Darkness spreads its heavy velvet mantle early on winter evenings. Blackening windows mirror the activity of life sheltered inside from the cold. Inhabitants isolated inside move through their evening routines unaware that the light which illumines their mundane tasks engages in a valiant struggle against the enemy outside. It must push back the shadows.
I have a fascination, perhaps due to my melancholy nature, with medieval monastic communities. This is no romantic fascination of the sort that longs to live as they did. Rather, it can best be described as a deep respect and wonder at those who did choose to live this way. Opting for a simple, even brutally spartan life is not something we moderns can readily understand or appreciate. Yet, I have an ever-growing gratitude for the rich inheritance we have received as the result of their choice. Their self-imposed isolation and impoverishment have given the world riches beyond imagination.
In the 6th century a monastic community was built on the inhospitable Skellig Islands jutting violently out of the Irish Sea. It was on the larger of the two islands, Skellig Michael, that the monastery was built on a cliff hovering 600 feet above the crashing waves. Higher up, at 700 feet, a hermitage was built as a place where one could pray in as close physical proximity to God as possible. Monks lived in tiny little bee-hive shaped stone huts called clochans. In an effort to keep out the harsh weather the only opening was a skin-covered door. The brothers here spent their days in quiet study and prayer. They also spent many isolated hours painstakingly copying the holy Scriptures, histories, and the literary works of classical antiquity which had been carried up to these remote regions by the invading Romans. It is possible, even likely, that the great canon of Western literature known to us as “The Great Books” would have been lost forever when the hordes of so-called barbarians swept across the European continent in the years following Rome’s demise. Rather…in little stone huts and cold stone cells in the British Isles, men who chose obscurity as their way of life conducted their work by the weak flicker of candle flame preserving our heritage. Most importantly, they were preserving God’s Word which would kindle much brighter flames in the years to come.
One of the harsh realities during the early Middle Ages was the constant threat of Viking attack. Britain was an easy mark for the marauders, but even the harsh conditions of the Skellig islands were not enough to deter the Scandinavian invaders whose native lands were equally harsh. There are at least two specific Viking attacks recorded in histories of the eighth and ninth centuries. In the first, the island was invaded and the Abbot was kidnapped and left to starve to death. In the second, the famous Olaf Trygvesson, invaded and–in one of the great twists of history–was baptized by one of the Skellig brothers. Olaf took his new found Christian faith and the mandate to spread it very seriously. Unfortunately, Viking-style evangelism often included torture. For those who failed to accept the faith and be baptized, it usually included death. At least in the early years. Over time and with patient instruction Olaf, King of Norway, laid aside his cruel ways and the Viking culture was conquered through the cross. The monks of Skellig, living in isolation from the rest of the world, had been used by God to plunder the kingdom of darkness in northern Europe.
The monastery was eventually abandoned. It became home to two lighthouses, steering seafarers away from the dangers hidden by the cover of darkness. These, too have now been abandoned. Yet, the light from Skellig has not been extinguished. All the brothers had hoped to do was live faithful lives of quiet devotion engaging in the seemingly mundane task of copy work. Were they ever aware of the valiant struggle that their little candle-lit huts were waging against the enemy outside? The end of their light, of all light, is to push back the shadows.
What quiet tasks are we performing in isolation that are helping to push back shadows? Are we content to have them known only to God? May the long winter nights ahead give us the time to reflect on these questions.
P.S. For my fellow melancholies or anyone interested in a beautifully captured feeling of Skellig: http://youtu.be/jgi5ru4KS3c