The last time we saw our Jedi Master, he was in triumphant celebration of the destruction of Death Star II. He was also in mourning for his newly-reclaimed father. His journey as a Jedi and as a man was headed in a unique direction after these events. In the poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Luke is conspicuously absent. We do not know why, but speculation abounds. We do know that Mark Hamill was seen filming at a remote location in Ireland. This location will become part of our enduring fandom consciousness, just as the desert of Tunisia, the glaciers of Norway or the redwoods of Northern California have. We are talking about Skellig Michael, an ancient island in Ireland that was once home to Christian monastics.
I’ve never been to Ireland, though it certainly is on my short list of things to do when I am able. My family left there in 1839, and has never been back. But there is a bit of a yearning to see the ancestral land, to see where I came from. Perhaps some of my grandparents’ witticisms would make more sense in the right context. However, I have found a suitable tutor for the things that Irish lands teach inherently. Within my Church, and especially during my years at seminary, I developed a healthy admiration for the monastic lifestyle. I did not become a monastic, nor did I ever fantasize about it, but I was enlightened by its way of looking at the world, untainted by material cares and the avarice of our modern society. I developed a love for its simplicity and desire to know God in His creation. These are some of the things that my family sacrificed as they escaped starvation and looked to the New World.
With filming of The Force Awakens being done on Skellig Michael, we have an amazing opportunity to center down and contemplate the lives that were lived over there.
In a nice little book entitled Wisdom of the Celtic Saints by Edward Sellner, the author enlightens the worldview of those who settled Skellig Michael. I offer these, not to convince you of their truth, but to give it an opportunity to compare to what we know about the Jedi. Celtic Christian spirituality has a love and respect for the physical environment. There is a deep love of learning (see How the Irish Saved Civilization). The land led them to an innate yearning to explore the unknown. While being a generally gregarious and joyous people, they have a love of silence and solitude. There is the feeling that time is a sacred reality, created and redeemed by God. In fact, there is an Irish saying that “When God made time, He made plenty of it.” This spirituality has an appreciation of ordinary life. There is a great value placed on kinship relationships. For them, life is about communing with and preparing souls for the world to come.
For reasons to be revealed (maybe) in a few weeks, Luke Skywalker has fled to this remote location. We do not know why, nor even where the land is in the galaxy (though there was a huuuuuge hint in one of the YA novels released on Force Friday). Perhaps in the story, it is not even an island, though I can’t imagine why the producers would go to such extremes, were they not to use the natural beauty of this ancient settlement.
Skellig Michael is a crag that is situated 12 kilometers off of the Irish mainland, perched on the edge of the European landmass. With dramatic heights of stone and forbidding eddies of water, there were no inhabitants here until several monks sought refuge from the world in its clefts. Sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries, they took up residence here and coaxed the environment to support their aesthetic endeavors. This small community, never numbering more than a dozen, lasted until the thirteenth century. It continued to be venerated as holy ground for many years afterward, since the mortal remains of so many holy men are buried there, awaiting the resurrection.
The seclusion of the monastery was no surety from attacks from the outside world. At least once, in 823, the island was plundered by the fierce Vikings. The sacred implements were carried off, and one monk was kidnapped in order to be plied for information about greater treasures. This brave monk named Etgal maintained his silence unto his own death, protecting his brothers with his very life.
Normally, monastics live on a vegetarian diet. This is still true in my particular Church’s devotion – I do not know about other traditions. This palate could not be maintained in such a harsh environment. The monastic brotherhood of Skellig Michael lived off of some amount of gardening, which was hard-won, as well as the fish, birds and eggs that were laid on the island.
As the island was tamed, three terraces emerged through the labor of the residents. On one were the gardens. Imagine the wind whipping their robes as they tilled unwilling soil and as sea spray seemed to come from all directions. To be a monastic is a heroic effort. Further up, there was a terrace that housed the oratories (monastic chapels) and beehive shaped huts for living. More secluded hermetic living spaces were established even higher on the two peaks of the island. From here, the monks could both physically and spiritually leave the bounds of the earth and strive toward the God above. From here, they could also provide protection from invasion, since they had a view of the sea for miles around. One monk, contemplating the storms surrounding his cell penned these lines in the 9th century.
The wind is rough tonight
tossing the white combed ocean.
I need not dread fierce Vikings
crossing the Irish Sea.
We cannot be sure at this time if the history of the island enlightens the story of Luke Skywalker. For years, the Jedi have been likened to monks and a religious order that contemplates and communes with the otherworldly. From time to time, they have lived in community at the Jedi Temple. Occasionally, they lived in solitude to touch the Force more deeply in their lives. In all things, they are concerned with spiritual fulfillment and the spread of the knowledge of truth. In times past, the Jedi were more in touch with the galaxy. It was Sidious’ machinations that led to their involvement in galactic politics and their service as generals in the Clone War. He brought them out from their cells and contemplative life and laid waste to them as they abandoned millennia-old traditions and teachings. For the monks of Skellig Michael, they believed themselves to be fleeing just as destructive a power – the world.
To say that monastics flee the world is not inaccurate. In Christian monasticism, those men and women leave every day society and the comforts of modern convenience to live as the angels do – in the undistracted presence of God and away from all earthly cares. There is no desire to gain wealth, power or prestige. They desire to simply live in perfect love with God.
None of this is to say that they hate the world. Far from it. Some have said that monastics spend their time apart for the life of the world. They see the beauty of this creation. When we think about Skellig Michael, and other dramatic landscapes, we can see the inherent beauty and grandeur of great and small things. The high promontories of the island, down to the delicateness of the grasses that find purchase in the clefts, each are imbued with beauty. In this, the monks saw God’s hand in creating that beauty.
In the literature of Star Wars, we hear about the beauty and culture of Alderaan, and the care that the Wookiees have for the trees of Kashyyyk. We see the contrast in the sterile halls and bleak landscapes of the Empire, destroying beauty for the sake of power and domination. We can be sympathetic to the Rebels here, and see that the same love of beauty is available in our own lives.
Today, Skellig Michael still draws tourists and pilgrims to its rocky shores. It can be visited for a few months out of the year, though tours do not run when the weather is excessively cold or windy. I imagine that is a lot of the time on this ocean refuge. Still, it is possible to visit and see the place where men toiled for 700 years and where our Jedi Master sought his own refuge.
A division of the UN, UNESCO has designated the island as a World Heritage Site. They say that “heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” This provides protection for the monastic settlement and recognizes the enduring value of the community. May we treat this site with care and respect in the years to come, while also contemplating what lessons it may offer to us in our personal lives.
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Please leave comments on this and all my posts – I really look forward to it. You can find me on Twitter at @adelphotheos and email at jamesw@CoffeeWithKenobi.com, occasionally at TheForceandFaith.blogspot.com as long as I am not listening to the latest edition of the Coffee With Kenobi podcast!