Monday, November 15, 2010

Living in the sacred

A friend just gave me an essay by Laurence Freeman from the English Catholic journal The Tablet describing a trip to Skellig Michael. He knows of my own affection for that extraordinary place -- a small, precipitous island nine miles off the western tip of County Kerry in Ireland. My visit there -- a day alone on the island, years ago -- is the basis for a chapter in my Honey From Stone, and is a prominent setting for my novel In the Falcon's Claw: A Novel of the Year 1000.

We look out on the Skellig from our cottage in Ireland. It rises from the sea like a jagged tooth, 700 feet high. Access to the island is only possible on a reasonably calm day. There is a lighthouse, now automated. The real attraction is the well-preserved early medieval monastery -- a handful of terraces and corbelled "beehive" dwellings that cling to the cliff like a seabird's nest, that housed maybe a dozen monks. It is a mystical, magical place that never fails to impress the brave pilgrim who makes the sea voyage and scales the 500 hair-raising steps cut into the steep face of the rock.

What would possess men to live in such a place? asks Freeman, as does almost every visitor to the Skellig. His answer: "Either they were crazy sociophobes, or they had found something and came to this lonely place to be with it more fully. Most likely they had already fallen in love with the one love you never fall out of."

My novel asks this question too, and tries to enter enough into the mindset of 10th-century Irish Christians to provide a reasonable answer. Yes, there was probably some craziness involved, at least by our definition of sanity, and also love -- love of the unfathomable mystery that abides in wind and water, stone and stars, sunlight on the sea and the itch of flesh.

"We filter out the blinding light of the sacred with mundanities," writes Freeman, in a memorable sentence. I'll vouch for this: There are no "mundanities" on the Skellig. Even taking a breath is fraught. And that, perhaps more than anything, may be why they were there.