Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Voyaging Ascetics

E.G. Bowen writes in his study of Celtic culture that although asceticisim in the Eastern Mediterranean was marked by a movement into the desert, in the West it was marked by the creation of innumerable island sanctorium. Initially, coastal islands were simply way stations to the deserts of the European forests. Later, wehn the papacy cracked down on the peregrini because of their undisciplined habits, continental wildernesses became off limits. The penitents returned to Ireland and found another, even more enticing form of exile, this time in oceano desertum, the desert of the sea. At first they were satisfied with little isles in their native lakes and rivers, not far from the monestaries forming the civitas. Then they began to retire to numerous islands off the Irish coast, and when these were no longer places of solitude, a voyage in frail boats was to search out some desert isle in the ocean. In what became known as the “white martyrdom,” the sea became the spiritual desert, the last refuge of holy wilderness in Europe.

-- John R. Gillis, Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World


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