Skellig Michael; a prime place for puffins, monks, and meditation
First, a little history and some factoids: Skellig Michael is about a 45 minute boat ride through ROUGH seas from the Southwest of Ireland. It looks like the tip of a steep and jagged mountain rising out of the sea. The Great Skellig and the nearby "Gannet Island," provide sanctuary and prime breeding grounds for thousands of seabirds including Murres, Gannets, and my favorite, Atlantic Puffins. It was over a thousand years ago that monks decided that this perilously rugged, utterly isolated, insanely steep rock rising from the mist of the sea would be the ideal place for a monastery.
What they created is awesome, as in awe inspiring, not as in "dude, thats awesome," though both are certainly true. Not only did they create three separate paths of stairs leading up the Skellig, but also a compound of beehive-shaped huts, a few chapels, a hermitage (which is inaccessible, yet still in existence today), a graveyard, and a garden that could sustain vegetables and even a few sheep. Even by modern standards, this is quite an achievement. Around about 900 AD, the cult of the Archangel/Saint Michael (the angel I hold closest to my heart by family tradition) spread to the Skellig, which, until that time had simply been known as "The Skellig" or "The Great Skellig." Then, they built a chapel and dedicated it, along with the Skellig, to Michael, who is the patron Saint of many things, including high and/or isolated places. Today, all of these things still exist--the steps, the garden, the chapel, etc.--even after Viking invasion (one of which cost the Skellig an abbot, who was carried away as a sort of human souvenir), and, perhaps more frightening, continuous invasion of modern people.
Skellig Michael is still perilous; just last year, two American (of course) tourists fell to their deaths while climbing the steps to the monastery. But it's not just perilous for humans! Did you know that seagulls eat puffins and bunnies? I didn't until I heard the most heart-wrenching squeaks coming from above me when I realized a seagull was carrying a small bunny in its beak. I was told this is very common. Who knew seagulls were so vicious?
Climbing from the "harbor" of the Skellig to the monastic settlement is a sobering experience. All the way up, the wind is blowing, the rocks are threatening, and the Puffins are cute. Just when you think you can't climb one more ancient step, you enter the monastery and the air is still (but for the loud and pointless chattering of some intolerable German and, you guessed it, American tourists. I realize I was also an American tourist, but at least I showed some decorum and quiet respect for the atmosphere). The monks were ingenious in how they carved out their settlement; by building walls around the outer perimeter, the wild air is channeled up and over so as to create a pocket of stillness and a sense of security.
This atmosphere was ideal for meditation. I sat on the altar of the chapel of St. Michael, tuned into the natural sounds around me, and tuned out the other people. This was remarkably easy to do in comparison to other sites I had visited and in which I had meditated. It may have been the endorphins of the climb, the adrenaline of the scary steps, or even the blessing of the Archangel, but everything melted away. Deep seeded worldly concerns (even ones I haven't thought of for a while) began to surface. With a very deep breath, and a long exhale, they seemed to evaporate. If you know anything about meditation, you know this usually takes more than a single breath, indeed a full meditation, to achieve. In place of these evaporating concerns, there seemed to be a light and a lightness that was not there before. I felt safe, secure, blessed, and not at all annoyed or even aware of distractions. I was able to sit in this state for quite a while until something within me seemed to click, like a gas pump when the tank is full (a vulgar image for such a divine experience, but that's what comes to mind as I sit near a busy street in central London). I felt as though my soul was full of light.
On the way down from the monastery (which is actually more terrifying than the way up), I didn't feel scared at all by the few hundred or so meters that separated me from a jagged rocky death. I felt like I wanted to stay and sleep in one of those huts with only a candle and a blanket to meditate for hours on end, just so I could keep replenishing that light that seemed to be fading with every downward step. Suddenly, it made sense why this place was, and still is, sacred. A great rugged rock, jutting out of the sea, far from anything that supposedly matters, somewhere between earth and heaven exists, by nature of its being, as a refuge for the soul. Even the mere experience of visiting Skellig Michael for a few hours is enough to make you immediately aware of your mortality just by climbing to the top. You sweat, you pant, you fear, you desire, you anticipate. When you reach the monastery, you have two choices (as I see it): you can stay on the mortal path, that which is characterized by climbing: you talk incessantly, you complain, you worry, you disrupt, you even use your mobile to transmit a part yourself away from the sacred place you are in. OR you can allow the site to do what IT was meant to do; to help you transcend toward the divine: you take in the atmosphere that has been provided by the ancients, you reflect, you allow yourself to be humbled, you truly live in the moment, you let go, and let the power of the site seep into your being. The path you choose is yours, but from my experience, transcendence was better than blind mortality.