My husband, The Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton, had a three-month sabbatical this Summer. Episcopal priests are encouraged to take sabbaticals every 5 years, even if they have to go kicking and screaming or even if they leave folks behind who are kicking and screaming about it. Since Nigel has been the Rector of St. Augustine’s in-the-Woods since 2000, this was his second sabbatical. Though I had just became Rector of Trinity Episcopal in February of this year, I was very grateful to have been able to use my two weeks of continuing education, plus two weeks of vacation in order to join him for some research and relaxation in Great Britain.
We mapped out our journey based on significant remains of mostly 6th century Celtic Christian communities. Consequently, our trail wandered from north to south Ireland, to Wales, England and then to Scotland. Being good pilgrims, we saw many holy sites and did a great deal of shopping – a fine pilgrim tradition, don’t doubt it. We also saw many things we hadn’t planned on seeing such as cows larger than most economy cars, the mummified remains of several “bog people,” and the slanted view of an Irish dirt road from the perspective of the Irish dirt-road ditch we drove into.
A place that I hope to remember for the remainder of my life are the two Skellig islands off the Iveragh Peninsula in Country Kerry, Ireland. Little Skellig is closed to the public, since it is home to the second largest colony of Northern Gannets (seabirds) in the world. The second island, Skellig Michael, serves as a popular nesting ground for puffins and is also designated as a World Heritage Site for its the remains of 6th century monastic community perched at 160 meters above sea level.
The remains of the site include beehive shaped oratories (monastic cells built of stone) and a church. St Michael’s Church is rectangular in form, unlike the oratories, and would originally have had a timber roof. The date of the founding of the monastery is not known. However, there is an oral tradition that it was founded by St Fionan in the 6th century. It was dedicated to St Michael somewhere between 950 and 1050. The site was occupied continuously until the later 12th century, when several factors caused the community to move to the mainland. It is likely that the community was very small, perhaps around 6-8 monks lived on the island where they kept a small kitchen garden and harvested fish and eggs for food.
The park interpreter assigned to the island the day we were there shared that the monks didn’t come to the island so much to get away from civilization, but rather to live on the edge of the known world in order to be closer to what was beyond it, namely – heaven. Skellig Michael was held to be a “thin place,” a place nearest the realm of the Sacred.
After a 50 minute boat ride and climbing 650 terraced flights of rock-shelf steps, Nigel and I reached the monastic site.
The temptation to slip into a romantic reverie on how wonderful it would have been (would be) to live a simple life on the island was tempered by the awareness that a good gust of wind on a rainy day could quickly end one’s prayer life on this side of the Divide.
Yet, coming to the edge of the world and of life can bring a helpful, even needful, perspective to decision making and prioritizing one’s time, choices and energy. The puffins play and nest on the sheer sides, you know. After a good beak-wrestling contest and tumble down the soft ground foliage, they fly away to eventually settle down again. It’s not scary to them; it’s a familiar home.
What Skellig Michael reminds me of is that the distance between the life we have and the life we may want to have is not a matter of distance traveled or summits climbed but a matter of attitude, not altitude. How we orient ourselves within a given moment or situation can diffuse danger, focus priorities and redirect us to new heights and perspective.