Through the mouth of the cave I watched the storm front move in from the east. I could already hear the approaching thunder; the low bank of cloud was gray with it. I was perched on a low ledge inside the cave, which was just long enough to accommodate a human body laid prone. I had filled the place with candles, which guttered and danced in the wind that was rising now with the coming storm.
The storm broke in an instant, and then everything was roaring. Great nails of rain hammered down on the hazels, and the rumbles of thunder were replaced by an explosion right above me. The dimming evening sky was suddenly ripped from horizon to horizon by a great sheet of white lightning. More rain. More thunder. More electricity. It roared on and then, eventually, it roared past. Ten minutes later the rain had slowed, but the pause in hostilities was only temporary. I could see another front approaching over the mountains.
For hours it went on. A night of storm and screaming skies. In the end, everything was black but for the light the candle flames threw on the weeping walls of the limestone cave, and the irregular explosions of light, which would suddenly imprint on my retinas a white cave mouth like an opening to heaven or hell. The roof of the cave was dripping now. Outside there was nothing to be seen unless the lightning came down, seeking the ground like a long-lost brother. No ruined church, no well, no spring, no wood: Everything that had surrounded me during the day had been swallowed by the Atlantic winter.
This was how I spent the eve of my fiftieth birthday.
In the sixth century, an Irish saint made his way down a trail, across the bare rocks of the Burren and through the hazel forest, toward the foot of a bare mountain. The Burren is a wide, wild area of limestone hills and plains in Ireland’s County Clare, dotted with ancient monuments, lost holy wells, caves, springs, and ruined churches. Back when the saint first came here the landscape was probably more forested than it is now, and Ireland was a very different place. Politically a patchwork of territories run by squabbling warlord-kings, it was also fast becoming what some contemporaries called an “island of saints.”
Before the Vikings arrived and founded the first cities, Ireland had no urban centers. But it did have more than four hundred monasteries, and countless more cells, caves, islands, and hermitages, catering to a growing number of Christian ascetics. Inspired by the Desert Fathers of Egypt—and if archaeological and linguistic evidence is anything to go by, very probably directly influenced by them, through trade and migration from North Africa—the Christians of early Ireland and neighboring Britain were exploring a wild Atlantic desert into which they could depart to take up spiritual arms. They came in their thousands in search of what, according to the author Thomas Cahill, they called their “green martyrdom.”
St. Colman Mac Duagh was one of these green martyrs. It was he who discovered the cave in which, 1,400 years later, I had chosen to see in my half-century in the rain. Like St. Anthony the Great, whose biography was well known to the Irish monks—Anthony is the saint who most commonly appears on the glorious high crosses of Ireland, of which more than sixty remain—Colman had fled the world and departed for the desert: a desert, in this case, of rock and hazel and rain, rather than sand and shattering heat. At the foot of a promontory called Eagle Crag he discovered a spring emerging from the foot of the mountain. Fifty yards or so up the hillside was a triangular crack in the rocks. Crawling in, Colman must have found the cave much as it remains today: small, cramped, created at some stage by a rockfall, home to countless spiders, prone to leak in a storm, and for all these reasons the ideal dwelling place for a Christian ascetic determined to die to the world.
I can’t remember when I first came to Colman’s cave with my family, on a weekend walk, but since then I’ve been unable to stop myself returning. There is something about this place, more than any other holy site in a land still stippled with them, that pulls me in. Five years ago I walked from my front door to the cave, carrying a tent and sleeping bag and visiting every holy well I could find on the way, a solitary journey that took me three days. I slept in the cave back then too, and again it rained on me. I was a pagan in those days, a practitioner of Wicca trying to get to know the “old gods” of the land, but it wasn’t lost on me even as I did so that I had basically designed for myself a Christian pilgrimage. Probably, of course, I hadn’t designed it at all. Five years later I found myself back in the cave in the rain, this time as a baptized Orthodox Christian. My Christian journey so far has taught me two cataphatic lessons: that God is an artist; and that he has a sense of humor.
What is it that draws me to people like Colman? I have, since a young age, been strangely obsessed by hermits, mystics, and their kind. Maybe Gandalf started it. He may be a global celebrity now, but Tolkien designed him as a version of an archetype that can be traced back in my own country to the high god of the Anglo-Saxons, Woden, also known as Grim. Woden, unlike his Norse corollary Odin, was something of a hermit himself. He was often to be found wandering the high downs alone, staff in hand, wide-brimmed hat on his white-haired head, his familiars—a raven and a wolf—by his side. Woden had only one eye, but it could see directly into the soul of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter him up on the Ridgeway on a blustery autumn day.
