Not just a pile of stones
By Marjorie George
Centuries ago, before GPS and instant messaging and FaceTime on iPhone, travelers in Scotland and Ireland often marked their way with stones. Big stones. As each traveler passed the marker, he or she would add another rock, until the structure was as high as one could reach. Other pilgrims passed that way and added smaller stones to the pile, in the crevices and spaces between the rocks.
Later, these “cairns,” as they came to be called, evolved into holy resting places — the rocks and stones and pebbles becoming symbols of moments in which pilgrims connected with past and future pilgrims and with God. Hopes, prayers, dreams were attached to the placing of each stone – large or little.
None of that was even remotely in my consciousness as I stepped through the door of one of my old familiar haunts several weeks ago. It was the church of my adult formation, a church I had not been in for several years. But it was all the same: the same series of stained glass windows that unfolded the story of creation; the same convex ribbed ceiling that always made me feel as if I were in the inside of the ark upside down; the same red carpet leading up the steps to the altar. There was still no altar rail separating the congregation from the white slab altar; our priest had once said the purpose of altar rails was to keep the dogs out, so we got rid of ours.
The occasion was the funeral of an old friend, and many more old friends had gathered. It was a sacred moment that traveled back through the decades, making a connection to what had been sacred space for many of us.
There was a time when my entire life was beholden to that church. All that was holy happened in relationship to that space: Cursillo, Faith Alive, Marriage Encounter, home Bible studies, young mothers’ groups. There was a time I thought I could never leave that church; and then there was a time I was called to leave that church.
They are grace-filled moments that allow us to look back at what was and how it has unfolded into what is, and sitting in my old pew was surely a moment of grace. Once my experience of holy had been confined to a particular place and particular people – but in fact that had really been the launching pad for a spiritual journey that has taken turns I could never have seen.
I carry stones from that cairn and plop them into new sacred spaces – a big ol’ wing-back recliner that hosts my morning meditations; my office at home that is carefully outfitted with my idea of creature comforts (the better to write with, my dear); my backyard of trees and bushes and water features and squirrel feeders.
In these sacred spaces sometimes the “thin veil” of which the Celts speak — that transcendent border that separates this world from the very presence of God — is parted. Past and present and future are gathered up into a holy offering; and I fall to my knees in humbleness, for I have been privy to sacred space.
Marjorie George is editor of Reflections magazine and ReflectionsOnline. Reach her at Marjorie.firstname.lastname@example.org.