Book Review: Sun Dancing – Geoffrey Moorhouse

Sun Dancing: Life in a Medieval Irish Monastery and How Celtic Spirituality Influenced the World

Subject: Monastic and religious life–Middle Ages, Celts, Monastic and religious life, Middle Ages, Civilization, Skellig Michael (Monastery : Ireland).

“As I climbed the path winding up to the ancient constructions near the top of the cliff, I sensed that I was on the threshold of something utterly unique, though I was by no means a stranger to monasteries, which I had visited throughout Europe, and even farther afield at one time and another.  But nothing in my experience had prepared me for this huddle of domes, crouching halfway to heaven in this all but inaccessible place, with an intimidating immensity of space all around, where it was easy to feel that you had reached a limit of this world.  A holy place, to be sure, which would still have been so, even if it had never known the consecrated life of prayer.”  From the Author’s Notes – Sun Dancing Copyright © 1997 Geoffrey Moorhouse. All Rights Reserved

This is a Secular History; and as such must be read with spiritual rationality.

The Hibernian Monks of the Middle Ages are credited with saving Western civilisation.  So what is known of their everyday lives? The spiritual struggles? Their achievements? Or the inconceivable physical travails that they underwent?

Sun Dancing‘s is an insightful chronicle that express an exceptionally powerful regimen of cenobitic life, it elucidates upon one of the most arcane but seminal epoch of the Celtic narrative.

Sun Dancing makes manifest the sedulousness and devotion for God of the Hibernian Monks from 1430 years ago.  Their exemplification in these disciplines are extremely impressive.  It is the Hibernian monks who safeguarded the book of the Bible for us as the Roman Empire fragmented and Europe retrogressed into philistinism and savagery.   It brings to the forefront the history of the cenobites  of Hibernia, the men who created the Book of Kells.  The Irish monks of this period practiced a most uncompromising and rigorous form of self-mortification and self-abnegation in the history of the church perhaps even more so than the Carthusians today.  The practice of “penance” as practiced by the monks in this book is based on the idea that a Christian can partially “atone” for his own sins.  Some christians today would see this as a challenge of the atonement accomplished by Christ on the Cross, claiming that salvation is achieved by ‘sola gratia’ grace alone.  The Penitential of Finnian prescribes penances with a view to correcting sinful tendencies and cultivating the contrary virtue, it shows wide learning and draws on the teaching of St John Cassian on overcoming the eight evil tendencies – gluttony, fornication, covetousness, anger, dejection, accidie (laziness), vainglory and pride”.  Irish asceticism was a copy of the Thebaid.  The daily routine of monastic life was prayer, study, and manual labor.  With regard to food, the rule was most exacting, as was the way of life. The diet of monks living on the North Atlantic islands was somewhat different from that of those who lived on the mainland. Having less arable land available to grow grain, vegetable gardens were an important part of monastic life. Of necessity, fish and the meat and eggs of birds nesting on the islands were staples.  A system for collecting and purifying water in cisterns had been developed. No more than twelve monks and an abbot lived here at any one time. A hermitage is on the South peak.

I found Sun Dancing to be well researched and communicated for both monastic and lay persons alike.  It contains an indelible exemplification inimical to the sin of spiritual pride.  Commencing with the saga of the monks of Sceilig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael) west of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, in a fictional style, using archival elements leading us to a more concise chapter containing many historical facts.  The year 588 A.D., sees Fionán of Clonard, a monk of the community of Saint Brendan of Clonfert The Navigator, with twelve brother monks, setting off, looking to institute a new community in the desert.  Arriving at Sceilig Mhichíl somewhere between the 6th and 8th century (The first definite reference to monastic activity on the island is a record of the death of “Suibhini of Skelig” dating from the 8th century; however, Saint Fionán is claimed to have founded the monastery in the 6th century); it is a forbidding rock island with an area of 21,9 hectares approx; The topography of Skellig Michael with its iconic twin peaks and valley (Christ´s Saddle) is entirely controlled by bedrock geology.   Irish Monks would live there for the next 600 years.  This book is the amazing story, from a historical point of view and from records of how they lived, and what daily life was like.

Dom. Ugo-Maria

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