Maybe this sort of thing is in my blood, or maybe I just read too many fantasy novels. Or perhaps it’s something else entirely. All I know is that the retreat to the wilds to find wisdom is a story I have returned to again and again throughout my life, and one in which I have participated on more than one occasion. On most of those occasions I was far from being a Christian. But then Christians are far from being the only people who retreat to the woods to seek God or the truth, which always turn out, in the end, to be the same thing. The retreat to the cave, often followed by a return to the world, is an underworld journey. That journey will be undertaken by all of us at some point in our lives, whether we want it or not. Recently I’ve begun to see that it’s a journey that must also be undergone sometimes by entire cultures.
Colman lived in his cave, it is said, for seven years. He drank water from the spring, ate hazelnuts and berries from the forest, and wandered the “pathless woods” praying. He built a small oratory church, of which no traces remain, though a later stone ruin stands on the same site. His biographer described his time there like this:
For seven long years [Colman] lived in his Burren hermitage, completely hidden and unknown. Yet how quickly the years had sped! The songs of the forest birds, and the music of the mountain streams, and the whisperings of the breezes as they stirred the rustling leaves, had grown familiar and dear to him during those seven summers past, and the remembrance of them seemed like the recollection of some happy and tranquillizing dream. How could he forget the long prayers, happily uninterrupted by the turmoil of the world, offered there beneath the vault of heaven?
My favorite story about Colman concerns his wild companions. The saint, the legends tell us, somehow befriended a cockerel, a mouse, and a fly, and trained them to help him out. The cockerel’s job was to crow when he needed to get up in the morning to pray. The mouse’s role was to step in if Colman didn’t feel like getting out of bed: It would nibble his ear until he roused himself. As for the fly, Colman trained it to walk along the lines of his Bible in the dim light, so he could follow it as he read. A new stained glass church window in the nearby town of Gort portrays the saint with his three animal companions rather sweetly.
Nothing lasts, of course, especially the life of a fly. It wasn’t long before Colman’s companions died. He confided his sadness in a letter to another Irish saint of the time, Columba. His friend’s brief reply distilled the unworldly essence of desert spirituality: “You were too rich when you had them. That is why you are sad now. Trouble like that only comes where there are riches. Be rich no more.”
St. Colman Mac Duagh is not a well-known saint even in Ireland, though he has a certain fame in and around the Burren. But he is only one example of a much wider phenomenon. Perhaps we could call it cave Christianity. It is the spirituality of the hermit, the cave-dweller, the one who prays in the tombs, of him—or her—who dies to the world in order to awaken to the kingdom. It is a hard path. Most of us don’t seek it or couldn’t manage it if we did. I was recently told by a monk on Mount Athos, the Orthodox monastic republic in Greece, that modern monks like him were too soft to manage what his ancestors had achieved. All of us in the modern world, he said, are too used to our luxuries—even those who have chosen to leave it.
Maybe he was right. Still, I have a feeling that the cave Christians may prove to be our future as well as our past. Sometimes you need to refresh yourself at the spring; you need to hunt for the source of what gives you life, when the outward structures of your world visibly creak and shiver. And the source of our Christianity in these islands, or one of the sources, is the cave Christians: the wild saints.
Perhaps the most famous of Ireland’s cave Christians is St. Kevin of Glendalough. Founder of one of the country’s best known monastic sites, Kevin initially came to Glendalough to escape the world—and particularly to escape the disciples who had gathered around him, seeking his wisdom. He lived as a hermit in a partially man-made cave now known as St. Kevin’s Bed, to which, we are told, he was guided by an angel. Like Colman, Kevin lived in his cave for seven years (the number seven, like the number forty, occurs again and again in the annals of mystical Christianity), and like Colman he lived at one with nature, wearing only animal skins, going barefoot, sleeping on a stone, and befriending the birds. The wild saints are often to be found in intimate relationships with birds and animals. St. Paul of Thebes, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict, St. Theodora of Romania, and countless others were fed by birds when they were hungry, or fed them in turn. St. Paul was buried by lions after his death, while St. Seraphim of Sarov befriended a bear. The holiest of the cave Christians, it seems, achieve such a level of theosis—union with God—that they approach again the Edenic state in which humanity was at peace with the rest of creation.
