gave up everything that they loved and suffered hard work for the sake of God. 

Celtic Studies scholar Esther de Waal once stated that journeying is an intrinsic part of the religious experience. The idea has been prevalent since the earliest days of Christianity and it is embedded in countless mythologies. 

The proclivity for heroes to embark upon journeys which would alter the course of their existence has been repeatedly noted. Star Wars, deliberately modelled after Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey, has been one of the most well researched films in this area.

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