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 an odd collection of size and shape and they are there so as to remember.
Stones seem to have that quality of permanence, they will be around longer than you are. There is in wayfaring such a thing as a touch stone, a stationary marker partway along a path. Because it doesn’t change, it becomes a criterion to test the worth of those things that might. In human experience when you pass by a touch stone, you place your hand on it to note your passing. You feel in those moments what is different since you last came to that place. It gives you something immutable by which to gauge your journey.
My stones, also mark various passages. I have a red rough stone carried home from the Dead Sea plains. Contrary to what you might imagine, a desert wilderness is not necessarily sand. The flat plains above the Dead Sea are home to a million shards of red stone. They are not kind to the feet. When I got lost in the desert there for three days, I put a stone in my backpack. I said to myself if I ever get out of here alive, I will keep this stone as a reminder.
I also have a very square stone. It is amazing to me, that within its core, the particles of stone orient themselves in such a manner as to allow for facets. Such stones when struck with a blow, will chip off in quite exact geometric forms. Cobblestones seem to be uniform and almost perfectly square, struck with someone’s hammer to the purpose of building a street that would withstand the throes of time and the passage of many travelers.
I went to East Berlin just around the time that the Berlin wall was coming down. There was still quite a divide between east and west since the time that the wall had been built. Primarily, the difference could be marked in basic prosperity. The West Berlin side was tidy and modern, the east side was still pocked with the marks of war, bullet holes in walls, and here and there old cobblestone streets with portions strewn as if a bomb had gone off just yesterday. I wondered if those stones had scattered when my mom’s brother was raining down bombs from the sky in World War Two. I thought to take one, because it seemed that someone should remember something so dramatic had taken place there.
I have also some very black and perfectly round stones, like a 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 someone would look at them and imagine them a place to dwell. And yet, I am drawn like the inhabitants, to these wild and austere places. Like the desert, they have a way of taking you to the core of experience, alone with yourself in the world, and all the extras taken away. It is a remarkable thing to be all alone in a wild and lonely place, where only stones have survived for as far as the eye can see. There is something spiritually cleansing about life without the excess. Rocks are silent and at the same time, they seem to 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 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, “surely God has been in this place.” Some translations in the story of Jacob phrase it like this:, “I have seen God face-to-face, and yet my life has been preserved.”
The last stone I have is from the shores of Lake Ontario, where I live and walk in the summer almost daily. It is a small flat slice of stone like a disk. It is of the kind that I have many times skipped on the water with my own kids. It is not an experience of note to anybody else, but it a piece of my own passing. And so I took a stone away with me.
It seems worthy of memory. Surely I have seen the face of God and survived. And so I built an altar of stones….. to mark my passage.