St. Kevin personified this state in the most famous episode from his life. He was praying, we are told, in his cell, standing in the position known as crossfigel, with his arms outstretched so that he formed the shape of a cross. His cell was so small that he had to stretch one arm out of the window. As he stood there motionless, a blackbird landed in his hand and began to build a nest. The saint remained in the same position patiently until the bird had laid eggs and seen the chicks fledge. This story was so good that Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about it:
. . . Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
“To labour and not to seek reward,” he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
The wild saints, like Christianity itself, are not a parochial phenomenon. Variations appear in every Christian land. The Irish soon took their cave Christianity over to neighboring Britain and sowed it in the northern soil. The great holy island of Lindisfarne was founded by an Irish saint, Aidan, whose pupil St. Cuthbert later became abbott. In the seventh century, after a life of missionary work, Cuthbert retreated first to a sandstone cave on the mainland and then to the tiny island of Inner Farne, where he built a small chapel and a hermitage. Here he would stand all night in the North Sea, praying. As the saint became holier (the Old English word halig is the root-word of both “holy” and “whole”: To become holy is to return to our original wholeness), the inevitable wild companions appeared. Bede reports that sea otters would breathe on the saint’s feet to dry them after his sea prayers. Eagles brought him fish. The eider ducks he cared for are known as “cuddy ducks” on Lindisfarne to this day. When Cuthbert once caught a raven stealing thatch from a roof he scolded it, and it came back to him with “its wings lamentably trailing,” begging his forgiveness.
There is something else to be learned from the stories of the cave Christians. It is that the retreat to the desert must sometimes be followed by a return to the world. That return, often after the requisite seven years, may initially be reluctant, for the saint has found paradise in the wild and dreads the thought of being immersed in the world again. When his church superiors approached Cuthbert to offer him the Bishopric of Hexham, the saint refused. Even the direct intervention of the King of Northumberland, says Bede, could not persuade the saint to leave Inner Farne and return to the mainland. Only God could do that: “The saint long refused, wept and said that he was unworthy. And only when the Lord revealed that this was His will did he agree to become a bishop.”
Even then, after a brief period in the bishopric, Cuthbert soon returned to Inner Farne to die. A similar pattern had played out in the life of Colman a century before. After his seven years the local king, Guaire Aidhne, asked—or possibly required—the saint to emerge from his green desert and build a monastery. Colman obeyed, founding the monastic site of Kilmacduagh, whose ruins still stand today, not far from his cave. But Colman, like Cuthbert, resigned his worldly post after fifteen years, and returned to the Burren to live out his life.
But both of these saints, like great Anthony before them, had come back to the world when the world called them, regardless of their own desires. They knew that what they had learned and seen and been given access to had to be shared, however hard they might find the work. Anthony Bloom once wrote that the Desert Fathers and their kind retreated in order to seek an “ardent and active solitude”: “These men leave everything because they have understood that in torment, disorder and purely earthly seeking they will not find the answer to the problems of their contemporaries . . . They have to find their souls again, and with their soul, the nation, the soul of their people, the soul of their contemporaries.” When the nation, the people, the culture needs to find its soul again—this is when we turn to the saints of the caves. This is when we call for their help, and their prayers. Assuming we can find them.
When I awoke the next morning, the storm had passed and the sun was shining and I was fifty years old. I got up and went over to the spring and drank from the clear water that was steadily flowing out from under the mountain. I felt renewed, but I also felt slightly disappointed in myself. I had planned to sleep the night in the cave, but after a few hours the leaks in the roof had become almost torrential. Feeling like a failure, I had crawled out and slid down the muddy hill in the raging storm, to where I had earlier pitched a tent in the woods. This was why I would never be a saint. Colman would just have got wet. Now I appreciated what the Athonite monk had told me about the softness of modern people. There is no theosis without suffering. A Generation X boy like me barely knows the meaning of the word.
But the cave Christians did. The early Christian monks—and laypeople—of Europe operated in a shattered landscape, politically, culturally, and spiritually. The great Roman Empire, which had united so much of the known world under a highly civilized, multicultural, global imperium, was collapsing into ruin, overrun by “barbarians” from outside its borders. To paraphrase W. B. Yeats, all was ruin once again. On the two Atlantic islands of Britain and Ireland—one the most marginal territory of the empire, the other not even seen as worth conquering—the early Christians were more likely to be found following the path of St. Anthony than that of St. Benedict. In fact the latter, often said to be the founder of European monasticism, could instead be seen as the man whose rule was designed to tame it, to bring the cave Christians into line. Anthony had fled to the tombs because life in the city was becoming too soft and complacent. Benedict and his followers were sent by the city to tame the zeal of people like Anthony. The Benedictine rule was criticized even at the time for making monasticism too comfortable. St. Kevin would never have stood for it.
