by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM June 14, 2020
There’s something mysterious about stones and rocks. When I drive through the Delaware Water Gap or pass through portions of Interstate 81, I’m surrounded by this mystery as I’m bookended by mountains, mountains that have been cut open or dynamited to make way for highways. That expansive surgery exposes horizontal layers of shale and limestone and chalk and flint deposited over thousands of years, layers that are storytellers of sorts. They speak of seasons of geography and shifts in changing climates over centuries.
I pass by these exposed entrails of mountains in awe. Yet what intrigues me even more are the stones that are intact, not cut open, not revealing their secrets. I’ve had the privilege of making the acquaintance of some of these guardians and protectors in my lifetime and am humbled by their solid, silent presence.
One of these stone formations is Stonehenge, a circle of concentric rings perhaps built by the Druids over 4,000 years ago. No one can fully explain how such enormous structures could have been transported without any modern engineering equipment. When I visited this site on the Salisbury Plain, I had a long list of questions to ask. I wanted to tap into their wisdom accumulated over centuries. What have you learned, I wanted to know, as you looked out into a sea of human faces? What have you witnessed of the longing and the curiosity and the spiritual hopes of the human family over the years? Deep within your stone center, has anything moved, shifted from darkness to light, because of the hopeful, reverent, or wondering gazes looking back at you?
Another stone formation dear to me are the Dolmens, stone tables scattered throughout the Southwest of Ireland. These megalithic monuments dotting the Irish landscape may stand as memorials marking lives once lived in the rugged countryside. Again, I wanted them to give up their secrets. I felt so pulled toward their altar-like formations, so drawn by the primal energy of my ancestors, that I instinctively approached one and raised my hands in a priestly blessing.
For me, the most intimate and personal of stone formations is the Inukshuk. When I spent a week in Vancouver, British Columbia, fifteen years ago, I explored the majestic beauty of Stanley Park every day on foot. In my hiking, I stumbled upon my first Inukshuk, five stones arranged on top of one another to create something of a human form. Since the XXI Olympic Winter Games held in Vancouver in 2010, this rock formation became the symbol of the area, but at the time of my hikes was a curiosity to me.
I learned the richer story of the Inukshuk, which is more than simply a random formation of stones. In his poem, “Inukshuk,” Rob Jacques begins with a note: “On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.” What a tender, loving awareness of our shared need for affirmation. What a compassionate way of leaving footprints of hope for those who will follow later. What a beautiful gesture, especially in times of uncertainty such as surround us right now. The poet continues in the voice of those who went before and who continue to speak through the Inukshuk:
“We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.
See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a strong creation to bring you certainty
in this dreary, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of a flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.”
I wonder, what do you and we proclaim with our lives to all who will come after us?
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Reflect on a person in your life who has been an Inukshuk for you, someone who has experienced challenges yet not only endured but mentored you, cheered you on when you longed for encouragement and a sense of hope for the future.
Hold this person in tender love and gratitude.
Give thanks to the Holy One for their presence in your life.
Before COVID-19 canceled many events, I was scheduled to offer a day of rest and renewal for caregivers in the Diocese of Albany, NY and to lead a guided retreat for Sisters at Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center in West Hartford, Connecticut during this time.
All of these events have been canceled and re-scheduled but I ask you to remember in your prayer the communities and organizations that sponsored them. I applaud their wisdom and thoughtfulness in caring for the common good and ask you to pray for those who would have been part of this spiritual work.
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