To this day, I can remember leaving the theater on a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1978, exhilarated and mesmerized by the first Star Wars film. Not long after that red-letter day, I joined the Official Star Wars Fan Club and have remained engaged with the saga ever since. I loved then and still do the characters, the space battles, the sense of fun intertwined with the more dramatic elements of the series. I entered the Star Wars universe as a teenager and never looked back.
The Jedi knights in particular engaged my imagination: the austere but compassionate Ben (Obi Wan) Kenobi, the impetuous Luke Skywalker, Master Yoda with his parable-like way of speaking in The Empire Strikes Back, and, of course, that infamous Jedi gone bad, Darth Vader. Who could resist the appeal of the Jedi powers, the mysterious Force, and, of course, the very cool light sabers? I admired their commitment to living by the light of the Force, dedication to virtue, and fellowship in an order of like-minded comrades united by a code of ideals. And as history, lore, and nuance were added to the series in the various sequels and prequels, my fascination persisted and grew.
Just a little while after I joined the Official Star Wars Fan Club, I discovered another lifelong passion: medieval monasticism. As an undergraduate, I became interested in the legacy of Christian monasticism, the way it had reshaped medieval society and continued to offer refreshing possibilities for faith and living in the present day. My curiosity about monasticism was more than merely academic. I longed then, and still do, for a contemplative way of life that would nurture my faith, imprint the pattern of my days with purpose and prayer, and offer myself and my family the rootedness of spiritual community in a volatile world.
Shortly after the original Star Wars trilogy concluded, I started my doctoral studies in medieval history, which later led to an academic career of researching and teaching about figures like Bonaventure, a mystic and minister general of the Franciscan order, and the Norbertines, a religious order inspired by Cistercian ideals which had a lasting influence on Christianity throughout Europe and beyond. Though I loved monasticism, the monastery was not for me; I got married and had two daughters. Eventually, my wife and I became Benedictine oblates, professing vows in a voluntary order of laypeople dedicated to the rule of St. Benedict and the service of the church.
And throughout all this, I still loved Star Wars.
Over the years, I’ve come to wonder if these two passions had more to do with each other than I initially realized. The striking parallels between the ancient Celtic practice of monasticism and the Jedi were brought home to me when I watched the climactic final scene of Episode VII: The Force Awakens where we reencounter the aged Luke Skywalker taking refuge at the ancient and remote Irish monastic site Skellig Michael (as further depicted in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi). While the filmmakers perhaps chose the site for its stark beauty, it seems to me eminently suitable as a place where Jedi and medieval monastic discipline and spirituality come together. Although the martial prowess and discipline of the Jedi is reminiscent of samurai warriors or the Knights Templar, when one moves beyond the cool fighting sequences and special effects, it seems to me that on a deeper level the Jedi knights, with their vows, distinctive clothing, and spiritual discipline, have much in common with the medieval Christian monks and nuns, athletes of God and spiritual warriors, dressed in their common habits and obedient to their own vows. Both groups bound themselves by lifelong commitments to personal poverty, possessing nothing except what they needed to fulfill the tasks given to them by their authority figures, whether the Jedi Council or the abbot. Both are also marked by a vow of obedience to their superiors and their Rule, or code of living. Finally, vows of celibacy and chastity are seen as essential to their discipline of devotion to a higher power, be it the Force or God. These vows are not ends in themselves – they facilitate, in the Christian context, love of God and neighbor on the way to salvation, and in the Jedi context, a life of sacrificial service, compassion and justice.
Like the Jedi, there comes a time when the monastic apprentices, if they are wise and dedicated, become masters themselves.
The Jedi share the vulnerabilities of monasticism as well. One of the central points of drama in Star Wars is the lure of the Dark Side of the Force. When Anakin Skywalker is gradually seduced to the Dark Side, the calamitous results are clear enough throughout the Star Wars saga. The Rule of St. Benedict and other monastic writings caution that there can be both good and bad zeal in the monastic life. Good zeal allows monks to channel their monastic life and vows in wholesome ways, fundamentally accepting a sense of humility, compassion, and reciprocity in living with their brethren. Bad zeal is an altogether different matter: always on the lookout to criticize one’s brothers and set oneself up as a higher moral authority than them or even the Rule. The temptation of bad zeal must always be guarded against. Both in monasteries and among the Jedi, it is often the most promising postulants who succumb to this unfortunate tendency, with repercussions for all involved.
