Luke Skywalker's Monastic Retreat

Warning: Spoiler about the new Star Wars movie

Skellig oratory and cemetery.
Skellig oratory and cemetery. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we find Luke Skywalker, dressed in the monklike robes of his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, looking old and impossibly sad. He is perched at the summit of an impossible location: a crag of rock jutting from a storm-tossed sea. Six hundred steps lead upward from that sea, made of stone hewn from the island itself.

This is neither set nor skillful CGI. It's Skellig Michael, a monastery on an island in the Atlantic Ocean eight miles off the coast of Kerry, Ireland.

There are three islands there in the sea: the Little Skellig, the Washerwoman's Rock, and the Great Skellig. It is this last rock, some 400 feet at its summit, that forms “the most western of Christ's fortresses.” Some time in the 6th or 7th centuries, Irish monks made their way here, sent by St. Finnian. They probably came from the vast monastic center that he founded at Clonard Abbey, which boasted of educating as many as 3,000 men at once.

There are two St. Finnians, both remembered as holy abbots, the first ordaining St. Columba as a deacon and the other (the great Irish monastic St. Finnian of Clonard) ordaining him as a priest and serving as his teacher. The latter was involved in one of the stranger incidents in the life of Columba. During a visit to Finnian, Columba copied his mentor's psalter, and Finnian insisted the copy was his possession and demanded it back. Columba's cousin, the Irish Over-King Diarmid, sided with Finnian. Outraged by this, and possibly angered by a violation of sanctuary by the king, Columba stirred the people against Diarmid, leading to a battle with significant loss of life and the flight of the king. The Synod of Teilte, in progress at the time, excommunicated Columba, but restored him when he presented himself at the Synod and agreed to convert as many pagans as he could.

And there you have Irish monasticism in a nutshell: mad, volatile, and feverishly passionate about the faith. Is it any wonder they retreated to impossible locations?

For several centuries the retreat drew a steady stream of hermits seeking a deeper encounter with Christ away from the distractions and vanities of the world. These were the hardcore spiritual athletes: ascetics on the order of the great desert fathers trapped on a wind-scoured rock inaccessible to land for months at a time.

Using a dry-stone walling technique that has withstood the elements for 1400 years, they built two oratories and six beehive cells, each cell with an ambry (niche) for storing their meagre possessions and supplies. Small stone fingers on the roof probably held turf or some other kind of insulating roofing material. A pair of wells, eggs from the large seabird population, pollock, and possibly goats and goat milk provided their sustenance. There's just enough soil to support a small flock of livestock. They probably brought the soil with them.

A Dream World

George Bernard Shaw called it "an incredible, impossible, mad place. I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in; it is part of our dream world."

Or part of a galaxy long long ago and far away.

In a sense, it is. The Irish culture that produced such passion and faith--such greatness that moved the entire world with missionaries, artists, and immigrants--has collapsed into a pinched and sour secularism. A once great people, animated almost to madness with a passion for Christ and His Church, has sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Today, the island is a Unesco world heritage site housing a delicate population of seabirds. During tourist season, fewer than 200 people can visit it a day. During shooting, there were two minor incidents that supervisors had to report: one crew member's jacket snagged on a rock and dislodged it, and some water-based paint was spilled. It's a sign of how seriously custodians take preservation of the location that these two incidents were addressed immediately and made the national news.

It's also a sign of the times that outrage about the use of the island was mostly driven by concern that storm petrel and max shearwater nests might have been disturbed. Dr Stephen Newton of Birdwatch Ireland registered complaints with an eye on the filmmakers' deep pockets: “The impact of this sort of work, which had gone on for two years, is long-term. Disney film company should be funding the long-term monitoring of the island.” 

A Desert In A Trackless Sea

Men came to Skellig seeking, in the words of St. Columcille, destrum in pelago intransmeabilu: “a desert in a trackless sea.” It was a place to grow closer to Christ.

The small community probably stuck it out until the 12th century, eventually building a small chapel. They survived Viking attacks and privation, but eventually the ardor for out-doing St. Anthony and the other desert fathers faded. “The situation of the abbey being  found extremely bleak,” wrote Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 to c. 1223), "and the going to and from it highly hazardous, [the monastery] was moved to Ballinskelligs on the mainland."

A 9th century Irish hermit left us a beautiful poem about his hermitage that gives us a glimpse of what called men to places like this all around Ireland (from MS Suibne Geilt, translated by Kenneth Jackson in Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry):

Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, 
on the crest of a rock, 
that I may look there on the manifold
face of the sea.

That contrition of heart should come upon me
when I look on it;
that I may bewail my many sins
difficult to declare.

That I may bless the Lord
who has power over all,
heaven with its crystal orders of angels,
earth, ebb, flood tide.

That I may pore on one of my books,
good for my soul,
a while kneeling for beloved heaven,
a while at psalms.

A while meditating upon the Prince of Heaven,
holy is the redemption,
a while at labour not too heavy;
it would be delightful!