In the spring of 2003, while on sabbatical from our parish work, my family travelled to the west coast of Ireland. This photo is of the Gallarus Oratory, an early Christian site located on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. My then thirteen year old daughter Bekah, no doubt chilled and made grumpy by a raw wind blowing in off the North Atlantic, stands in the doorway, reluctantly consenting to a photograph.
Chet Raymo, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College and a part-time resident of the Dingle Peninsula, wrote about the oratory in his remarkable book Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain. I offer a somewhat lengthy excerpt from the book. Please read on. You won't be disappointed.
Of all the places Irish men and women built for prayer before the coming of the Vikings in the ninth century, only one remains intact. At Gallarus, on the Dingle Peninsula west of Mount Brandon is a structure that must be counted as one of the most remarkable in all of Ireland, even in all of Europe: the Gallarus Oratory. The building is about the size of a one-car garage, rectangular in plan, in the shape of an overturned boat. it is built of unmortared stone, beautifully fitted together, with corbeled side walls about a yard thick curving upward until they meet at the ridge line. A small trapezoidal opening at the front may have once been closed by a door of leather or wood; an adult must stoop to enter. A timy arched window at the rear admits a shaft of light into the gloom. The structure is as weathertight today as when it was built.
Everyone who sees the Gallarus Oratory for the first time is stunned into silence. They have never seen anything like it, and never will. Inexplicably, almost miraculously, it has survived the ravages of time, in particular the predations of farmers seeking building stone. There are other structures like it on the Dingle Peninsula, but all exist only in fragments; the Gallarus Oratory has the look of a building that was constructed yesterday. Exactly how old it is no one can say...it is almost certain that the building was in place before the Vikings came ravaging along this coast in the year 850.
Perhaps the Gallarus oratory survived because it early became and remained a place of pilgrimage, or perhaps because even from the earliest times people recognized it as something of an architectural masterpiece. The oratory, as its name implies, was meant for prayer, and one cannot enter that cool darkness without feeling a sense of mystery that provokes a contemplative response. What sort of prayer took place in the cool cave of the Gallarus Oratory no one can say at this remove. Perhaps a tiny oil lamp flickered in the waxy darkness. Was there an altar against that back wall? Surely no seats or benches in this restricted place. It is hard to imagine an exuberant congregation singing a Te Deum--the voices crushed back to earth by the weight of the corbeled stone. Rather, one imagines a single person, or two, or three, prostrate in the dark, praying as Thomas Merton defined monastic prayer: A silent listening of the heart.
A few years ago, I spent the night in the Gallarus oratory. I can't say exactly why I went there late in the evening, or why I intended to sit up all night unsleeping in that dark space. I suppose I wanted to experience something of whatever it was that inspired Irish men and women to seek out these rough hermitages on the edge of civilization. They were, to be sure, pilgrims of the Absolute, seeking their God in a raw, ecstatic encounter with stone, wind, sea, and sky.
The sun had long set when I arrived at the Gallarus, although at Ireland's latitude the twilight in summer never quite fades from the northern horizon. It was a moonless night, ablaze with stars, Jupiter brightest of all. Meteors occasionally streaked the sky, and satellites cruised more stately orbits. Inside the oratory, I snuggled into a back corner, tucked my knees under my chin, and waited. The darkness was palpable, pungent...I could see nothing but the starlit outline of the door, not even my hand in front of my face. The silence was broken only by the swish-swish of my own breath. As the hours passed, I began to feel a presence, a powerful sensation of something or someone sharing that empty darkness. I am not, as you surely know by now, a mystical person, but I knew that I was not alone, and I could imagine those hermit monks of the seventh century sharing the same intense conviction of "someone in the room." At last, I was spooked to the point that I abandoned my interior corner and went outside.
A night of exceptional clarity. Stars spilling into the sea. And in the north, as if as a reward for my lonely vigil, the aurora borealis--the northern lights--danced toward the zenith. How can I describe what I saw? Rays of silver light streaming up from the sea, as if from some enchanted Oz just over the horizon. Shimmering columns of fairy radiance, black night made suddenly phosphorescent.
The Gallarus Oratory was built for prayer at a time when the world was thought to be charged with the active spirit of the Creator: every zephyr blew good or ill; springs flowed or dried up at the deity's whim; lights danced in a predawn sky as blessings or portents. Today, we know that the lights dance for reasons that have nothing to do with our supplications or with a deity's willfulness; electrons crash down from the Sun, igniting luminescence. But our response to the lights might be prayerful, nonetheless: wonder, thanksgiving, praise. If we are attentive and knowledgeable, the lights will lead us into encounter with the ineffable Sprit that stirs the universe into a ferment.
As the Sun brightened the eastern sky and the last shreds of aurora faded, I was suddenly startled by a pair of swallows that began to dart in and out of the Gallarus Oratory, hunting insects on the wing. I followed them inside and discovered a nest with three chicks perched on a protruding stone just above the place I had been sitting. The mysterious presence I had felt so strongly in the darkness was not a god, nor fairy spirit, nor angel, nor demon, but the respiration and featherings of swallows.
(DSH Photo: Rebekah at the Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland; May, 2003)