Star Wars also depicts an order of authority and training that is similar to a monastic setting. The films that take place before the attempt to destroy the Jedi Order show how the younger Jedi candidates live and are educated together in their early years. When deemed ready, they “graduate,” so to speak, to receive more advanced training about the deeper meaning of the Jedi vows under the tutelage of a single master. This mentor relationship continues until they themselves are ready to assume a role of mentorship. Something similar was true for medieval monks. Novices lived together and were trained in the basics of their Rule, including the meaning of the vows lived in a community context, under the guidance of older monks. The opening words of the Benedictine Rule exhort the monk to listen with the ears of their hearts to the words of the Master. Once the monks are no longer novices, they, like the Jedi, are called to continuous spiritual development, in what they call a lifelong conversion of life. In a sense, this process doesn’t conclude until the end of life, even when the monk becomes a master himself. While sharing in the communal life, monks often enter a kind of apprenticeship where they learn the particular skills associated with their role within the monastery. This could involve being a cook, a gardener and herbalist, a teacher, a craftsman, a brewer, an illuminator, and many other possible vocations. Like the Jedi, there comes a time when the apprentices, if they are wise and dedicated, become masters themselves.
When we look to Obi Wan or Luke Skywalker as inspirational figures, navigating the tumult of their times, so we might draw from the ancient well of monasticism in our own universe.
It is, I think, notable that some of the central drama of the Stars Wars saga comes when this master-disciple apprenticeship is violated or falls apart. This relates to one of the most poignant points of congruence between medieval monasticism and the Jedi: soul-friendship. The early Irish monks had at the center of their training and spirituality the concept of the soul-friend, or anamchara. This referred to the relationship of a monk or nun with their spiritual adviser, who was often not their superior or abbot. Taking on this relationship was a heavy responsibility for the monastic elder and was not something to be entered into lightly. The disciple was obliged to follow the instruction of their soul-friend, to accept their guidance in the spiritual life. There was an ancient Irish monastic saying, “better for a monk to lose his head than to be without his anamchara.” Of course, this close bond can be broken or manipulated, where the mentor takes advantage of or even abuses the youngling they are supposed to nurture – as we find in the case of the Sith, who are portrayed as a dark mirror image of the Jedi, just as they also seek to manipulate the powers of the Force to their own purposes. And we can see the suffering and brokenness this brings to the young students who have been abused, as in the cases of Anakin and Kylo Ren. But this is the way of the dark side of the Force, and not the Jedi way – nor is it the way of a Christian monasticism which is faithful to its vows and vision.
Jedi and Christian monastic vows, despite some obvious differences, have much in common. They both support commitment to a frugal lifestyle, leaving behind concerns with possessions and family ties to pursue virtue and spiritual development in obedience to principled ideals. Neither the Jedi nor the Christian monks pursue this path alone, but through the encouragement of their brothers and sisters in the bonds of fellowship and common purpose. Both cultivate compassion and charity for others, and accept the need to learn from more experienced teachers before assuming the mantle of master themselves. They both expect obedience to a force beyond themselves and are called to cultivate lifelong attentiveness and vigilance to what that force wants and expects from them. This involves avoiding the trap of false pride and bad zeal, the great temptation for gifted monks and Jedi alike. And both Jedi and monks are called to follow a path whose ultimate fulfilment transcends the very limits of death itself.
Most characters in the Star Wars universe are not Jedi. In my own universe, I am not a monk – and I assume most of you are not reading this from a monastic cell. Nonetheless, when we look to Obi Wan or Luke as inspirational figures, navigating the tumult of their times, so we might draw from the ancient well of monasticism in our own universe. I like to think that part of what drew me to Star Wars as a young teenager that sunny Sunday in 1978 was not merely the cinematic allure, but its capacity to help me imagine a spiritual and communal way of life that provides a way of seeing the world beyond its volatilities. Just as we can feel so connected to the Jedi knights of a galaxy far, far, away, I hope that we might find new ways to connect with the monastic traditions which have sustained so many generations of people through times of both peace and turmoil – that we may find a new hope in the goodness of living a life of virtue, community, and dedication.