Monday, October 30, 2017

Atop a Mountain

As I met the story that was born in Ireland, and as I imagined the world that story inhabited, I found myself going again and again to the thin places where the barrier between the world of the known and the world of the unknown cannot quite keep the two separate. The thinnest place I found--that I have ever found--was atop a mountain rising from the sea. 

After having climbed the steps of Skellig Michael.
I had decided to go to Skellig Michael during our time touring Ireland after we were done farming (a tourist visa is only 90 days long so we only stayed through the summer). We rented a car and drove through the southwest of Ireland, stopping in the town of Portmagee where we could see both of the Skelligs in the distance (Lesser Skellig is an uninhabitable rock and protected bird sanctuary). We boarded a boat and took the seven mile trip to Skellig Michael. There we climbed over 600 stone steps, laid without mortar, to the top of the rocky islet where a few monks had built a monastery fourteen centuries ago.  

At its height the monastery probably had no more than a dozen people living there. They dwelled in dry-stone huts that were built up in concentric rings. They gardened and fished to support themselves, but with the rest of their time they studied, prayed, and copied down the texts that caused Thomas Cahill to suggest that the Irish monks saved Western Civilization

The graveyard at Skellig Michael. 
For me this was a coming home of sorts. If they would have let me I would have stayed there on the island, but the tour allots only about two-and-a-half hours for the entire experience. In many ways this was where my heart and my head began to reunite. This was the evidence of people who had done what I was trying to do. They chose to camp out in the thin places, to befriend them, and to make a way for others to experience them. 

From the top of a mountain or an island you can see far. It is possible to pick a point in the distance and set yourself towards it. But while the mountain can give you the vision to see where you want to go, it cannot show you how to get there. I had experienced the thin places and I knew, from the top of that mountain, that I wanted to share that with others, and even now I'm still not entirely sure how to get there. But for me The Exiled Monk is a part of that journey. 

I didn't know, standing there amidst the gravestones, that I would write The Exiled Monk or that I would try to make a living writing fiction (I was going next to interview to be a preacher on a different island, Maui). I didn't know that working to start a new church with friends would lead to heartbreak as cancer took my friend and scarred my community. I didn't know that instead of starting churches I would walk with them through the process of closing. I didn't know that grieving for my lost friend, my lost community, and my lost career would lead me to a place of knowing myself. 

I often recall standing atop Skellig Michael, smelling the sweet and acrid scent of sea air and sea birds, hearing the distant crashing of waves and the immediate rush of wind, and looking out over the steel-blue water. I was overjoyed to see that island again in the most unlikely place, at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens where Luke had been hiding and awaiting Rey. I wanted to be Luke Skywalker growing up and in that moment I wanted to be him again, standing alone on a windswept rock, being in a thin place, wrestling with the certainty that I've been taught and the doubts I live with daily. 

I love The Exiled Monk and I'm terrified. I'm so scared that what I love will be hated, despised, or worse still ignored. I'm afraid that my journey of grief and joy, excitement and pain, certainty and doubt, won't matter. I fear sharing with you how important this book is to me. But not as much as I fear what it would do to me if I didn't. 

The Exiled Monk is a story about coming of age, it's about magic and romance, danger and desperate plans, about leaving behind the old to enter into a new and larger world. It's about all of those things to be sure. But it's also about what I saw from that thin place on top of Skellig Michael, the far off vision where I set my sights. It is a place of courage and wholeness, where thought and emotion are commingled, where vulnerability is strength, and where hope is the only way to face fear. I have to honor the story by living it out. I'm scared to share this with you because it is my heart, but I must and for exactly the same reason. 

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