Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Inspiration Born on Skellig Michael

"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.)


Anonymous said...

Katy: That's a fascinating story. I came across a similar "monastery" in Moldova while researching Unraveled, (which I hope will be my next release).

I can't help think that chosing/living such a lifestyle creates its own harsh and unrelenting temptations, but I marvel and respect more than I can say the devotion to holiness that drives a man or woman to give up everything to pursue it.

And yet others give up everything in other ways, as Latayne's letter today describes about what it cost a man to leave Mormonism after reading her Mormon Mirage.

I feel like such a light-weight Christian at times.

Janet said...

I am personally not at all convinced of the value of this kind of retreat. Our most potent temptations rise from within us. And what are we telling the world about victorious Christian living if the only way we can manage it is to withdraw from the world? And God did not create us to be alone. Although peer pressure can be a terrible things when misapplied, it is also a wonderful thing in preventing us from going off the deep end. Ponder just briefly the truth that serial killers, celebrity killers, indeed, many killers, are known as "loners". It is so easy to blow things out of proportion when you don't have people close to you giving you reality checks.

None of which has to do with a sense of place. Sorry about that.

Kathleen Popa said...

Janet, I understand your reservations about the monastic lifestyle, and I share some of them. Remember though, there were 12 or so of these guys on the island. They weren't loners.

As I understand, the monastic tradition began after the Emperor Constantin converted and placed the church into the center of power. Before, Christians had pooled their resources, and lived communally. The first monastics deplored the changes brought by the church's new status (it's a long road from martyrdom in the Coliseum to The Inquisition), and determined to go back to the old way of living.

The thing that strikes me is the simple, pure wisdom that has so often come out of people who live this way. Ever read The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence? I also highly recommend The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen.

Janet said...

Yes, I've read Brother Lawrence's book, although it was many years ago.

A simplified lifestyle I think is wonderful. The excesses of the prosperity gospel made me ill. A retreat from the world as a time of renewal also makes sense to me. A permanent retreat, much less so.

Sleeping on a stone cold slab makes no sense to me at all. I'd be so busy thinking about the discomfort, I wouldn't have time for God. When I was younger, mind you, I could sleep on a concrete floor, but with my arthritis now... Oy.

I'm not trying to be flippant with this. The whole "mortification of the flesh" thing too often led to a fixation with the flesh, much like a concern with modesty can translate to a constant surveillance of women's hemlines. Add to that the classic confusion of the body and the flesh, and you've got a mess.

Please note I'm not slamming the premise of your book, especially since I haven't read it. And quite honestly, I have the temperament to find the idea of the contemplative orders very attractive, so it's not a natural aversion to it that makes me question the wisdom of this kind of withdrawal. But ultimately, each person answers to God, not to me. And my understanding of things is not perfect, so I'm content to leave it that way.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

The idea of taking an extended retreat to push aside the world for a period of time to reach that point of total immersion in God is intoxicating. I can see how that setting intrigued you and prompted you to write "The Feast of St. Bertie". It evokes feelings of an almost a mystical passion for God. I think the setting works best, even becomes a character, when strong emotions are attached and another place could not be easily substituted. Like Oz, or the farm in "Anne of Green Gables." As actress Tina Fey's TV character says, "I want to go to there." Too bad there isn't a literary travel agency that can set up a tour!

Bonnie Grove said...

I was born and raised in Alberta. I've sat beside mountain waterfalls and heard God thundering into the canyons. When I would return home from these trips, I would picture the spot I had visited and be reminded that the water still flows over those rocks when I am not there to witness it. God still thunders His voice to the canyon perhaps for only the deer to hear.

Moments (days even) of stillness bring clarity of thought for me - suddenly deep things feel shallow, and wells of need bubble up in my soul - and I write.

But we are only allowed a small pocket in which we can tuck away these experiences - when they are empty we must go and fill them again.

When I am very alone with God is when the inexpressable finds a voice.

Patti Hill said...

I'm like Bonnie. Nature magnifies God's voice. Fortunately, I live in Colorado, not on the mountaintop but down in the valley with its traffic and rush, rush here and there. It takes some, not much, effort to leave the noise behind to be still and know that He is God. It doesn't have to be a mountaintop or a prolonged encounter with a redwood forest, either. A simple walk through a burgeoning orchard, or a desert trail of pinion and juniper, or with my dog along a dirt road with the mountains in the distance. It's all good.

Janet, we share many of the same concerns, but I can also see myself resisting what must have seemed like the bastardization of my faith during those heady days of the "church" all-powerful. Each age gives us new challenges when it comes to the faith walk, doesn't it?

For instance, I am tired of having so much to manage. I'm not ready to live on a rocky island in the North Sea, especially not to sleep on a slab of rock (oh my), but I wouldn't mind a shoe box of a house with tile floors the color of mud. And one bathroom to clean! Just think of the freedom...time to hike, contemplate, write, give, encounter, love.

Katy, as always, you've given us lots to think about. I love you for that.

Unknown said...

Sharon, thank you dear sister for the tribute to my friend Randall Steele who did indeed go into an involuntary social isolation -- from family, most friends, and the church he once loved when he left Mormonism. Truly a hero for our times. But you're certainly no lightweight, Sharon: You are tackling the big issues in proxy for so many through your thoughtful writing.

One thing about sacred places was shared with me by my spiritual mentor who taught me the idea of containment. That is the concept of an area of space being set aside for a purpose. For instance, when an architect decides to design a building, he sets aside, or contains, the space it will occupy -- horizontally and vertically.

God Himself did this. He gave a pattern for the tabernacle to Moses. Wherever the Israelites travelled, the space that the tent would enclose became holy, a containment so to speak of His presence. And Temple Mount has become a containment for all the temples that have been built and destroyed there. The containment is still sacred even without the walls and roofs. I have heard people say they felt the long-absent but very real presence of the people who once ministered, walked, and worshiped there.

One of Katy's points, I believe, was that when God's people occupy certain spaces, those places become holy. I hope you readers don't mind me inflicting a poem I wrote years ago, about the idea of containment:


Because you are still
The substance of every breath-taking view of heights

Because you are still
The sweetness of the persistent melody that will not leave my mind

Because you are still
Like faith, both substance and evidence
Even when unseen

Because these things are true
Truer than before
Truer than ever

I yearn to reclaim your presence
By walking through the rooms you were in
By trying to be
In the spaces you indexed
In the containment of you

Latayne C Scott

Steve G said...

There is a place in Christian disciplines (the hard day to day work of living out our faith) that is reflected in the idea of monasticism. The denying of one's self is a very Biblical call, from taking up our cross, the adjunct of Jesus to abandon family, to fasting. We learn through this that we are not slaves to our bodies, to sin, but bond servants of God. That is the value. As Janet mentions, the extremes (and there are always extremes) is where we and "religion" gets whacked out.

My inspiration is in my garage working with wood. I don't do it nearly enough, but it energizes me, and that is the focus here. Paul says in a neat verse in Philippians that he is pursuing all that Jesus pursued him for. Jesus grabbed hold of us for a unique reason in a unique way. For most on this blog it is writing (or maybe reading the writing). Whether you find it in a monastery and I find it in a garage and "she" finds it in a chair writing about faith in the lives of people, it's all good.