For those who haven’t seen the film, be warned that this essay contains spoilers.
The most recent installment in the Star Wars franchise, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, has blasted box-office records like the Death Star destroying Alderaan, so far grossing over $1.7 billion. Clearly, the series has massively broad appeal. Much of the draw seems to be the allure of the Jedi, the mystical guardians of the Star Wars galaxy who were based, in part, upon a medieval Christian monastic order: the Knights Templar. While there are surely other reasons for its popularity, my view is that that Star Wars’ focus on the importance of devotion to virtue and a higher spiritual order, embodied in the Jedi and illustrated in The Force Awakens resounds with a universal human hope for people who embody that same vocation in our world today.
During the Crusades, there were actually many orders of monastic or quasi-monastic knights in the West. The Knights Templar are the most prominently recalled in popular culture, as they are often an essential component of modern conspiracy theories like that at the center of Dan Brown’s 2003 mystery-detective novel The Da Vinci Code. I don’t put much stock in conspiracy theories, but the interest in the Templars is understandable.
The Templars were created in the twelfth century to defend Jerusalem and pilgrims who journeyed there. They were named for their origin at the site of the biblical King Solomon’s temple (see 1 Kings 5-8). They took monastic vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity, but they also carried swords and fought as knights. Their original rule was written, in part, by the Western saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Disappointed with the conduct of other knights, who “despised the love of justice,” the Knights of the Temple were meant to “defend the poor, widows, orphans, and churches.”
The Knights managed to get an order from the pope exempting them from local laws, allowing them to move freely across Europe and to operate tax-free. In addition, as Andy Hill wrote for GB Times, “The rise in power of the Templars went [hand] in hand with an impressive fundraising campaign, under which people, some of them kings, donated vast sums of land and wealth to the order.” Like many medieval monastic orders dedicated to material simplicity, the Templars soon found themselves with the embarrassment of riches, which they shrewdly used to protect pilgrims from the dangers of carrying large amounts of gold on their journeys by creating the first international banking system.
The story of the Knights’ demise is fascinating, but too complicated to tell here. The Knights were disbanded and many burned at the stake due to charges of immorality and heresy, in part surrounding their secretive initiation rite. The truth of the matter is debated to this day, but the seeming injustice of the event started rumors that the Knights hadn’t truly died out but rather went underground.
Enter the Jedi. The Star Wars prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III) tells of the demise of the Jedi, betrayed by one of their own and the corrupt emperor of the very government they had sworn to protect. By the time of the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI), the Jedi have drifted into legend. Many people, such as Han Solo, even doubted the existence of the Force. In The Force Awakens, the new heroine of the series, Rey, at one point exclaims that she thought Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi and hero of the first films, “was a myth.”
When she and ex-stormtrooper Finn meet Han Solo and his sidekick Chewbacca, Finn asks Han what he knows about the location of Luke. “There were a lot of rumors. Stories. People who knew him best think he went looking for the first Jedi temple,” Han explains. To this, Rey replies in disbelief, “The Jedi were real?” Han continues, “I used to wonder about that. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the Dark Side and the Light. The crazy thing is … it’s true.” The effect would be like learning that all the modern-day conspiracy theories about the Knights Templar were actually true.
The parallels with the Templars don’t stop at the Jedi’s unjust demise or the fact that Luke “went looking for the first Jedi temple,” either. According to Peter Konieczny, Star Wars creator George Lucas even originally named them the “Jedi Templar” rather than the Jedi Knights.
While the fascination with the Templar today is often for more nefarious reasons (supposed international cover-ups, rumored occult ties, and so on), the fascination with the Jedi seems based on the best aspects of the Templars: They were a group of people who devoted their lives to training in virtue in order to promote peace and justice. In our own world, which is no less fraught with war and oppression than the Middle Ages (or a galaxy far, far away), the idea of the Jedi speaks to a deep desire in the human heart not only that a higher spiritual and moral order would exist throughout the universe, but that there should be real people, not just myths or legends, who actually devote themselves to it and live it out.
Along these lines, the story of the search for Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens also recalls the story of a monk who lived long before the Templars: St. Antony of Egypt (d. 356). He began his life as a monk living on the edge of his town, seeking virtue in solitude. But too many people came to him for prayer and advice, hearing rumors of his holiness. So, from there he moved to an abandoned fortress in the desert. But even there people would journey out to him, if only to receive his blessing through the closed door. Finally, at the end of his life, Antony’s cell was located in a cave on the top of a mountain. And even then, he could not escape the many people who were attracted to his holiness.
St. Athanasius, Antony’s biographer, wrote:
For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Antony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of God no one will deny. For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who maketh His own known everywhere….?
Following Antony’s example, Athanasius says that the desert became a city of ascetics, “a land set by itself, filled with piety and justice.”
At the end of The Force Awakens, Rey finally finds Luke Skywalker, living, like Antony, as a hermit on the top of a mountain. (The scene was filmed at Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient Celtic monastery.) And like Antony, Luke couldn’t stop people from hearing about him and wanting to meet him. Whether the Star Wars galaxy will become “filled with piety and justice” remains to be seen, but the lesson is clear enough: Even today, many hope for and seek out those who devote themselves to a life of virtue.