No one leaves Skellig unchanged.
Just off the County Kerry coast, one can find the Jedi retreat where Luke Skywalker tried to get in touch with the Force—oh, wait. That was the last two Star Wars movies: simply a fantasy for movie fans, but for those seeking God through Celtic spirituality, it exists as a fantastic reality — better known as the Skellig Islands.
Skellig Michael, named after the archangel who protects pilgrims and sailors, is the larger island, the only one accessible to people. Countless thousands down through the ages have journeyed there as pilgrims to touch the face of God. Skellig Michael is a thin place, a meeting of two worlds—our mundane one and the Otherworld, where beauty, awe and magic are as plentiful as the sea birds that nest on the bird sanctuary of Little Skellig.
I got there before Skywalker. During the bracing trip on the ocean, one approaches the island through the brilliant sunlit mist. Seven hundred feet of precipitous rock covered with green plant life — a beacon in a desolate sea. As with most Irish places, it gleams with an ethereal light that makes it seem transplanted from another world.
The Irish monks who came there in 588 must have seen it that way too. One of their contemporaries, St. Columbanus, said, “We are but guests of the world.” The monks saw the connection and made their home at this gate at the end of the world. The monastery lasted for hundreds of years. Men would live there to pray and commune with God. On this island famous as a place of prayer and holiness, the monks and pilgrims had Psalm 27 burning in their hearts, “There is one thing I ask of the Lord, to live in the house of the Lord.” For them, the challenge of Skellig Michael was a concrete expression of one’s journey to heaven.
Again, I remember my first pilgrimage. Despite the huge ocean waves, the anchorage was placid and calm. A curious seal blinked its limpid eyes as we travelers debarked. Skellig Michael towered above us and we walked — past the old lighthouse, closed in the 1940s, around the western side of the island and to the base of the steps. Six hundred steps, carved by the monks through the years. Probably a penance for their sins. Like Jacob’s Ladder, those rocky rungs ascend toward heaven. My heart beat not so much with the exertion but with the fact that death was but a foot away, since no handrails exist on the cliff side and no barrier seaward. Only pigeon-sized plump puffins, little seabirds that nested in the cliff crevices, nudged one away from the precipice onward and upward.
The first place to break was at a little meadow called Christ’s Saddle. Nestled between two peaks it was all green grass, rocks and beautiful little star flowers. Strong enough eyes could pierce the spectacular view all the way to America. I knew why the monks had come here. Wild, yet peaceful, in this world but high enough to lead to another, Skellig Michael led them to hear the voice of God, a voice that even touched my ears on that day. The Irish still believe that when one goes on pilgrimage the spiritual world speaks to you and you may just be able to hear the whisper of the Creator.
One doesn’t stay still on the Mount. Climbing Skellig Michael is like the journey of life—constantly moving toward some destination. The last tough ascent was a rocky staircase towering 200 feet to a higher summit. It seemed endless and I was breathless just as I broke out onto level ground. In front of me were beehive huts, about eight of them, and a ruined chapel. Absolutely alien. They were made of stone, no mortar, and were completely water tight even after 1400 years.
We travelers wandered apart in prayer until it was time to descend and leave. Our boat ran with the wind. As we sailed, I thought of what happened to the monks. Six hundred years they lived there, till the weather turned colder and the Vikings came. Then they moved their monastery to the mainland at Ballinskelligs, still in sight of the two islands.
After that, people came to the Skelligs to commune alone with God, or get married, but it has never been a vacation spot or a party place. The presence of the Archangel Michael looms with bright wings, protecting pilgrims from any evil that might seek to harm those who seek God in this place.
No one leaves Skellig unchanged. Believers and atheists have gone there, but all leave knowing that there is more to reality than we think. The call to travel toward heaven on pilgrimage is still Celtic spirituality’s greatest offering, to deepen the hearts of modern day spiritual seekers. No wonder a jaded Hollywood felt Luke Skywalker needed to go there. Nor is it surprising that world weary travelers like us need to be pointed the way to heaven. After all, we are but guests of the world.