About seven miles off the western coast of Ireland, a lonely island looms out of the sea, the tip of a massive oceanic mountain. Fifty-four acres and 715 feet high, Skellig Michael is now home only to a colony of Northern Gannets, but there was a time when this remote outcropping hosted more than seabirds. For over 600 years, it was home to Irish monks seeking complete solitude and spiritual freedom.
Skellig Michael has always fascinated me. Even though the monastery has been unoccupied since the 13th century, just thinking of those determined hermits continues to be an inspiration. I marvel at the desire for God that drove them to embrace such a life of radical separation from the world.
Living in a world that idolizes freedom, the idea of constricting oneself to a tiny islet can seem ludicrous, but I think that we can learn a very valuable lesson from those austere Celtic monks: peace and happiness do not depend on the circumstances in which we find ourselves but on the attitude with which we choose live those circumstances.
Flesh and Spirit
We humans are bi-dimensional beings of both flesh and spirit, and this bi-dimensionality touches every aspect of our existence. Because of our bodily dimension, we are always partially curbed by material circumstances such as time and space, but because of our spiritual dimension; we are never fully limited by these circumstances: we are always capable of transcending them and transforming them into conditions for spiritual growth.
We have two different types of freedom: one that is related to our materiality and the other to our spirituality. Material freedom is the absence of material constraints: it is freedom of movement, freedom of time, freedom from hunger, and freedom from anything else that can limit our bodily well-being. Spiritual freedom, on the other hand, is the absence of those things that can hinder our spiritual flourishing, in particular our lower passions and the vices that result from them.
Although both types of freedom are necessary for our integral well-being, spiritual freedom has the priority since it is necessary for achieving eternal life. Due to the superiority of spiritual freedom, it is worth sacrificing some material freedom in order to become more spiritually free.
This is why the monks of Skellig Michael limited their own material freedom so severely: the harsh discipline of their environment helped them build the virtues needed to be free from all that could lead away from God. Although they were physically confined to 54 acres, they were spiritually soaring, because they put the North Atlantic between themselves and anything that could distract them from God.Their material limitation was the condition for their spiritual success.
Although very few of us are called to such radical measures, all of us find ourselves in limiting circumstances; you could say that we all find ourselves on our own “skelligs”. Part of Christian life is accepting the hardships and difficulties of our lives as a necessary condition for achieving closeness to God:
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. – Luke 9:23
In my own case, my “skellig” is the discipline of the priestly vocation: in order to grow in spiritual virtue, I have “confined” myself to live a life of poverty, obedience, and chastity. I have voluntarily accepted the horizontal limitations imposed by the these three evangelical counsels in order to be free from what could otherwise distract me from achieving the vertical freedom of spiritual growth.
Accepting your “Skellig”
The key to finding peace is learning to love the “skellig” on which God has placed you and allowing yourself to flourish there. Some skelligs are smaller than others, but one thing you can be sure of is that the one on which you find yourself is perfect for you. God knows what you can handle, and he knows exactly what you need to grow in spiritual freedom.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. – Viktor Frankl (Holocaust survivor)
Peace comes when we choose to take advantage of the good things at our disposal rather than longing for what is not. How ridiculous it would be if someone walked into a restaurant and, instead of sitting down and looking at the menu, chose to stand at the window and look at all of the other restaurants that he is missing. We would obviously call that person foolish! But, unfortunately, many of us do the same thing in the way we live. Instead of settling down and seeing what is available to us already, we tend to waste time and energy yearning for something else.
No matter how constricting our personal circumstances may seem to be, they can only hinder our spiritual freedom if we allow them. Peace comes when we choose not to bang our heads against the wall trying to change things that will never change; it comes when we accept the life that God has given us and bloom where we are planted; it comes, when we choose to focus on how we can flourish rather than fixating on the deficiencies of our circumstances, which will always be plentiful.
Let’s take advantage of these last two weeks of Lent to calm our spirits and seek the peace and spiritual freedom that come when we content ourselves with what God has already given us, trusting that He will provide whatever else may be lacking.