And if I pass by here again, I’ll be able to see
My life was scattered like these stones but then the Lord began to gather me
I built an altar in this field in honour, in memory
Of the many graces I’ve been shown and the ones I’ve yet to see
And so I leave this symbol fashioned by my hand
The marker of a love that I will never understand
When I’m walking in the wilderness perhaps the Lord will lead me here
To this altar in the field where I’ll remember....
I keep a small pile or stones by my book shelf. They are a collection of odd shapes and sizes, and each stone calls something to memory.
Stones have that quality of permanence; they will be around longer than we are. In wayfaring, a touch stone serves as a stationary marker along a pathway that you will pass by and remember. Because it does not change, a touch stone tests the worth of those things that do. What is different since you last passed by will help you to gauge and reflect on your journey.
My stones in a private way, mark my own passages. I have a red rough stone carried home from the Dead Sea plain which is not the wilderness of sand you might imagine. Rather, it is home to sharp red stones which are not kind to the feet. When I got lost there for three days, I put a stone in my backpack. I said to myself if I get out of here alive, I will keep this stone as a reminder.
I also have a very square cobblestone. It is amazing to me, that within its core, the particles of stone orient themselves such that, when you strike a blow, the stone will segment along the lines of a geometric form. Cobblestones end up almost perfectly square. They line a street that will withstand the throes of time and the passage of many travellers.
I went to East Berlin around the time that the Berlin wall was coming down. There was still quite a divide between east and west, and the difference could be marked in basic prosperity. The West Berlin side was tidy and modern, while the east side was still pocked with the marks of war, bullet holes in walls, with portions of cobblestone strewn about as if a bomb had gone off just yesterday. I wondered if those were the streets upon which my mom’s brother rained down bombs in the last dregs of World War Two. I thought to take one, because it seemed that someone should remember something so dramatic had taken place there.
I also have some very black and perfectly round stones, polar opposite to the cobblestones. They come from the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, Ireland. It is a wild and magical kind of place that seems like it should exist only in a fairy tale.
The islands you would think to be uninhabitable. You wonder that anyone would want to live there. And yet, I too am drawn to this wild and austere place. Like the desert, such places have a way of taking you to the core of experience, where all extras are taken away. It is remarkable to find yourself in a lonely place, where only stones have survived. There is something spiritually cleansing about life without the excess. Rocks are silent and at the same time, they shout forth wisdom.
One of my stones has an odd meaning known only to me. It is a piece of white limestone, worn smooth, and I placed it in my pocket walking the ramparts of the old walled city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not lacking for stones, but these particular stones had been put in place in defence, perhaps when Nehemiah commissioned the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem which had fallen to ruin. In his case, the stones meant redemption of things long since lost. According to the Bible they built the wall with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other to guard against the enemy. The walls of Jerusalem have seen much conquest. They have been rebuilt many times as an act of hope reborn, and they are still standing.
In the Bible, stones were used to build an altar, a place of sacrifice. They are in that sense other worldly. Men stop and build an altar when something momentous has occurred. You say to yourself like Jacob, “I have seen the face of God, and yet my life has been preserved.”
The last stone is from close to home, plucked from the shores of Lake Ontario, where I walk daily in the summer. It is a small flat disk, unremarkable and of the kind I have many times skipped on the water with my kids. It is not an experience of note to anybody else, but it is part of my own passage. And so I took a stone away with me.
It seems worthy of memory. I too, have seen the face of God and survived. And so I built an altar of stones….. to mark my passage.