Journey to a Power Place: The Skellig Islands
by Brenda E. Novack
(February, 2018)

            I learned of the Skellig Islands one auspicious day while listening to Canadian singer-songwriter, Loreena McKennitt. Captivated by the hauntingly beautiful “Skellig” track, I was compelled to investigate this unfamiliar word and discovered stunning photos of two magnificent, roughly pyramid-shaped rocky islands protruding from the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Ireland. I felt the impact of their magnetism from first glance and wondered how I could have been oblivious to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. George Bernard Shaw described the Skelligs as "an incredible, impossible, mad place . . . the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in; it is part of our dream world." Wild seduction emanated from the monolithic peaks and I knew instantly that I had to visit them.

The larger of the two Skelligs, Skellig Michael, is named after the archangel and towers majestically 714 feet above sea level while Little Skellig rises an elegant 445 feet above the Atlantic. These imposing islands sustain a rich variety of vegetation and seabirds with Little Skellig serving as home to some 54,000 gannets. Notoriously rugged Skellig Michael supported human life for approximately 600 years as Christian monks dared to construct a sixth-century dry-stone monastery on one of its cliff-edges nearly 600 feet above sea level. It is accessed by over 600 steps courageously hewn of stone by the monks along the treacherous slopes between rumbling sea below and open sky above.

The Skelligs called to me for a decade before I finally accepted their enticing invitation. A temporary relocation had taken me from Canada to Dublin on Ireland’s east coast and a nine-hour bus ride from there delivered me to County Kerry. One can never be certain of making it to the Skellig Islands as it is always dependent upon sea conditions on the day of departure. Inhospitable waters frequently render the islands inaccessible—increasing their mystique and allure—but, thankfully, the Fates were generous on my scheduled day of departure from the charming fishing village of Portmagee.

The previous day’s sun had yielded to an otherworldly fog, creating a liminal atmosphere, and the relaxing forty-five-minute boat ride passed quickly as we traversed thirteen kilometers to the islands. Moored at the base of a towering Skellig Michael, the faithful boat was helplessly dwarfed as we eagerly disembarked and began our upward journey on foot.
There is an energy about Skellig Michael that is vibrant and unpredictable but also delicate and soothing, and it became instantly apparent to me that this is no ordinary place. Skellig Michael is dangerous and, after a few precarious glances at the water below while climbing the first sections of stone staircase in complete awareness of the potentially fatal nature of a stumble or fall—which could send one tumbling onto rock or into the sea—I had to stand still and collect my wits, resolving not to look down as I climbed but, rather, to focus attentively on the steps and take in only the scenery above and at eye level; I refused to permit anxiety to hamper this rare opportunity, and I knew that to think of falling would increase the probability of it happening. Making a brief, silent petition to Saint Michael for protection, I continued upward unhindered, recognizing that, as a noble place of untamable, natural beauty, death is an integral part of Skellig Michael's life and nature. The fog thickened as I ventured to higher altitudes and the sea became an elusive, invisible entity, apparent only through the audible surf, lost in pervasive blankness that was both eerie and comforting. Stunning rock formations, sculpted by wind and water and rich in variation of size, shape, and colour, defied obliteration while others appeared as tantalizingly vague shadows behind a translucent veil. Small, graceful flowers adorned masses of 350 million-year-old Devonian sandstone and slate while vibrant mosses and grasses softly shrouded others; many simply laid bare their stark beauty. Naturally chiselled rock faces were painted by nature with flowing, vertical streaks of orange, green, and yellow, and everywhere were sea birds, swooping, shrieking and, I dare say, laughing. Nearing the top of the ascent, two young women approached from below and continued past me as I stopped to take photographs. “There must be an easier way to God,” one of them lamented as she climbed the ancient stairs laboriously. “Actually, there isn’t. There is no easy way,” I said. Shortly thereafter, I met a joyous young woman who had hitchhiked three hundred and seventy kilometers from Dublin to climb the sacred rock in utter gratitude, her weak legs supported by crutches. The contrast was remarkable.
Finally crossing the threshold beneath an ancient stone arch and stepping into the medieval monastery, there opened to me a labyrinthine world of tightly spaced stone walls, beehive huts, and a small cemetery bordered by weathered stone crosses standing as testimony to a small community of individuals who had lived at one with nature and divinity in a faith that surpassed impossibility. Transporting soil from the mainland, they had created small gardens, constructed wells, and built their dome-shaped stone shelters without any type of binding agent. So skillful was their craft that many of the structures remain intact against fourteen centuries of ravaging winds and pounding rains.

