"I want to believe there's more. That if we could just see everything that goes on in the air that brushes our skin, in the light that shines from the sun and the moon, in the moisture down deep in the soil, in the water... If we knew what travels in the words we speak and the tears we cry, we'd see how much everything matters. We'd be dazzled by meanings we don't begin to... I want to believe that every single step we take falls on holy ground."
That's India Moon, a character in my second novel, The Feast of Saint Bertie. In the story, the title character, Roberta Denys, has moved into an old gardener's shed in the Santa Cruz mountains, to live a life devoted to prayer. It all turns out to be more difficult than she expected, what with a cell phone that won't stop ringing, a son she can't locate, and a string of arson fires hitting very, very close to home.
Bertie’s character was born of my long-time curiosity about the ascetic lifestyle which turned to fascination in 2004, when I planned a trip to Ireland. In one of my guidebooks, I read an entry about an ancient island monastery off the coast of County Kerry called Skellig Michael. To say the place is austere hardly does justice to the utter severity a life there must have imposed, a thousand years ago. The island is a steep, triangular rock jutting out of the ocean, with barely enough soil to support a small garden. It's exposed to the ferocious Irish coastal winds, and surrounded by menacing ocean currents. The monks took their lives in their hands just traveling to Skellig Michael.
Seven hundred and fourteen feet up, past a climb of six hundred stairs, a cluster of eight stone shelters huddle against the precipice. No windows or doors. Little provision for warmth. The monks slept on stone platforms. And they chose to live this way, twelve or fourteen of them. What would possess them to do a thing like that?
They’ve left us only their mute gravestones, but they followed a long tradition of Christians who fled to deserted places, away from the worldly temptations of material wealth and power, so they could find something better. I believe they wanted every step they took to fall on holy ground, and that they were, in that way, the spiritual kindred of Bertie and India.
And me. And you?
When I went to Ireland, circumstances prevented me from visiting Skellig Michael. But the idea, the astonishing beauty of it has followed me ever since. That's how I came to write one day about a woman who renounced wealth and position, and abandoned herself to God.
If you’re interested in reading more about the thoughts behind my stories, I was honored to be interviewed by Angela Wilson, who posted the article this week in Pop Syndicate’s Book Addict column.
Meanwhile, what about you, dear readers? Have you visited places, either in books or with your own eyes, that inspired you? We’d love to hear your stories.
(Thanks to MauronB and DonaPatrick for the images.)