The Sight of Old Stones
Finding God in Stonehenge.
My kids had a week off from school earlier this month, and we decided to visit Stonehenge. The bigger kids and I had been to the stone circle before, but we hadn’t explored the wider area, and the Spouse and the youngest hadn’t been there at all, so it seemed like a good educational trip. Something old, something new.
We prepared before we went, reading books and getting ready. The youngest decided to build his own Lego-henge on the kitchen table which his sister dutifully photographed, printed and glued into their research notebook. This turned into a wonderful higgledy-piggledy collection of notes: geology, history and legend, hand-drawn comics and questions with no satisfactory answers, which was only fitting. Because Stonehenge and the other surrounding Neolithic monuments are so ancient and no written or oral histories reach back far enough, there is so much that we don’t know. In the 1990s, archaeologists discovered that it was a full thousand years older than previously believed. Centuries of scholars have framed their questions and theories and even now, we can only answer why and how and who with speculation.
Long before the stones were raised, the circled earthwork was a cremation cemetery and the surrounding landscape is marked with ancient hill graves. As we walked through this landscape, we wondered together about the people who came before – who were they, what did they hope and what did they believed about the past and the future? Above us, the sky was windy and wide with changing clouds. The kids ran on across the grass, and we all posed for photographs, then put our hands in our pockets to keep warm.
We were all, one way or another, struck by the size of the place. The Spouse was surprised by the compactness of the stone circle. Our daughter hadn’t realized just how tall the stones stood: four-and-a-half-daddies tall! A clever bit of measurement on her part, and for me, that brought home the magnitude of physical work behind building this monument. Our youngest simply and predictably loved the wide space where he could run freely. But the memory I’ll carry is of our ten-year-old who stood speechless in the Neolithic ditch. He couldn’t quite believe that this groove in the earth had been dug out five thousand years ago by people using deer antler picks. It was amazing, he said. Wonderful. Incredible. His eyes shone and he stood with the wind in his hair and his feet firmly planted on the ground.
A THIN PLACE
Later in the afternoon, we visited Woodhenge, another Neolithic site in the area, though one without Stonehenge’s fame and legend. There isn’t much to see at Woodhenge; the banks and ditches have been flattened by centuries of ploughing but in the 1920s aerial photography showed circles of dark spots in a field of wheat and when the area was excavated, ancient post holes were discovered. One theory is that the prehistoric people built in stone for the dead because it would last, and for the living, they built in wood. Today, concrete markers show where the wooden posts stood.
We read all this on the historic plaque at one side of the field and our children started another running game, but then we noticed the man sitting silently in the centre of the ring. He leaned against one of the posts, his face turned up the sky, and in that moment, this wasn’t museum monument anymore. This was an old place, a thin place, a place of prayer. That felt familiar. We know about places like this. And it didn’t matter that the history was vague and we didn’t really understand why this specific place had been important. It had been a place of people, and we could see it still was. People come here looking for meaning, searching for God however they might.
We are used to looking for God in our traditions and in our inherited stories. We find God in the quiet of our hearts or the busy actions of our days. Sometimes, God can seem distant and hard to see, but then there are the moments when we are surprised by God’s nearness. Walking through that open place, thinking of the depth of time and how the same light passes through stone pillars and stained glass, it felt good to be reminded that God comes close to those who search.