I spent a few minutes strolling around the monastery grounds taking photos from nearly every possible angle, attempting to capture all for the sake of memory that inevitably erodes against the steady passage of time. Standing on a narrow strip of flat ground with feet firmly planted and camera poised, a fraction of a second later I was down like a stone, my elbow crashing onto rock as it took a major portion of my weight. Stunned by this sudden occurrence and aware of the gaze of fellow tourists, one of whom stood staring at me with gaping mouth, I wasted no time in picking myself up, brushing myself off, and resuming my photographic endeavours as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, but I was unable to overlook the bizarre nature of the fall. I assumed that my foot had slipped from beneath me on mud, wet grass, or rock, yet I could not help but wonder if the event contained an element of the supernatural¾a sign of disapproval. Had I stood on an unmarked grave? Was the incident intended to convey that there is more to visiting Skellig Michael than photography? Perhaps my surmising was merely the product of an active imagination, but it was sobering to realize that, if one could fall on level ground without obvious cause while standing stationary, there would be no way of preventing a fall over the rocky slope if it were somehow ordained to happen. I sensed that this island can do as it likes with a person.

Peering into one of the beehive huts, I noticed that tourists were permitted to enter. Since there were no windows in this particular dome and the small doorway afforded only minimal light, the interior was quite dark and, stepping into it, I anticipated that it would feel unpleasant and claustrophobic; however, I found myself enveloped in a powerfully soothing, palpable sense of peace which was so calming that I had to resist the urge to remain there and reluctantly forced myself to vacate after a couple of minutes so that others could enter, but I left with the certainty that a living benevolence dwelt inside the hut. I continued on to the cemetery, entered another beehive structure with a window opening onto crosses marking the ancient graves, took more photographs, and then, conscious of time, began making my way down the jagged slope.

Permeated by a sublime bliss and the sense that this was a truly unique and magical place, I once again delighted in luscious views transformed by the angle of descent. Having left my fear at a lower elevation on the upward climb, I was aware that the confidence I felt was false, but it allowed me to enjoy my Skellig experience in a carefree manner while remaining practical enough not to be foolhardy. Nonetheless, the absolute wildness of the place is never lacking in surprises. Focused on the steps before me, a startling cacophony three feet above my head suddenly commanded my attention as two seagulls nearly collided in mid-air, engaging in a screeching exchange over who had invaded whose airspace before continuing on their separate ways. “Wow!”, I uttered, acutely aware of how easily one might lose one’s footing on the occasion of such a distraction. I felt as though the island was playing with me, not in an unkind manner, but in the sense that it was engaging me and speaking to me. A refreshing and purifying salt wind washed over me as I completed my descent.

Our kind and capable captain, Ken, and his little dog, Nini (who had selected my lap for the voyage), greeted me as I climbed aboard. “How was it?”, Ken queried casually in veiled anticipation, wanting his passengers to enjoy and appreciate his beloved Skelligs. “It was amazing,” I responded, fully aware of the inadequacy of the words but having no other resource to draw on. As they boarded, several others described the island as “atmospheric.”  How interesting, I thought, that they should choose the same word to describe Skellig Michael on that foggy day. “Atmospheric,” I pondered, “of the atmosphere, of ether, ethereal." That was it—ethereal. There is a mysterious quality to Skellig Michael, an ineffable aliveness and intoxicating essence that one cannot name.

As a finishing touch, our boat circumnavigated Little Skellig, which welcomed us with a veritable symphony of birdsong as thousands of gannets swooped overhead or sat perched on ledges while a pod of grey seals basked at the base of the rock, inquiring gazes fixed upon us as we snapped photos.

Back at the bed and breakfast, a blanket of fatigue quickly settled over me, much like the fog that had engulfed the Skelligs on that day. It was the type of exhaustion born of complete contentment in having realized a dream, a peaceful, happy sleepiness of body, mind, and spirit accompanied by a surrealistic sense of disconnection at having experienced something beyond all imagining and then being plunged back into “the ordinary.”  Sleep is a most appropriate state at such times, for it allows one to take refuge in the fulfillment of the day and to bridge the gap between ordinary and extraordinary, to absorb and savour an experience too rich and multifaceted to become fully integrated immediately. Sleep summoned me to close my eyes and return to the Skelligs, to let the day seep gently into the core of my being and take root there. All experience forms a part of who we are, and even fleeting encounters can be transformative. The enchanting, enigmatic Skelligs are a living part of me now, no less than my Irish ancestors and, in finding these remarkable islands, I discovered a long lost part of myself.
© Brenda E. Novack 2018

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­BOOK REVIEW by Brenda E. Novack, PhD
Published: Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses, 43(3) (September 2014) : 547-549.
Review of:
More than Matter? Is There More to Life Than Molecules? by Keith Ward
Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.  224 p.

