Dr. Ed Newell on Christian Monasticism on Europe’s Celtic Seaboard

Skellig Michael, Ireland(Photo: Unsplash/Michael75)

Of the 6,000 or so islands that make up the British Isles, few can be more beguiling than the Skelligs. Eight miles off the west coast of Ireland, they appear from the mainland as remote mountain peaks emerging mysteriously from the Atlantic. As well as drawing the eye, they draw the soul.

I yielded to their allure a few years ago and decided to visit the larger of the two, Skellig Michael. At the time I was researching for my book The Sacramental Sea, which examines the influence of the sea on Christianity and spirituality over the past two millennia.

What intrigued me was how this remote, inhospitable outcrop of rock could possibly have been home to a monastic community for 600 years. Why did monks settle there? What was it like to live, work and pray in such a place? Perhaps a visit would offer some insights.

I’d been warned that getting there could be tricky, and so it proved. For nearly a week my wife and I phoned a local boatman each morning, only to be told it was too rough to sail. Then, on the penultimate day of our visit, he said it was safe to go but we might not land. Fortunately, the sea’s swell didn’t stop us mooring on the island’s jetty, and so we disembarked and made our way up the long, precipitous path that generations of monks had cut into the hillside. It led to the island’s remarkable monastic settlement – so remarkable that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The ruins of the monastery on Skellig Michael are evidence of what happened when Christian monasticism spread from the Egyptian desert to Europe’s Celtic seaboard, over a thousand years ago. Rather than searching for an inland desert, many drawn to the ascetic life in the West sought instead a ‘desert in the ocean’.

Remote islands offered not only solitude but, more importantly, the conditions for spiritual testing. The earliest Celtic Christian monks drew their inspiration from Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness – they weren’t out to commune with nature.

Behind this attitude is an ancient cosmology associated with the Book of Genesis. This thought-world contrasted the relatively calm and tideless waters of the Mediterranean with the wild, tidal waters of the Atlantic. The Mediterranean was regarded as part of God’s creation on the ‘second day’ in Genesis, when the primordial waters of the cosmos were separated to form seas. In contrast, the Atlantic was seen as the remnant of those primordial waters – the remains of the chaos out of which God created order.

This distinction is represented in ancient maps, which show the Earth as the three known land-masses of Asia, Africa and Europe separated by seas and rivers and surrounded by ocean. In this ancient thought-world, the British Isles and Iberian Peninsula were believed, quite literally, to be at the edge of the world – hence the former name of Fitzroy, the sea area to the west of Spain and Portugal: Finisterre – finis (end) terre (earth).

By locating themselves in these coastal regions, the monks believed that they were on the dangerous margins of God’s creation – an ideal place for spiritual testing.

If what I’ve described is from a thought-world of a previous era, then I experienced a modern-day echo of it during another research trip. I was intrigued to discover that, not long ago, a monastery had been established on the remote, tiny island of Papa Stronsay in Orkney.

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Source: Christian Today