Sacred Objects: Stones by Rev. Anthony Makar
What does it mean to be a spiritual being having a human experience?
In every place, and in every time, where people engage the depths and heights of their best and most enlightened values and aspirations—when people try to transcend—what do we find?
This is the key religious question we’re diving deep into, over the next several weeks.
And what we find, most generally, is this: people immersed in environments that are sacred to them. People surrounding themselves with sacred objects.
Here’s my definition of “sacred”—see if this resonates. And note that my definition is typically Unitarian Universalist, meaning that it seeks to grasp the essence of the word, so that atheists and theists alike might use it meaningfully, Buddhists and Jews, Christians and Taoists and New Agers and Indigenous communities as well, and on and on.
The definition can speak across the board.
Something is “sacred” when people recognize it as having authority, and in two respects: (1) authority to represent the values that matter to them most, and (2) authority to actively shape their children and themselves as they seek to realize these values in everyday life.
Sacredness is power. If something’s sacred, you go to it to be reminded of who you fundamentally are. If something’s sacred, you let it influence you to the depths of your soul, and also the people you care about the most.
Furthermore, the propensity to invest sacredness is instinctive. It comes to us as naturally as leaves to a tree.
Like S. Brent Plate’s daughter in our reading from earlier, how many of you have been on the last day of a holiday, somewhere outdoors in nature, and you didn’t want to leave because that holiday was a doorway into joy and peace and you loved what you were experiencing, you knew that whatever else life is, life is truest in these moments of joy and peace. With regret, you also knew that holidays end and the regular round of work and responsibility always begins anew. But you didn’t want to forget. You wanted a solid marker of the joy and peace you knew, as a reminder that it really did happen for you, and as a challenge to not settle for less, to have more joy and peace when you get home. So, being outdoors, you took a stone or three home with you, you put up on a shelf or a personal altar.
Ever done that?
But why stone?
Is it because you wanted your reminder to be relatively permanent? Something that has weight and solidity?
For me, the answer is Yes. Peace and Joy are sacred, and sacredness has a certain feel to it. It’s weighty, solid. It doesn’t change. The world changes around it, but the sacred stays the same. Peace and Joy are forever, but emails come and go. Traffic comes and goes. Weather comes and goes….
Stone speaks uniquely to the human spirit.
One of the many stones I have taken from vacation spots sits on our UUCA altar right now. It’s from the shore of Lake Michigan, when I was still in seminary. 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 impressed upon me with weightiness the potential distance between the two, and the sacred work of bringing heaven to earth in whatever ways we can, small and large.
I took it home as a heavy reminder.
I put in on my shelf as a solid challenge.
How many of you have ever done something like this?
To be a spiritual being having a human experience means very naturally ascribing sacredness to natural objects which we then take and surround ourselves with.
And sometimes these objects are made of stone.
But is it a pure ascription of sacredness, or is the sacredness somehow already in the things themselves?
It is said that through magical action, shamans can invest objects with energy, so that they come to be called fetish objects. But I’m not so much talking about this as crystals—quartz, lapis lazuli, obsidian, amethyst, pyrite, desert rose, and on and on—crystals whose energies are intrinsic to them and don’t need to be added. They don’t need to be added; they need to be recognized instead, understood, and used therapeutically.
That’s what proponents of crystal healing say. Skeptics invoke the “placebo effect,” and often they say this as a form of dismissal. But Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, reminds us that the placebo effect can have genuine and robust effects on physiological health. It ought to be promoted wherever possible. Why dismiss it when it works?
What do you think?
Even more controversial is another kind of stone and its purported relationship to human beings. I am talking about really really BIG stones: planets, actually. Astrology is the theory that planets (and their angular relationships with each other and with other astrological aspects, like signs) have sacred power in them to meaningfully reflect personality patterns in individuals, or to influence people’s life situations.
Now, mention astrology and most people immediately think of what’s in the newspaper or online regarding your fortune IF you happen to be born on a certain day, and you are Aquarian, or Pisces, or Aries, and so on. But this is just “sun-sign astrology.” From the perspective of astrology as a whole, this is like trying to craft a letter to your mama using only three keys on the keyboard. To send a full message, you need to consider where all the other planets were at the moment of your birth (not just the Sun but the Moon, together with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto) together with the angles they make with each other and all this in connection with the signs and houses they all occupy.
I know I’m speaking gibberish to most folks. But I say all this to be fair about the complexity of the full practice of astrology.
And again, lots of detractors. At last count, only 25% believe. Skeptics dismiss planets as having any sacred power over human affairs, or again invoke the placebo effect.
But every ancient culture in every land has developed a theory of astrology, ascribing sacred power to the huge stone we live upon and the huge stones that whirl about in our solar system. To them, these stones created a sort of cosmic cathedral in which human beings live and move and have their being. As stones do, they anchored a sense of ultimate orientation in both physical and spiritual space.
Many of us may not believe today, but it does not erase the function the planets served for our ancestors—or their deep instinctive impulse to find a solid way to give expression to the deep spiritual desire to know where you are and where you are going, in a cosmic, existential sense….
Because we are 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. Whatever the truth may be, the sacred purposes inspired workers to transport the 125 ton, 13 foot tall standing stones 150 miles from quarry to the Stonehenge site.
And no wonder. 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.
But I want you to know about a sacred 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 at bit.
Can you feel chills running up and down your back?
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
Before agriculture, before civilization, there was religion.
And people created stone environments (temples, buildings) which both (1) reflected transcendent values and (2) influenced people in their growth to live these transcendent values more fully….
That is what the sacred does.
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 Francis David, the great court preacher of the first and only Unitarian King in history.
It’s 1568. The brilliant Francis David has just returned to Kolozsvar (a city in present-day Romania) 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 secret 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 is satisfyingly heavy and big.
So were the stones in another Romanian city called Deva. Deva is where Francis David was imprisoned in a military facility high up on a mountaintop.
It was eleven years after the triumph in Kolozsvar. Francis David had been tried as guilty for “innovation,” but what really happened is that the Donald Trump of his era found a loophole in the law of the land that stood for religious freedom and used it as a way to persecute.
So off to prison for him.
Francis David was ill. He had been at a theological debate around this time and he couldn’t even stand. He died in just six months. When I was up there, standing among the stones of the military fort high up on the mountain top overlooking Deva, the winds cut through my clothes and to the bone. And it was just September. He died in November, 1579.
Together with his lifeless body, his jailers found these words scratched on his cell wall: “God is One.”
When I myself reached the fort, after a loooong climb, I found myself reflecting on all the many highpoints of Francis David’s career. Preaching from the prestigious pulpit in St. Michael’s and as court preacher at the church in Gyulafehhervar. Or, standing on the boulder right at the city gates of Kolozsvar, passionately preaching God’s love as he understood it.
Lots of high points in his life, and now the moment of his imprisonment and death which were literally the highest of all…
In a small chapel there on the site, winds howling outside, the minister of the local Unitarian church led a short worship service. He sang a song written by Francis David, said a few words. I said a few words. Then the UUCA folks I was with on the pilgrimage gathered in a circle and we sang “Spirit of Life.”
Music vibrating off the stones.
Spirit of Life, come unto me,
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion….
Sacred stones, evoking the memory of Francis David and all our martyrs and heroes and leaders over the past 450 years, all their sacrifice, all their joy.
We cannot take any of those stones. Those stones stay. But, right here, this is our circle of sacred stones—soon another space of stones will become sacred to us in their turn—and here we invoke and will never stop invoking the Spirit of Life.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free:
Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.