Today I looked over the edge of the world. I am on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. This is a wild and remote place. Four hundred years ago Oliver Cromwell pushed many Irish off the mainland, and here they came. Over Inishmore’s limestone hills (geologic continuations of the Burren in County Clare) they spread seaweed and sand, creating a thin subsistence soil. There are no trees here to block the wind that buffets everything constantly. For ancient people, who arrived on the Aran Islands thousands of years before Oliver Cromwell walked the earth, Inishmore was the edge of the world. Beyond the sheer cliff walls on the island’s western side was the abyss, the place where the world dropped off. It was where the old maps warned, “Beyond this point, there be dragons.”
Today a group of pilgrims from Christ Church Cathedral hiked to Dun Aengus, an ancient stone fort perched on the highest cliff, and peered over the edge. It was a vertiginous experience.
In the late A.D. 400s, St. Enda and twelve followers rowed a seal skin corracle nine miles from the Irish mainland across choppy seas to the edge of the world on Inishmore and founded a monastery. They were seeking “white martyrdom,” a way of life stripped bare and exposed to the elements, so that nothing separated them from the presence of God. Their lives were stark; their efforts undoubtedly often seemed futile; and to an outsider they must have appeared crazy. But in the years that followed, word traveled from the edge of the world that something remarkable and different was happening on Inishmore. A few, and then many, came to watch and to study with Enda. Eventually, those who had peered over the world’s edge returned to Ireland, and then to the continent of Europe, establishing the grand Irish monastic tradition that flourished for centuries and that is, still today, at the heart of Celtic spirituality. Many of the great Irish saints, including St. Ciaran and St. Brendan the Navigator, were formed at the feet of St. Enda.
Without St. Patrick, Ireland would not have become Christian, but without St. Enda, in a desolate and lonely place at the edge of the world, there would be no Celtic Christian tradition.
In our own lives, so many of the things that flourish begin with encounters of the abyss: in experiences of loneliness, pain, sorrow, or fear. That is easy to forget. At our heights, we may even willfully pretend that the jagged and vulnerable parts of us no longer exist. Internally, it is a goodly exercise occasionally to peer over the edge of the world, to return again to those desolate places where we are stripped bare, and where we meet God. For it is in those places and at those times when something new is born, the influence of which may blossom even from thin and sandy soil to enrich our souls and the world beyond ourselves. Never fear the dragons. They are likely to be angels in disguise.