By Philip Kosloski at: www.catholicgentleman.net
Modern historian and commentator Kenneth Clark said in his popular BBC show Civilization, “Western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock seven miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.” It’s an intriguing claim, crediting the solitary monastery on Skellig Michael with a role in the survival of Western Christianity.
Author Thomas Cahill broadens the connection to not only include Western Christianity, but “civilization” in his 1996 book “How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.”
How is it possible that a small monastic community at the edge of the world could have such a large impact in world affairs?
Over a thousand years ago there lived a group of monks on an island seven miles off the coast of Ireland called “Skellig Michael” (an island recently made famous by Star Wars: The Last Jedi). They were almost entirely cut off from the world and were (voluntarily) stranded on an island that was relatively small and treacherous to live on.
It was a difficult life, but one they believed would bear much fruit.
Along with a desire to go into the “desert” and contemplate God, the monks of Ireland held on to the concept of a “green martyrdom.” The Catholic Church has always taught about the possibility of a “red martyrdom,” where one imitates Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross by dying for the sake of the Gospel. Additionally, there was the belief that if a person wasn’t called to a red martyrdom, they could participate in the same sacrifice with a “white martyrdom,” where someone might endure ridicule for belief in the Gospel, but not suffer death.
Early on, especially in Ireland, there developed a third martyrdom called a, “green martyrdom.” An ancient Irish homily, written around the end of the seventh century, gives a perfect summary of this type of martyrdom: “Green martyrdom consists in this, that by means of fasting and labor one frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance.”
The Irish took hold of this type of martyrdom and, not surprisingly, sought out remote “green” places to live out this green martyrdom. They wanted to be as severe as they could in fasting and penance, and so they preferred the harshest and remote places possible.
The monks journeyed to Skellig Michael with full knowledge that for the rest of their lives, they would be battling against the “Dark Side” of this world. They knew it would not be an easy fight and freely chose a life of self-denial, so they could defeat the power of Satan and clear the path to Eternal Life.
These monks saw themselves as great spiritual warriors engaged in an epic battle against Satan and so they named the island (and church on it) after St. Michael the Archangel, the commander of the heavenly armies.
Preservation of Culture
Besides leading a life of prayer and self-denial, the monks on this remote island (and many other Irish monasteries) sought to preserve culture at a time when Europe was in chaos. The barbarian tribes had won the day and the glories of Rome ceased to exist. These new leaders were not fond of Roman ways and sought to destroy anything associated the classical world.
The classical way of education in particular was almost obliterated and those in Western Europe were more concerned about survival than enriching a flourishing culture.
Except in Ireland.
The Irish monks were masters of Latin and Greek culture and maintained it through the copying of manuscripts and the passing on of knowledge in various monastic schools throughout Ireland. (While the barbarians were burning libraries and books all over Europe, these monks were collecting, copying, and preserving the written treasures of Christianity and Western Civilization.)
It is in this context that the monastery at Skellig Michael was born, a “Golden Age” of Irish monasticism, where faith and culture was preserved for generations to come.
Mark 8:34 — Then (Jesus) called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Revelation 12:7 — Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.
Acts 14:21-23 — They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
The Lord give us peace in our going out and our coming in, in our lying down and in our rising up, in our labor and in our leisure, in our laughter and in our tears; until we come to stand before him on that day to which there is no sunset and no dawn, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pictures of Skellig Michael and the ruins of its monastery (approx. 8th -11th century):