About seven miles off western coast of Ireland, a lonely island looms out of the sea, the tip of a massive oceanic mountain. 54 acres and 715 feet high, Skellig Michael is home only to a colony of Northern Gannets, but there was a time when this remote outcropping hosted more than seabirds. For over 600 years, it was home to Irish monks who sought complete solitude and close communion with God.
When I first heard of Skellig Michael, I was fascinated. Even though the monastary has been unoccupied since the 13th century, just the thought of those determined hermits inspired me. Their desire for God was so strong that they embraced a life of radical separation from the world on a desolate islet.
Although not as extreme, there are similarities between seminary life and monastic life. The seminary is a semi-cloister, a place of partial separation from the world and diligent preparation for the priesthood. I returned to this environment after three years of busy apostolate, and I have to admit that initially the transition was difficult. In some ways, it did feel like going to a distant island. I went from daily engagements and activities to the monotonous rhythm of studies and classes. For months, I chafed under the new routine. In New York, I had left the house practically everyday; here, I was going weeks without so much as a trip to post office.
But little by little, as I settled down, I began to realize the value of my new circumstances. The stability and silence that I had found initially to be difficult were actually incredible gifts. Spending more time in prayer and having less distractions, my spiritual life began to thrive. New lights and inspirations poured in, and I can now say that I not only value seminary life – I enjoy it.
I once heard a priest jokingly refer to his seminary days as living in a minimum security prison. At one time, I may have made the same joke, but I am now seeing that it is really the opposite: it is spiritually liberating. My seminary is my skellig. The monks of Skellig Michael physically confined themselves to 54 acres, but spiritually, they were soaring. Their limitation was the condition for their spiritual success. They put the North Atlantic between themselves and anything that could distract them from God.
This is what Lent is about. Lent is not about making ourselves suffer. It is about putting in place the conditions that will help us spiritually flourish. It is about taking a step back from the world and going out to our own little skelligs. It is about giving up a legitimate pleasure in order to receive a greater joy. It is about spending more time with God, and experiencing the incredible peace of letting Him enter our lives.
St. John of the Cross once said that every authentic vocation is both contemplative and active. The only thing that varies is the emphasis. In monastic life, the emphasis is on Christ-like contemplation; and in the lay life, the emphasis is on Christ-like activity. Nevertheless, the monk still has to work, and the layperson still has to pray.
I know a gifted preacher who goes into self-proclaimed “monk mode” whenever he needs to prepare an important homily or retreat. He finds a quiet place and spends a day or more praying, reflecting, and writing. During Lent, I think that we all need to go into our own forms of “monk mode.” We need to go to our personal skelligs and open our hearts to God.
This Lent, spend more time with God, and you will experience firsthand how freeing it is. As St. Augustine once wrote “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.” When we rest in God, we are letting Him take over. When He takes over, we are at peace because He is in control, and we no longer have to stress. When we are peace, we are freed to be more creative and effective in all that we do.
Give it a shot! For the next 40 days, try going into “monk mode.” Spend time praying and reflecting on the Gospel for an amount of time that is reasonable for your particular situation: 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or even longer. If you consistently make the effort, you will see the difference and experience the peace that comes when you rest in God.