In Search of Sacred Places: Looking for Wisdom on Celtic Holy Islands
Fourteen hundred years after a handful of Celtic monks withdrew to tiny islands in the sea, and almost a thousand years after the last of them disappeared, a steady stream of modern men and women make the difficult trek to these isolated places.
Why do many drive long hours and take two ferries to spend a few hours on Iona? Why do others wait patiently each day for the sea to retreat so they can cross over to Lindisfarne? And why do still others brave the Atlantic wind and waves to jump off a fisherman's boat for a couple of hours on the precipices of Skellig Michael? What did the ancient monks know that we have forgotten, or remember only dimly? What do we come to find?
This book interweaves spiritual quest, travel, memoir, history, theological reflection, cultural analysis, and personal introspection - all conveyed in an engaging, probing, and honest voice.
Review by Julie Falkner (280207) Rating (9/10)
by Julie Falkner
In Search of Sacred Places is the wonderfully readable result of his explorations. The book is an unusual mixture of modern travelogue, Celtic history, and pilgrimage reflection. Taylor, a professor of literature, vividly recounts his family's travels from Iona, via Lindisfarne, Durham, and Glendalough to remote Skellig Michael, a "monastery in the sky". Whether narrating light-heartedly the unromantic views of Iona's resident "troll" or giving a moving description of his family spontaneously singing in a quiet church, Taylor writes with eloquence and wit.
The travelogue is punctuated with intriguing diversions. For example, Taylor tells stories from the life of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and ponders his extraordinary dedication to those whom he served. A performance of Handel's Messiah prompts a discussion of Susannah Cibber, the notorious soprano who sang in the first-ever performance of that powerful work. Taylor also offers an appreciation of the solemn adoration and the cheeky wit found in the Book of Kells, explaining the meticulous work involved in its creation, and then considers its modern-day counterpart, the handwritten Saint John's Bible. He is particularly evocative when imagining the monks of Skellig Michael, "who scampered up and down the cliffs, snatching eggs from bird nests on rocky ledges high above the sea... [and] growing small patches of grain in this little bit of soil hundreds of feet in the air between the two peaks of the island."
In many ways a reluctant pilgrim, Taylor is not automatically in awe of the places that he visits. Indeed, he wonders "do we experience the sacredness of a place, or do we experience merely our desire that a place be sacred?" While he comments on the time-transcending value of soul friendship, he also observes that we risk much when we allow another individual to tell us what to do. And he feels uncomfortable when he ponders the often-extreme level of devotion of the Celtic saints, such as Columba's decision to use a pillow made of stone.
Yet he senses that he has something to learn about blessing and gratitude from the example of the saints, and from the experience of following in their footsteps. In a final thought-provoking chapter he writes about what the Celtic Christians have taught him about the value of simple living and the meaning of ritual and worship: "They encourage me to simplify my life. They show me that some things are worth taking chances for. They teach me to celebrate the tangible but to value even more the intangible."
One of the notable features of this book is Taylor's honesty. He writes, "I like my saints to be scoundrels, or at least have the potential for it, because I know I am a scoundrel myself." He is honest, for example, about the ways in which his Baptist-influenced childhood has moulded his attitude towards holiness and sainthood. And we can identify with his preference for the comfortable rather than the challenging. Earnest pilgrims write worthy books, but Taylor's account is both more sincere and more appealing.
The book is illustrated with black-and-white photographs, and includes a brief but helpful bibliography as well as a few suggestions of online resources. Practical travel details are not included, since this is not intended to be a guidebook.
"A pilgrimage is never finished. You go home, but you take
some of the place and the experience with you." Similarly,
if you read this book some of Taylor's contemplation of the meaning
and value of pilgrimage will remain with you. I highly recommend
In Search of Sacred Places, both for those who have felt
a sense of transcendence in a place such as Iona, and for those
who dream of one day seeking the intangible rewards of spiritual