Stonehenge has long held a fascination for me and for my husband, especially in recent years as he has been researching the significance of cosmological alignment in the New Testament writings of Paul. We wondered if we would sense the spiritually charged atmosphere there that led people of ancient times to carefully erect these massive stones into their set pattern of alignment with the stars. Though this ancient site is internationally renowned as a sacred portal between heaven and earth, I found myself as spiritually impressed by the stones as were the flock of sheep that stood nearby grazing impassively.
In a similar but different vein, the island of Iona is a place we had long dreamed of visiting. Pilgrims still flock from around the world to visit this sacred site from which Columba introduced Christianity to Scotland, the Book of Kells was created, and generations of priests and kings were nurtured. I expected to be deeply moved by walking near stone high crosses that have been pointing pilgrim’s eyes heavenward for almost 1,000 years and by worshipping in the stone abbey where countless generations of saints have experienced close encounters with God. But as much as I enjoyed visiting these historic stones, they were just that for me: places of reminder, places of the past, but not places that aroused my soul or brought a closer connection between my spirit and God’s.
I have plenty of room in my theology for sacred places and sacred stones.
We meet God at the rocks because that’s where we cry out for help.
Abraham repeatedly set up altars at the sites where he experienced the presence of God’s Spirit in powerful ways. These stones marked the sacred spots where he and his descendants after him would be able to return and encounter God anew. Who could have foreseen that the most seemingly random of these wilderness sites, where he almost sacrificed his son Isaac, would end up becoming the temple mount of Jerusalem over 1,000 years later?
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.
Jacob recognized the significance of the stone he had randomly selected as a travel pillow during his flight from his homicidal brother. One night’s sleep on it revealed to him a ladder-like portal between heaven and earth. Angels running up and downstairs to intervene in the world of desperate mortals? No wonder he named it Bethel and erected it as a standing monument to mark such a sacred space, one that he would be sure to return to for further help and direction.
He cried out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf, and the LORD answered him. …
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”
1 Samuel 7:9-12
And Samuel erected his Ebenezer stone as a standing reminder of God’s spiritual presence and tangible intervention at a particular point of need.
People have been meeting God at the rocks for as long as we have felt our need for help, for external intervention from a source that is greater than we are.
And the case is no less true for me.
“On the rocks” spirituality gets expressed in desperate invocations and terrified litanies.
Although the rocks I travelled miles to see did not do it for me, the rocks that I encountered later that night in Iona did. Taking advantage of the extended twilight of a summer’s evening in the far reaches of the North Atlantic, I grabbed my trainers and set out for an exploratory run around the island. Ethereal Celtic hymns floating through my earbuds matched the ancient beauty of the rocks, the sea, and the last traces of a spectacular sunset. Low tides and uninhabited tracts of stunningly rugged land allowed me to run along unhindered as I ambitiously attempted to circle the entire island.
I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock…
In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.
He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. …He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.
For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? …He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.
…you stoop down to make me great. You broaden the path beneath me, so that my ankles do not turn.
The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God my Savior!
Psalm 18:1-2, 6, 16-19, 31-33, 35-36, 46
But what a precautionary glance at a map would have shown me was the precipitous rock mass that I would encounter three quarters of the way around the island. At first I took it as one more delightful obstacle to clamber over, but as the summit of each ridge only provided a view of another steeper, rockier one, my heart began to sink. Darkness was setting in fast and I was alone on what now felt to be dangerous, unfamiliar terrain. I kept pressing on, hoping that the next rise would reveal the familiar grassy slope where my family were snuggled up inside the warmth of our white-washed B&B, oblivious to my predicament. But the reality finally dawned that I was stuck: too dark and steep to go forward, too late to make it back the way I had come. Panic stricken, I cried aloud to God to help me as I turned back, scrambling over sharp rocks and running recklessly through peaty bogs. The floating, peaceful lyrics no longer fit the moment: my spirituality was one of desperate invocations and terrified litanies.
In God’s kindness, He brought me back to flat land before dark, to the cottage before I could no longer see my way. But that night the rocks of Iona, the ones on the other end of the isle from the high crosses and sacred abbey, became for me sacred rocks, because there I encountered God.
Whether in the rocks of history or on the rocks of life, God is most present when we are most needy.
Meet Him at the rocks.