Star Wars or Monk Wars?

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"Star Wars or Monk Wars?" by Kathryn Swegart (CatholicMom.com)

By Jibi44 (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Skellig Michael, Ireland. Ever heard of it? Maybe not. Ever seen it? If you are a Star Wars fan, you definitely have seen stunning images of the steep, rocky uninhabited island 7.2 miles off the coast of County Kerry. Skellig Michael doubled as the secluded home of Luke Skywalker in the movie, The Last Jedi.  In the movie trailer, an aerial shot circles a 700-foot pyramid-shaped tower of rock, surely a fitting place for Luke to hide out from bad guys. In fact, “skellig” is a Gaelic word that means “rock in the sea.” No one else could ever live there — or so you think. Think again.

Over 1500 years ago, strange men with tonsured heads lived in beehive huts on these rocky cliffs. Irish monks they were, who listened to surf crash against rocks and tended small gardens, fertilizing with seaweed. Oh yes, I must tell you, these Celtic hermits had another occupation. They copied books, but not just any books. Irish monks copied the great works of Western civilization, the writings of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures.

They copied every book they could lay their hands on, brought to them by traveling bishops who braved stormy seas to trod the rubble of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Barbarians pillaged and burned, as vandals are wont to do. Books and artifacts were favorite targets. Perhaps on clear days, these barbarians looked out at Skellig Michael, but dismissed it as uninhabitable. That proved the ultimate protection for these Irish monks.

Over many centuries, historians virtually ignored the glorious role of these hermits. In 1969, British art historian Kenneth Clark gave a nod to the Irish in his book Civilisation. He wrote, “Western Christianity survived by clinging on to places like Skellig Michael.” Finally in 1995, Thomas Cahill devoted an entire book to the subject. He made the bestseller charts with How the Irish Saved Civilization. Cahill wrote compelling words on the subject.

Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one-a world without books. And our world would never have come to be.

"Star Wars or Monk Wars?" by Kathryn Swegart (CatholicMom.com)

By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

On March 27, The Last of the Jedi was released on DVD. Lucasfilms released it for streaming earlier in March. Last week, I watched The Last Jedi with an eye to the connection between the Jedi and Irish monks. Most obvious were destructive forces (embodied by the First Order) out to obliterate the Resistance. In the fifth century, barbarians swept through Europe, setting fire to cities and villages. Fourteen minutes into the movie, we see Skellig Michael. Luke Skywalker, dressed in a hooded robe, emerges from a beehive hut. It is a short leap to imagine Irish monks stepping out of their huts, inhaling deeply of the sea air. From that moment on, Skellig Michael co-stars with Mark Hamel and Carrie Fisher. We zip back and forth from ancient rock to futuristic spaceships.

Irony abounds in a scene between Luke Skywalker and force ghost Yoda-the Jedi Grandmaster. They sit in front of a twisted tree. Inside the tree are sacred Jedi texts. Skywalker does not want to enter the epic battle waged against the First Order. Could answers to his questions be in those sacred texts? Yoda has a shocking answer. He sends a lightning bolt to destroy the tree and texts (or so he thinks). True knowledge is found within the mind, Yoda states. Jedi are responsible to pass that knowledge on to future generations. Fortunately, Irish monks did not think like Yoda or that would have been the end of western civilization. No laser swords for them. Civilization was preserved through the pen.

A splash of Catholic hagiography occurs in a climactic confrontation between Skywalker and Kylo Ren, supreme leader of the First Order. Like Saint Padre Pio, Skywalker bilocates to the battle field. Kylo blasts his arch enemy, reducing him to a pile of red powder. Miraculously, Skywalker is resurrected. Switch back to the rock. As the sun sets, Luke Skywalker sits on a cliff overlooking the Irish Sea. With superhuman intensity, he sends his spirit out to battle Kylo Ren. I could imagine Padre Pio deep in prayer, sending out his spirit to rescue a sinner.

Lucasfilm crews began production of The Last Jedi in 2014. They arrived at The Moorings Guesthouse and Restaurant in Portmagee, Ireland. Proprietor Gerald Kennedy was told that they were filming a documentary. Suddenly, 180 people arrived at his doorstep. His suspicions were aroused when he saw the iconic name Skywalker on a storyboard. After the movie was released, groups of Star Wars fans arrived at The Guesthouse. Dressed in costumes of their favorite characters, they spoke incessantly about the movie. Kennedy was concerned they would not show respect for the rocky island.

On the day these Star Wars pilgrims came back from a visit to Skellig Michael, they changed their tune and spoke not of the movie. Kennedy recalls, “It was all about the history of the rock, about the monks and how they survived … there’s a different thing spoken about when they came back in.” And what is that thing? Kennedy explains “… you go out there and there is a spiritual feeling.”

If you ever go to Ireland, walk stone steps up to those monastery ruins. Hear the cry of gulls and roar of the sea. Skellig Michael is a sacred place. A force greater than The Force dwells here. It is the force of monastic prayers and the indelible contribution of Irish monks who saved western civilization.


Copyright 2018 Kathryn Swegart

Kathryn SwegartAbout the author: Kathryn Griffin Swegart was born in Boston and holds a Master’s degree from Boston College. Married since 1981, she and her husband have raised three children on a gentleman’s farm in rural Maine. Amidst dairy goats, chickens, and gardens, they homeschooled for twenty years. They enjoy tending their apple orchard, volunteering at church, and visiting their nine grandchildren. Kathryn is a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order and the author of Heavenly Hosts: Eucharistic Miracles for Kids. Visit her blog at KathrynSwegart.com.

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