Skellig Michael (Michael’s rock) is an island on which a Celtic monastic community was founded in the seventh century, AD. The remoteness and barrenness of the island – seven miles out at sea - are a living physical definition of silence and stillness.
For six hundred years, Celtic monks lived in clochans (stone beehive shaped huts) nestled above the cliff walls of the island.
There is some resonance here for the one who battles with the sacred cairns of silence and stillness. If you believe the spiritual life should be easy, you will probably not accept the connection of the pious life with the image of Skellig Michael. If you understand the call of the monks on Skellig Michael, you will probably be willing to give “hesychia” a go.
The lore of snakes and demons are beyond commonplace in the lives of the early Christian monks both here and in the deserts.
In cold-war America, the deserts were turned into testing grounds for nuclear devices. Men ran into the sand to test their ability to destroy everything. They unleashed the Armageddon potentiality hidden in the atoms of life. Trampling down all life with death. Immense forces are unleashed in the desert. That means we were unleashing an awesome power toward destruction into our hearts. These were perilous times.
We struggle to make a go of it in the arena of survival and exchange of goods and services. We can find many things to distract us from the battle to purify our souls. Without the distraction, the heart opens up and reveals what is really hidden within it.
There is ample speculation about what the monks of Skellig Michael ate. Some say they tilled the rocky soil, some say they raised rabbits, others say they ate fish, seaweed, and bird eggs. I would venture a guess that the “pragmatic monk” (should there have been one on the island) ate whatever was available - whenever it was available. They ate whatever arose.
This is the kind of grist that is milled in the heart. This is what we walk away from the desert learning and knowing. These morsels are not always happy thoughts, but they are nourishment for the journey. These are the notions that enable us to understand the call of evangelism.
There are many practices we can engage in our cairn-space. As we first sit to settle and focus ourselves, we should look to do something that will point us into the silence and stillness with some direction.
In this way we move from imaging to imagelessness. It takes time, but this is the pattern. The heart and the mind work together in the process. The repetition of the process is actually hardwiring the practice into our neural pathways.
Most of the monks of the desert or island cairn-space tended to go the journey alone. They still submitted their hearts to an elder for correction. They spoke about what they discovered in their heart with another cairn-builder. This was purposeful.
The story was shared about Abba Isidore that one day he went to the market to sell the baskets he had made. As he approached the market, anger welled up inside him. He told the journey-folk that he dropped everything and fled because of the anger. He felt all his work had come undone. His distress got the better of him and the distraction of failure won out.