The cave Christianity of the desert centuries, from Egypt to Connacht, would eventually give way to a less chaotic uniformity at the hands of a juridical hierarchy and the official Western monastic orders, all of which would lead to the high culture of the Middle Ages and the immense power of the Roman magisterium. That power would become so great, and so corrupted, that eventually it would shatter on the rocks of the Reformation and lead us directly, if accidentally, into secular modernity. Today the uniformity of the resulting materialist empire is a reality for all of us. The serpent has unwound himself from the tree and curled up behind the screens, and none of us are able to turn our gaze away. But a parallel reality is another gathering imperial collapse. The global Machine is teetering, even as it clamps down on its citizenry in an attempt to tamp down unrest and rein in its own wanton destruction of creation and culture. A way of seeing that sets itself against what C. S. Lewis happily characterized as the Tao—the way of great nature, willed by its creator—cannot last, however much it desperately tightens its grip. We are not gods, however much we have always wanted to be.
Everybody is talking these days about the decline of the West, and with good reason. Some people think that Christianity should have something to say about this: that as the faith was the rock on which the West was built, so the faith should rebuild it again, or defend it against its enemies. We need a Muscular Christianity! they insist in the comment sections. Bring on the Christian knights! they shout on YouTube. But I don’t think this is how it works. When the last empire collapsed, the Christians of Europe weren’t trying to build, let alone defend, some construction called “Christendom.” They didn’t plan for the dome of St. Peter’s or the Battle of Lepanto. They were just trying to do the humblest and the only thing: to worship the true God, and to strip away everything that interfered with that worship. They took to the deserts to follow Christ and to battle the Enemy. Their work was theosis. They had crucified themselves as instructed. What emerged as a result, and what it turned into—well, that wasn’t up to them.
In a time when the temptation is always toward culture war rather than inner war, I think we could learn something from our spiritual ancestors. What we might learn is not that the external battle is never necessary; sometimes it very much is. But a battle that is uninformed by inner transformation will soon eat itself, and those around it. Why, after all, were the cave Christians so sought after? Because they were not like other people. Something had been granted to them, something had been earned, in their long retreats from the world. They had touched the hem. After years in the tombs or the caverns or the woods, their very unworldliness became, paradoxically, just what the world needed.
When the twentieth-century Russian spiritual leader Father Arseny was asked, in the depths of a Soviet prison camp, who was responsible for the catastrophe of communism, he didn’t blame the camp guards, the politburo, or Stalin. “Among us Russian people,” he said, “many have lost the faith, lost respect for our past. We lost much of what was precious and good. Who is at fault? The authorities? No, we are at fault ourselves; we are only reaping what we ourselves have sown.” It’s a sobering message for us as we survey the decaying anti-culture of the contemporary West. Who got us here? We did. We are drinking from a cup we have long prepared for ourselves. Now the West is undertaking its own underworld journey. You can’t fight a journey like that when it calls you, and if you try you will only make it worse for yourself. There are dark things down there you need to meet. Sometimes you have to hold your breath and enter the mouth of the cave.
Is it a desert time again? Of course I think so: I’m the sort of weirdo who spends his birthday in a cave. But I feel like I am being firmly pointed, day after day, back toward the green desert that forms my Christian inheritance, toward that “ardent and active solitude.” Back to the song that is sung quietly through the land by its maker, the song that is in the stream running, in the mist wreathing the crags, the growling of the rooks, the thunder over the mountains. Back to the caves, to the skelligs, to the deserts green and brown, to stretch out my arms crossfigel and recite the great prayer of St. Patrick’s Breastplate: “The light of the sun, the radiance of the moon, the splendor of fire, the speed of lightning, the swiftness of wind, the depth of the sea . . .” I feel that in another time of crisis and confusion we need to go back to our roots, both literal and spiritual. To flee from the gaze of a civilized center that denies God and launches salvo after salvo daily against the human soul. To seek out a wild Christianity, which will see us praying for hours in the sea as the otters play around us. To understand—to remember—that the Earth and the world are not the same thing.
None of this is going to happen on its own, of course. If we want it, we are going to have to build it. Saints don’t just turn up. They have to be created. Maybe we are able to take only one small step in this direction. Maybe we can’t manage a full night alone in the rain—not yet, at least. But let us start walking, down the track toward the crag. We can’t put off this pilgrimage forever. The cave awaits.
There is a wild-haired man in the desert clad in camel skin. He is the start of things. He lives on honey and insects and he calls us to prepare for the coming of one who will baptize not with water but with fire. God, he says, will come in human form. He will be born in a cave, he will walk on the water and battle in the desert and when he comes to the city it will kill him. But that will not be the end of the story. We can’t write the ending to this story. We can only trace the lines on the page in the dim light of the cave mouth. We can only wait patiently for the storm to come over and for the lightning to come down, and illuminate everything.
Paul Kingsnorth is a novelist, essayist, and poet living in Ireland.
Image by Philip Gamble via Creative Commons. Image cropped.