Twenty days have passed since I started this jaunt, and I really had no idea what, if anything, it would lead to. I have covered over 2000 miles and have seen lots of things.
I am beginning to feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and I am glad I have kept notes and thoughts so that I can reflect on it at length later… but where are my thoughts leading me?
First, something that is no great surprise to me – these places are not “Holy” in the sense that they are any holier than any other place. “Holy” Island is no holier than Canvey Island or Barry Island; Iona is no more a “thin place” than Basildon or Newton Abbot; Holywell is no more holy a pool of water than a big puddle in Gloucester or Horwich baths.
They are not made “holy” by the presence – real or pretend – of the relics of a saint or an apostle; they are not made “holy” because a miracle – real or fictional – once happened on this spot; they are not made “holy” because the prayers of the faithful have “seeped” into the very walls.
God has not granted a special holiness charter to any of these places (neither has Mary.)
verses have come to mind – unbidden – that I want to reflect on some more…
Moses and the Burning Bush3 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” 5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
We don’t hear of Moses erecting a shrine here (though the Israelites do set up altars or memorials of events from time to time) – there is no sense that this is now ALWAYS to be holy ground – it is only “holy” ground in this moment of encounter. The “Holy of holies” as they wander in the wilderness is in a tent – it moves with them.
The Transfiguration17 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Jesus doesn’t go along with Peter’s suggestion – though (ironically) there is now a church on where that is alleged to have happened. There is no suggestion that this particular mountain top is any more “holy” than any other – it is (again) the encounter that is the thing…
So – what am I saying? As it happens, nothing that new! The places are not intrinsically “holy” and God has not made granted them a holiness charter in perpetuity – these places are only “holy” in as much as people have encounters with God there.
It is YOU or ME that make these places holy – not by our being there – but in our being open to such an encounter.
God is ready for such an encounter anywhere, anytime – but God is not a performing seal – we cannot force an encounter with God at the holy place of our choosing simply by showing up – we have to be open to it – and MAYBE it is true that places we intentionally designate as “holy” can be part of what we need to help us open up. At Holywell they are very careful to say that there is nothing magic in the water – it is your “intention” that counts. this is where my thinking crashes into a second idea – one that surprises me, because it is not something I expected to discover or find important – and that is the idea of RITUAL. I am beginning to wonder whether these places release something in us – because we have gone there intentionally – to engage in ritual. In days gone by, all of these places had complex rituals that the pilgrims performed in order to win their indulgence or their healing.
crawling painfully on bloodied knees
kissing relics or touching tombs
following set routes and patterns
immersing yourself a set number of times and in a particular way
I found myself imitating some of them, probably getting thm wrong – but trying nonetheless – and surprising myself in finding them to be a powerful experience of devotion. If Henry VIII ridded us of what we see so hideously recreated in Walsingham – then I say “Good on you Henry VIII!” – but in our eagerness to appear rational and sane – not least in the URC – it seems to me that we have created a very cerebral expression of faith and worship which has no real place or room for what can be very powerful physical expressions of worship and faith. We are body and mind together – it seems to me that we have suppressed the body in favour of the mind too often. Of course there are hideous dangers in these places that they become “magic” – but I suspect it is something we will never quite suppress in our desire to become wholly rational shunners of the supersticious. I have taken the opportunity to watch people at these places – and it is remarkable how – in the absence of priests to tell them what to do – people invent their own rituals. They cross themselves, they build piles of stones by the sea, they make labyrinths out of pebbles, they throw coins in wells, they bottle the water and take it home, they stand barefoot in the places where saints have been, they get up at sunrise to sit in “holy” places – or linger there until sunset, they light candles. I watched a woman today who came into the church of the Immaculate Conception in Wexford. She put her money in the box and lit four candles in the stand by the statue of the Holy Family, crossed herself and said a prayer. She then wandered down the aisle and put money in another box and lit four candles in the stand by the statue of Jesus, crossed herself and knelt to pray. To me – one candle would have done the job. I wondered if the prayers before the holy family were different than the ones before Jesus on his own – and if so, how to choose which ones to say where? It was incomprehensible to me – BUT, to her, this is a ritual that means something and that feeds her faith and her prayer life.
8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
Seemingly irrational and pointless ritual seems important to Elisha – Naaman thinks it’s daft… but we all know what happened… So – that’s where I am – a bit of a jumbleof thoughts, not well thought-through yet, and unresolved, but I wanted to at least start the process of writing about it as that helps organise and clarify my thoughts. I am feeling in my head for something that is not really taking shape yet… some way of creatively engaging what ritual and “holy” places do for us in the regular worshipping life of an average URC. Can you invent ritual (it seems they did in the middle ages – wholesale!) – or must it emerge naturally? (the Celtic Saints often merely appropriated the rituals that were already happening and “christianised” them.) If rituals can be appropriated – then what 21st century rituals can the church appropriate and “christianise”?