In More than Matter? Is There More to Life Than Molecules?, Keith Ward challenges a purely materialistic philosophical view of reality in favour of an idealistic metaphysic which supports the notion of human moral capability and responsibility.  Contrary to some commonly held scientific views that human life is essentially indifferent, valueless, and meaningless—simply a result of and continued manifestation of the operation of impersonal mechanical processes—Ward submits that humans possess conscious freedom to think, choose, and act within the mechanistic, materialistic natural order of which we are a part and to affect it to some extent.  The human mind, he conceives, functions as an individual, scaled-down version of a cosmic mind from which objective values are derived by which human moral behaviour might be informed in an effort to lead a life devoted to the enactment of goodness for its own sake, that is, in order to live a fully human life aligned with the aspirations of cosmic mind which might be likened, in some traditions, to notions of an Absolute Being or God.  Ward acknowledges both the reality and significance of the material order and the possibility of human consciousness existing independently of the physical body while also instilling intrinsic worth to human embodied life.  He grants supremacy to neither aspect of his dualistic notion of reality but suggests that a philosophy which integrates them offers the most adequate metaphysical theory in accordance with human experience, scientific knowledge, and logical reasoning.

            The argument is well-informed and proceeds in a logical manner through philosophical analyses of eight metaphysical theories which Ward effectively summarizes and rationally evaluates.  The author distills essential components of the theories and presents them in highly accessible form, comparing and/or contrasting them with each other and with his own position.  The language is clear, (not unnecessarily complex as tends to be the case with much contemporary philosophy), and Ward provides a glossary of philosophical terms encountered throughout the book, which is also equipped with a subject index and a name index.  Ward's talent for entertaining the reader with periodic injections of humour is commendable and a welcome divergence from the comparatively dry style of some philosophical works.

            Ward's primary point of departure is from the work of his former teacher, Gilbert Ryle, particularly Ryle's (allegedly misguided) critique of Cartesian dualism.  Ward's main disagreement with Ryle concerns the latter's assertion that human minds are not more than matter and that all real human experience must be publicly observable.  He devotes chapter one to this debate while chapter two engages five of the eight metaphysical views addressed by the author: phenomenalism, naive (common-sense) realism, materialism, dualism, and epiphenomenalism.  The discussion is insightful, informative, and varied, taking the reader through considerations of the human perception of colour, sound, smell, taste, and wetness and into the realm of quantum physics.  Chapters three and four are dedicated to the limits of knowledge and priority of mind and discuss Kant in some detail.  These chapters present the three remaining metaphysical views up for discussion: critical idealism, absolute idealism, and pluralistic idealism.  Chapter five defends Ward's interpretation of Cartesian dualism against Ryle's attack and delves into the possibility of reincarnation.  Chapters six and seven consider in more detail the integration of purposive human consciousness with an evolving material universe, rejecting the necessity of a radical separation between them and also the notion of a complete fusion of the two.  The remainder of the book is largely committed to assessing the strength of Ryle's argument against dualism and idealism and to exposing the internal contradictions and insufficiencies of Ryle's theory.  Ward emphasizes the importance of metaphysics, hailing it the most critical of philosophical concerns, given its implications with respect to expectations of human moral integrity or lack thereof.  "Human life," he concludes, "carries with it the possibility of a fundamental option for the good," and this, he proposes, is the defining characteristic of human existence (181).

            Ward's argument that humans are more than matter and that human consciousness places us within the realm of free will and moral responsibility which imbue human life with significance and value is persuasive.  While demonstrating that no metaphysical theory is entirely adequate or reliable, he also establishes that plausible arguments can be advanced in support of certain forms of idealism over purely materialistic theories and that dualism does not necessarily contradict common sense, logical reasoning, or scientific observation.  It is conscious human choice and action, informed by unique inner experiences, he maintains, which allow individuals to participate in fulfillment of the ultimate purpose of the universe as defined by primordial cosmic consciousness.  On this theory, cosmic intentions are achieved both through conscious human cooperation and the operation of natural laws, while cosmic intention might also be thwarted to some degree by human failure to cooperate with objective, universal values.  Ward closes by demonstrating how his proposed form of idealism, which he calls "dual-aspect idealism", lends rational support to certain religious concepts of soul and the possibility of divine revelation, although his theory does not rely upon these but on intellectual argumentation.

