Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 17, 2015

Star Wars: The Celtic Monks Awaken

The Skellig Michael monastery’s “beehive” style prayer cells, as featured in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.


While reading a article about Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night, I came upon a small reference to Skellig Michael, a rugged island in Ireland featuring a 7th century Christian monastery:

Beyond that, the very ending — more like a coda, really, which was filmed on the extraordinary Skellig Michael off the western coast of Ireland — is wonderful and sets things up perfectly for the next installment.

On the basis of that one word, “extraordinary”, I did a search for photos of Skellig Michael, and I predict that –for better or worse– the wild popularity of this renewed Star Wars franchise will result in a major (if perhaps short-lived) renewal of interest in Christian monasticism and Celtic mysticism. Not to mention a big tourism boost for County Kerry (the closest mainland area) and for the visually stunning monastery site featured in Episodes VII and VIII of the famed movie franchise.

The stairs at Skellig Michael monastery, off the western coast of Ireland.

A quick review of Skellig Michael’s write-up at Wikipedia reveals some facts and/or guesses as to the history of the site and its former inhabitants. But aside from the site’s historic significance, I especially hope that the sculpted-by-God look of the island’s geography– along with the beauty of those unique dry-built corbel arch “beehive” cells at the monastery– will capture the imagination of various cultures worldwide.

Why would people care again about a place so remote and ancient? Why compare the mystical Celtic Christian tradition that it represents to the pseudo-religious fictional order know to us as the Jedi? Why even bother with the various groupings of a scant 6-12 monks, who scraped out a living and held the world in prayer there for upwards of 500 years? Because I believe we in the West have been soaked with so much technology, crass commercialism and modernity that we crave more than ever the rough beauty to be experienced and the godly contemplation possible at sites like this.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. 11th century Hindu temple, later used by Buddhists and even as a fortress.

Whether it’s Angkor Wat in the jungles of Cambodia (where a major new archaeological discovery was announced just five days ago), or at desert sites where Pueblo Native Americans lived in Colorado’s cliff-carved caves, or at Skellig Michael, these type of sites –which the Celts called spiritual “thin places” where God seems closer– remind us of the earliest days of mankind’s civilization, where humanity’s God consciousness, creativity and sense of awe was first emerging.

Pueblo cave dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, U.S.A.

It makes sense that Star Wars would arrive here. We live in an overly mediated and processed, inorganic age –not to mention the sheer volume of everyday images and sounds that drown out the “still, small voice of God” — where these unsatisfying factors drive us out into the wilderness like moths to a flame. When we attend to the fierce beauty found there, we sense that it was in those days, at these sites, that we were still “close to the land” and thus potentially closer to a wild, majestic but seemingly skittish God who often hides out on the very edge of our sensory experience. Or what else is faith for? — if not to discover little by little over a lifetime He who is unknowable in all His aspects, yet nevertheless present and holy in all that surrounds us. The challenge and the blessing of contemplation, meditation and the mystical tradition is to create sacred spaces –both deep within ourselves and in out-of-the-way places out in the world. We always come back around eventually to seeking the spaces which can ground us and connect us to the divine… that is, if we know how to pay attention.

As for the movie: for all its grandeur and its monumental budget, it still cannot match the symbolically powerful example of devotion and discipline that 500 years of rain-drenched and wave-battered communal living at Skellig Michael represents. Nevertheless, I commend J.J Abrams and the other filmmakers for recognizing and publicizing this symbolic location, and thus I will forgive their attempt to ride on the coattails of the Cosmic Christ in their own classic good vs. evil blockbuster parable. I only hope that the increased tourism at Skellig Michael won’t ultimately spoil the place.

Any other predictions? No, don’t worry. I won’t do the movie spoiler thing. (Not that I could… the secrecy surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been legendary.) Let’s just pray that enough people don’t entirely miss the point: that God is not in some galaxy far far away, but is always close at hand, neither entirely secret nor ever fully known.




  1. From my favorite pizzeria and my favorite fiancé, an apropos joke at Facebook:

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