One of the many stones I have taken from vacation spots sits on our West Shore altar right now.
It’s from the shore of Lake Michigan, when I was still in seminary all of 20+ years ago. It’s sizeable, bigger than my fist, and it has a vein of quartz separating top from bottom. As if a kind of horizon line. I remember when I first saw it—why I took it. It made me think of heaven and earth. It brought to mind the sacred teaching about how heaven is already here on earth, how the sacred is already within the everyday. But what also came to mind, side-by-side with the sacred teaching, was my experience of how, very often, it seems that heaven is anywhere else but here and now.
Side-by-side, the two thoughts came to me when finding this stone upon the shore of Lake Michigan, when I was early in my ministerial formation. And I felt the weightiness of the need for spiritual healing. I felt the weightiness of the ministry I felt called to do.
I took that stone home as a solid reminder.
I put it on my shelf as a challenge with gravitas.
It was a sacred stone to me, and it continues to be sacred all these years later.
I found it while on vacation. Does that resonate with you? For example, have you ever been on the last day of a holiday–say it was somewhere outdoors in nature–and you just didn’t want to leave because that holiday was a doorway into Joy and Peace? You loved what you were experiencing, and you knew that whatever else life may bring, there is something so very true about those sweet moments. You just didn’t want to forget upon returning home and being re-introduced to the mayhem of ordinary life. So, being outdoors, you took a stone home with you–or maybe three or four….
Ever done that? As a way of reminding yourself that the world is constantly changing, but the Sacred has genuine solidity and power to anchor you? Weather comes and goes, oh yes. Emails come and go. Cleveland Browns come and go. But Peace and Joy are forever—or at least we want to believe that…
Because we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
Everywhere and always, we have surrounded ourselves with sacred objects so as to remind us that, yes, we are indeed spiritual beings having a human experience.
And, often enough, the sacred objects we surround ourselves with are made of stone.
There are so many kinds of them. We could talk all day long.
How about the kind of sacred stones we call crystals—crystals used in alternative healing modalities? Many ancient cultures — including Egypt, Greece, and China — believed that crystals have healing properties. The claim is that crystals soften and dissolve energy blockages and promote the flow of good energy leading to physical and emotional benefits. Clear quartz, for example, is considered a master healer and believed to support the entire energetic system. Jasper is said to provide support during times of stress. Obsidian is believed to help process emotions and experiences and aid in letting go. Amethyst is used for healing, purifying, and enhancing willpower.
And on and on.
Is the sacred power actually in crystals? Or is it more a matter of the “placebo effect?” People who argue for the placebo effect will say that crystal power is not really about anything inherent in the crystal itself. It has more to do with the power of belief. If you genuinely believe that interaction with a certain crystal can positively impact your physical health, then it really can happen. Bring a certain expectation to your chosen crystal and reality will follow suit.
Does this mean, then, that the amethyst crystal I have also brought today and set on our altar will heal you (assuming you want that?). Well, just by bringing up the whole “placebo effect” possibility, I might have actually undermined my amethyst’s “power.” Placebos work best when you don’t know they’re actually placebos….
Whatever your beliefs about crystal healing, one thing is for sure: the physical objects upon which we confer sacred authority—even if there’s no power intrinsic to them—become ways we clarify our intentions, ways we focus our priorities and energies.
What is inner must be given outer expression.
As within, so without.
Even more controversial is another kind of sacred stone. Or I should say sacred stones. Really really big ones: the sun, the eight planets (yes I am stubbornly including Pluto), and the moon. Astrology is the theory that these immense stones in their motion through space have sacred power in them to say something meaningful about individual human beings. The potentials you and I were born with. Our strengths and weaknesses. Future life events that will be important.
Now, mention astrology and most people will think of daily horoscope articles. One online article I looked at just this morning tells me that, since I am a Pisces (born between February 19 and March 20), I’ll likely receive positive news about a corporate endeavor, special event, or promotional campaign. Okaaaaaay….. But this is just “sun-sign astrology.” It’s just about where the sun is in the sky and what that is supposed to mean. From the perspective of astrology as a whole, this is like trying to craft a letter to someone using only three keys on the keyboard. Sun-sign astrology is truly that limited. The fuller astrological picture for any given person must also consider where all the other solar system bodies were at the moment of your birth (not just the Sun but also the Moon, together with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto); this, together with the angles they make with each other; and then on top of all this, their individual connections with the signs and houses they all occupy. These details might not make much sense, but the main point is simply that the genuine practice of astrology is truly sophisticated and something that most people are not at all familiar with.
Most people also do not believe. But I would look at Carl Jung’s take on astrology as a classic example of the workings of synchronicity. And, in any event, disbelief cannot erase the historical fact that, to the ancients, the sun, moon, and planets provided people a basic orientation to life. It satisfied their deep desire to know who they were and where they were going in a cosmic, sacred sense….
We have always been and will always be spiritual beings having a human experience.
