sacred stones and sites – reflection and liturgy


Cairns, monoliths, gems.

From stones marking burial sites to medicine wheels or, more correctly, sacred hoops – from the standing stones of Europe to the sacred Vedic stones from the Krishna-Gandaki River in Nepal – from the Egyptian pyramids to Stonehenge in England and Stonehenge Wairarapa – ancient people created sacred structures of rock, revered stones as talisman or shrine, and created myths, symbols and rituals with and around them.

Among Maori, heirlooms or weapons of great status, often made of pounamu, were seen as being tapu (sacred) and having great mana (status). Stones were used as a talisman to represent and protect mauri – the vitality, or life force of living and inanimate things.

And the metaphorical concept of tatu pounamu—a greenstone door—symbolised a passageway between the territories of warring parties. Each party to the peace pact chose a hill to represent the greenstone door, which was closed to all who wanted to draw blood.

The enduring nature of pounamu symbolised the permanence of the peace agreement.

First Nations people of north America made medicine wheels, by laying stones in a particular pattern on the ground. Most have a central cairn of stones, surrounded by an outer ring of stones, then “spokes”, or lines of rocks, coming out the cairn. One of the older wheels has been dated to over 4,500 years old. Like Stonehenge, it had been built up by successive generations who would add new features to the circle.

A custom of the Jewish faith is to put pebbles on a grave. This shows that someone has visited the grave, and may have developed from the custom of writing notes to the deceased and pushing them into crevices in the headstone, just as notes are pushed into the Western Wall in Jerusalem. When no crevice could be found, the note was weighted down with a stone. In time, the paper disintegrated or blew away leaving only the stone. Thus, some began to think that leaving a stone was the custom… and so it became the custom.

The rite of laying a cornerstone is an important cultural component of eastern architecture and metaphorically in sacred architecture generally. Often, the ceremony involved placing of offerings of grainwine and oil on or under the stone: symbolic of the produce and the people of the land and the means of their subsistence. This in turn derived from the practice in still more ancient times of making an animal or human sacrifice that was laid in the foundations.

The cornerstone (or foundation stone) was the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All other stones were set in reference to this stone, determining the position of the entire structure.

Many of our Judeo-Christian stories involve sacred stones and rocks:

Jacob sleeping in the desert with a stone for a pillow; Moses’ victory song: “The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea. The deep waters have covered them; they sank to the depths like a stone.” Later, Moses on the mountain where God says, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” Twice he’s given the law and commandments engraved on tablets of stone.

Young David approaching the giant warrior, Goliath, with 5 smooth stones from the stream, and minstrels singing, “David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone.” An older king David and the Psalmists, in songs of petition and praise, see safety and redemption in the rocky outcroppings, the hills and mountains.

Through the Song of Songs, the laments of Job, the warnings of the prophets, these images are repeated. Isaiah reminds the people: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic.”

Ezekiel brings the stones to life in a very personal way: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

And – Jesus’ teaching: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” and “Everyone who hears my words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

…Story upon story, generation upon generation, desert tribes and city dwellers, priests and prophets and poets, experiences of wellbeing and betrayal, exodus and promised land, are told through the artifacts of their time, the things found in their everyday lives: pebbles, stones, rocks, precious stones and gems.

What are we to make of all this?

Can we reconcile, “Hear my prayer, answer me” with “I trust you because you saved me”? Do we see ourselves as “living stones”, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood? Do the images of a desert land far away speak to us of faith and safety? Or do they further confuse: all these concepts drawn on over the years by theologians and hymn writers and interpreters?

Cleft of the rock or barricade? Refuge and strength or stone to be hurled? Rock of ages or stumbling block? Stone wall or sanctuary? Stepping stone or Tombstone?

Theologian and educator Paul Tillich taught that several concepts that seem opposites of each other are instead in dynamic tension. Some such tensions include concepts such as order and chaos, being and becoming, freedom and destiny. Instead of trying to rationalize our way through this mishmash, this midrash, of metaphor, perhaps we can hold them in creative, dynamic tension—like the stones circles of Avesbury and Aberdeenshire, the standing stones of Machriemoor and Callenish, like the Ahu Tongariki (megaliths) of Rapa Nui and the medicine wheel of Big Horn, Wyoming—both the physical structures and their meaning have been built up by successive generations.

As we continue to do.

And there’s another way to synthesize these apparent contradictions, and that’s by letting them go; not thinking about them, but instead experiencing them in our bodies. Rev Jim Burklo asks: “What if your body rolled away the stone? What if your body walked out of the tomb?’

[This section quotes from and adapts Jim Burklo’s “Finding the Body” on the Progressive Christianity website:]

He invites us to meditate on the Easter story as if we are taking part in it… because feeling the story in our bodies teaches us to roll away the stones that hold us back from ways of living. “Pushing away the stone” is a metaphor that lives both in the muscles and in the mind… There’s science behind this. The field of embodied cognition suggests that the metaphors we use in telling stories are based on our bodily experiences…

When we hear the story of the last supper, when Jesus breaks the bread, our mouths can salivate. We feel the weight of the tombstone against our shoulders. We sense the Galilee’s water under our feet. We use our bodily sensations to think about abstract concepts. Neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and linguistics now suggest that our bodies take our myths literally… These stories… body and soul together, enabling us to change objective reality for the better… when we let the best stories of our tradition get into our muscles and train us to liberate each other into life.

They bring happen in the present when we receive them into our being.

Close your eyes and relax. It’s dark. It’s silent. You are limp, unmoving. You were defeated, destroyed, ruined: crucified, dead, then buried.

That was then:  and now is nothing – empty – still – lifeless. Your muscles aren’t moving. Your mind is empty.

You stay like this for several minutes.

And now, just barely, you feel a tiny urge, just a little impulse… The urge gets stronger and stronger, the flame gets brighter and hotter inside of your body.

You feel it! You stand up and go to the stone that has sealed you in the dark tomb. You feel the stone against your hands and you push; you lean into it with your chest and arms. You feel the weight, the pressure, in your upper body. Just as the stone begins to move, you open your eyes and see the light. You take a deep breath of the fresh air…

and when you’re ready, come forward with the stone you’re holding and add it to the cairn—of memories, of burdens to leave behind. Stones on the grave of a despair we can wake up from, reminders of the stories that have shaped us, symbolic peace treaties, paving for the paths we wish to take…

Bring your stone, add your own meaning, lay it down, build it up.

It may be, when we’ve done all we can think of, it still feels as if we have a millstone around our neck; the cleft of the rock squeezing rather than sheltering; and the rock of ages too hard to be of comfort – there may be nothing left but to call, O Lord, hear my prayer – knowing that if we knock, we will be answered; if we hold out our hand, someone will take it; if we ask, we will receive.

So, our grieving can turn to grace.

The weight of belief or disbelief is rolled away, and our guilt, unworthiness and failings are exposed as an empty cave, a place of darkness now lit by the knowledge, the faith, the conviction that we are safe, and worthwhile, and renewed.

Our stony, brittle, chipped hearts, our knocked-about-by-life confidence, can be exchanged for a new heart and a new spirit. The stone rejected because it doesn’t seem to fit anywhere becomes the cornerstone – as we make meaning from our everyday, and build the sacred into the foundation and architecture of our lives.

So may it be.

Suggested Blessing at end of service: Heart stone blessing