In the early monastic tradition, the monk would set off in a small boat, alone with no rudder or oar, allowing the winds and the current to carry them to their destiny. While our journey did require crossing a part of the North Atlantic to reach the Aran Islands, one has to wonder about the leap of faith those early monks took. During early Christian habitation, Inis Mor became known as Isle of the Saints and was an important pilgrimage destination. The current population of approximately 800 on Inis Mor live a fairly isolated life of tourism, farming and fishing, with all of their needs transported from the mainland. While appearing stark by our standards, the people were warm and friendly and happy with the isolation.
For our part, a modern-day passenger ferry was a welcome sight for the journey; and that was more than enough for most of us. Riding the upper deck with the salt spray in our faces, followed by intermittent sunshine to dry us between rough patches; I gained some insight into a daily lifestyle I can honestly say is not for me!
Our first pilgrimage site on Inis Mor was to Temple Chiarain dating back as far as the 8th century, and maybe older if some of the ruins dated pre-Christian. Our guide for the day was Dara O. Maoildhia, former Roman Catholic priest who found his true pathway as a Celtic priest.
The Temple is used to this day for various ceremonies including weddings. The holy well on the site is used for blessing the bride, the ancient Standing Stone for blessing the groom, the alter in the church ruins for the ceremony and the Contract Stone to seal the deal. The Standing Stones were used by the monks to mark the boundaries of the monastery; but perhaps date to the time of the celtic religion marking a holy place. They were adopted by the Christians as holy markers through inscription of the Celtic cross. The contract stone was originally a sundial used to mark the calls to prayer for the monks. The point in the stone where a sick was inserted to track the shadow of the sun provided the point where two individuals could insert a finger from each side; when the fingers touched the contract was considered sealed. Since the stone was holy the contract was considered insoluble.
As we visited the holy well Dara asked each of us to identify our intent in coming to this place, and what we would like to leave with. The ancient ceremony was to walk in silence 7 times around the well prior to receiving its blessing – with the idea that we should have seven intentions being asked for. Although I am not a poet, the following verse did enter my mind and I offer it as an example of where the mind can go when we enter a wild place open to possibility.
Slow down, breath, and allow energy to flow through Our connection with nature;
through the ancient stones of the earth providing strength and foundation,
through the water flowing as the lifeblood of the earth,
through the air that nourishes everything that lives upon the earth,
through the flowers and plants that draw strength from the water and air to provide us with beauty and nourishment,
through the animals that walk the earth, feeding upon the plants, water and air; offering nourishment to us through food, friendship, and guidance on how to live,
through the people around us as companions and stewards of the earth,
through the divine spirit that encompasses the world from the ancient rocks to the people as stewards of everything we have and everyone coming after us.
From Temple Chiarain we travelled to the site of St. Enda’s monastery. St. Enda was known as the patriarch of Irish monasticism; he established the model of a monastery being a village of individuals with a similar spiritual goal. Up to this time people lived together simply because of blood relations – there was no village concept. Arriving on Inis Mor around A.D. 485 with 150 monks he established 10 monasteries across the island, constructing buildings for individual homes, worship, work, and most important a place to receive guests.
While most of the monks lived in these villages, there were those who lived by themselves in a hermitage. At this site we have Temple Bheanain at the top of a steep rocky climb overlooking the main monastery. This small stone church was large enough for one monk to pray in, and located directly in front of the church is the remains of a small “bee-hive” hut where the hermit lived. Exposed to the elements, including a non-stop harsh wind we experienced on our visit, the hermit led a hard life full of prayer and fasting; although I suspect a great deal of the fasting may have been based on the reluctance of the other monks to bring food up the steep climb!
It was a long day and we were all ready for the ferry back to Galway. Tomorrow we travel back to the Burren, what has become our favorite destination on this journey.