            The book makes a valuable contribution to the metaphysical debate and will be of particular interest to those seeking a thoroughly-researched, open-minded, and logical approach to the subject.  One of the merits of the book is that it goes a considerable distance toward rationally levelling the playing field between strictly materialistic (often scientific) views of reality and much-maligned dualistic views of reality (often religious).  Moreover, anyone concerned with moral issues would do well to consider Ward's argument.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­BOOK REVIEW by Brenda E. Novack, PhD
Published: Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses, 40(1) (March 2011) : 114-115.
Review of:
Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint by Donald Spoto
New York: HarperOne, 2007.  xviii + 222 p.

Donald Spoto’s biography of Joan of Arc presents a concise, chronological summary of major events and circumstances of the saint’s life, condemnation, death, posthumous vindication, beatification, and canonization.  Spoto aims to provide a new perspective on Joan of Arc derived from a comprehensive and balanced consultation of available sources.  His interpretation of the material is from a primarily theological perspective, and he argues in favour of the validity and ongoing significance of Joan’s model of faith which consistently informed her behaviour.  For Spoto, Joan demonstrates the inseparability of love from justice, and she represents the theological mystery which signifies the hidden, active presence of the divine within the material order.

The first chapter presents the context of Joan’s childhood; it relays personal and historical information pertaining to the Hundred Years’ War, Joan’s family, and her social status.  Chapter two discusses the Great Schism within the Roman Church and also takes up the issue of Joan’s visions and voices which she identified as divine in nature.  Spoto views these as “profoundly valid” mystical experiences with didactic potential (xvi).  The third chapter discusses the gradual nature of the revelations which defined Joan’s perceived calling.  Her voluntary pledge of virginity is interpreted by Spoto as a gesture of acceptance of and complete commitment to this calling, that is, commitment of both body and soul.  Chapter three also details Joan’s repeated attempts to gain access to Charles VII, heir to the throne of France, and her subsequent journey to Chinon to meet with him.  Chapter four discusses the dauphin’s reception and assessment of Joan, his approval of her mission, and her armed departure for the besieged city of Orléans.  Chapters five and six present an account of Joan’s early military victories, including the famous raising of the siege of Orléans.  It is noteworthy that Spoto unhesitatingly credits Joan for her legitimate and influential role in this astonishing string of victories which led to the anointing and crowning of Charles VII as King of France.  Spoto also duly notes her possession of genuine humility and her sincere reverence.  The latter part of chapter six disputes a number of theories claiming mental or physical illness or abnormality as the source of Joan’s mystical experiences.  The chapter also introduces political circumstances that began to turn the tide of events against Joan.  Chapter seven presents the decline of Joan’s military career, her capture in battle, and subsequent imprisonment.  It details some of the resentments and suspicions toward Joan that were likely brewing throughout this period of her life.  The final three chapters address the injustice of Joan’s condemnation and execution at the hands of pro-English forces.  This segment of the book includes extensive translated excerpts from transcripts of the trial of condemnation, thereby offering the reader an opportunity to engage with the material and perform, to some extent, his or her own assessment of what occurred.  The Afterword offers several contemporary responses to Joan’s death, recounts the eventual conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War, summarizes the nullification trial and canonization processes pertaining to Joan, and delivers Spoto’s final analysis.  He concludes that the divine right of all nations to sovereignty constitutes the essence of Joan’s enduring message to humanity, and that divine autonomy and freedom of action in the world, as well as human free will, must not be underestimated.

To its credit, the book offers a thoughtfully constructed account of key issues and events in the life of Joan of Arc and contains ample, insightful commentary.  It also represents a refreshingly open-minded, respectful, and gender-neutral assessment of the saint’s faith and military endeavours.  Moreover, the book is accessible to a general readership.  The academic reader might benefit from the inclusion of an index and increased citation of sources.  For example, the unusual and questionable assertions that Joan’s parents visited Rouen during her imprisonment there (169) and were present at her execution (189) are not referenced by Spoto, placing the reader at a disadvantage in attempting to locate the source of controversial information.  Also problematic is Spoto’s practice of occasionally presenting speculation as fact with respect to the apparent motives, thoughts, or feelings of various individuals.  For example, he states that Joan’s Burgundian captor, Jean de Luxembourg, prior to selling her to the English, “waited in vain for the king [of France] himself to ransom the young woman” (116), but this statement represents conjecture rather than known fact.  Although Spoto’s speculations are not necessarily unreasonable, it would strengthen the book academically if he were to present them outright as opinion.  That said, Spoto’s book may be considered a useful resource for anyone seeking a concise, intelligent, and generally fair treatment of the life of Joan of Arc.