Think back to the slide show from earlier, where we saw other outstanding examples of sacredness in stone:
From 5000 years ago: Stonehenge, coming out of a prehistoric culture that left no written records behind. For them Stonehenge was for sure a burial site for the dead, and its stones were laid out so that, come solstice time, the sun would be aligned with the stones in exact and dramatic fashion. Theorists speculate on other purposes: to be a symbol of peace and unity, to be a central site for physical and spiritual healing. Today it may indeed be a tourist trap, but long ago the mystery wrapped up in it must have been completely compelling–so much so that workers transported the 125 ton, 13 foot tall standing stones 150 miles from quarry to the Stonehenge site.
Can you imagine?
But when you want to make sacredness manifest, put it in stone. The heavier the better.
Over and over again, the world’s various religious traditions demonstrate this. Uluru, also known as Ayer’s Rock, is a rock formation in Central Australia and it is the center of the mythic world to the aboriginal Anangu people. Then there is the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, from 2500 years ago, sacred to Muslims and Christians and the geographical center of Judaism. Then there is the Black Stone in the Ka’ba, located in Mecca, which is Islam’s cosmic center, and to which 1.5 billion Muslims the world over point themselves when they do their five-time-a-day devotions.
A personal favorite is Chartres Cathedral in France—specifically, its labyrinth, built in the 1200s. Walking a cathedral labyrinth was a substitute for going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Not everyone could make the long and arduous journey to the Holy Land, so walking a labyrinth in a church was a devotional activity. However, labyrinths actually precede Christianity by thousands of years and have always served as a technology of the sacred—by that I mean something material that supports spiritual intentionality. And I’m happy to say that you can have your own chance to explore the labyrinth on January 1 of 2023, because on that day a portable labyrinth will fill Baker Hall.
We’ll start the new year off right with a special Labyrinth Walk event on that Sunday from 10am to noon. Be on the lookout for more information as we get closer to the date!
But I especially want you to know about a sacred stone environment that precedes all of these. It’s the oldest known temple on earth, dating 6000 years before Stonehenge, and seven thousand years before yet another great sacred stone structure, the Great Pyramid of Giza. This site is called Gobekli Tepe. It’s in southeastern Turkey, and, as the lead archaeologist, Klaus Schmidt, says, “religious ritual, sacred space, and even the practice of pilgrimage preceded the rise of agriculture and civilization as we tend to define it. This places organized religion at an earlier point in evolutionary history than previously believed. Modern humans, “concludes Klaus Schmidt, “do not exist apart from stone, and religion itself is built upon such rock.”
Now just sit with that a bit.
Can you feel chills running up and down your back?
We are indeed spiritual beings having a human experience.
Before agriculture, before civilization, there was religion.
From earliest times, people have created objects and even total environments that are meant to remind them of their highest values and their best selves. That’s why they are sacred.
And we Unitarian Universalists—we have our sacred stones too.
The site at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts is one of my very favorites, where, back in 1845, our spiritual ancestor Henry David Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days in a cabin, engaged in an experiment in sustainable living. I really REALLY wanted to take a stone from that site…..
In another part of Concord is the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Thoreau is buried. You saw the picture. This man’s memory looms so large for us, but his tombstone is tiny. Just one word: “Henry.” I cried freely when I saw it. I put a small stone on top. It was the only thing I could do to say I love him and am grateful.
His memory is sacred.
So is the memory of someone else with “David” in their name: Francis David, the great court preacher of the first and only Unitarian King in history. This is hundreds of years before Thoreau and Walden Pond, and thousands of miles away, in the Transylvania region of what is now Romania.
It’s 1568. The brilliant Francis David has just returned to Kolozsvar after winning a debate with the leading Calvinist scholar of the time, about the nature of religious faith. That Calvinist scholar warned him, “If I win this debate you will be executed.” Francis David replied, calmly, “If I win this debate, you will be given the freedom due to every son of God.” Because David knew: faith is the gift of God. A person’s faith is their authentic way of being with the mystery, and it cannot be compelled by any external force, it can’t even be compelled by the person in question gritting their teeth and trying to force themselves to believe. It comes from a place within that’s deeper than trying, it comes from the soul, it comes from God.
For 450 years, this has been our tradition. Freedom of conscience is synonymous with who we are.
Francis David, in 1568, won the debate. At the gates of Kolozsvar, the townsfolk met him and clamored to know what happened. He starts to tell the story but the people stop him. Not enough of them can see him! Francis David, you see, was short. Too short! So they have him stand on a boulder, and that’s when he goes into impassioned oratory and inspires his countrymen and, that day, the entire town of Kolozsvar is inspired by his freedom of conscience vision and becomes Unitarian.
The boulder marks the occasion.
I saw that boulder, with a group of pilgrims from this congregation. That boulder from our history is satisfyingly heavy and big.
It is sacred.
And so are these sacred stones. These stones, which make up this building, here in Rocky River, Ohio. Here, in our 76th year, we invoke and will never stop invoking the Spirit of the Quest for Wisdom. The Spirit of a Thirst for Justice and Dismantling of Oppression. The Spirit of a Longing for Wholeness. The Spirit of a Heart for Compassion.
A Spirit so incredibly ancient, a Spirit right here and right now.
These sacred stones, that create space for the Spirit.
The Spirit of Life.
The Spirit that brings heaven to earth, and earth to heaven.
So thankful for these sacred stones.