SKELLIG- NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED!
Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, are towering sea crags rising from the Atlantic Ocean almost 12 kilometres west of the Ivereagh Peninsula in County Kerry. Skellig Michael was the chosen destination for a small group of ascetic monks who, in their pursuit of greater union with God, withdrew from civilisation to this remote and inaccessible place.
Some time between the sixth and eight centuries, a monastery was founded on this precipitous rock giving rise to one of the most dramatic examples of the extremes of Christian monasticism.
The monastic community appears to have moved to the mainland by the thirteenth century but the island, with its well-preserved monastic remains perched precariously on the top of this inhospitable place, continued to be venerated as a place of pilgrimage in the following centuries.
George Bernard Shaw, following a visit in 1910, described this as an ‘incredible, impossible, mad place’.
Some ten years ago we had a holiday in Tralee. In Ireland, the name "Collins" is almost as common as "Smith". Nevertheless a number of people asked if we were related to "the great man himself, Michael Collins", which seemed to give us a bit of street-cred! No holiday in that part of Ireland is complete without a trip around "The Ring of Kerry". It was tempting to take the ferry across to Skellig Michael, but I'm afraid I didn't have the nerve to face the steps up to the top of the island - I have no head for heights.
More admirable in my eyes, therefore, were those original monastic settlers who found God in that most-terrifying place.
Psalm 71 (selected verses)
In you, O Lord, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me.
Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.
Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.
For you, O Lord, are my hope,
my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from my birth;
it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.
Pondering this passage and this image,
I keep thinking of Skellig Michael.
In a stark landscape that afforded few level surfaces,
the monks managed to build six stone cells
constructed in the “beehive” style distinctive to Celtic monasteries,
along with two oratories and a tiny hermitage on a peak
whose location would have made getting there an arduous pilgrimage in itself.
I imagine that on that craggy rock
where they kept a rhythm of personal and communal prayer
throughout the day and night,
the monks felt a particular connection with this psalm
and its imagery of the rock of refuge that the psalmist finds in God.
Like the desert fathers and mothers of the early church who served as models
and sources of inspiration for these monks,
the brothers surely must have found that their home on Skellig Michael
was not a place of escape from spiritual struggle
but a space where they could both wrestle with God
and rest in the God who delivered them
and provided shelter and strength for their souls.
"Where do you find the solid ground that God provides?
How do you seek the refuge, solace, and shelter that God offers you—
not as a perpetual escape from the world
but as a place of safety where you can receive the strength and sustenance
that will enable you to engage the world
in the ways God needs you to engage it?"
I cannot claim to still the storm that has seized you,
cannot calm the waves that wash through your soul, that break against your fierce and aching heart.
But I will wade into these waters, will stand with you in this storm, will say peace to you in the waves, peace to you in the winds, peace to you in every moment that finds you still within the storm.
Be the Lord a bright flame before you,
Be the Lord a guiding star above you,
Be the Lord a smooth path below you,
Be the Lord a kindly shepherd behind you,
Today, tonight and forever.