Guest Writer: Elizabeth Cone Essayist, SUNY Colleague, Photographer
(for more essays by Elizabeth see http://chateaucone.blogspot.com)
On a tourist ferry boat on the way to a 12th century abbey on a tiny island in the Firth of Forth, all green hills and grey water and silvery mist around us, a man with white hair and a friendly wide open face with bright blue eyes sits next to me, on the edge of the seat, as though he’s about to get up again, and he tells me this: “I want you to know you dinna have to worry. Whatever is troubling you will be settled and over by month’s end, all your troubles, darlin’, you’ll have no worries at all.” And there is that Scottish song in his voice, and something Celtic in the air around him–something old and pagan and knowing–so I try to smile and almost believe him.
My guidebook tells me that Inchcolm Abbey was founded by Augustinian priors in 1123, but it is one of those places that I think must have been sacred even before the abbey was built on it. Walking through the ruins I can smell burnt palm, like church on Ash Wednesday, and I think it’s somehow more than hundreds of years of ashes on foreheads and “Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris.” I feel something else here. It stirs my blood and all my senses. My fingertips tingle and my hair wants to stand on end, and there are all these spots of darkness with unexpected shafts of light from bared windows in thick stone walls, as if to remind the men who lived and worked and studied and prayed here of the existence of good and evil.
My father has answers to all the hard questions, answers provided by the Franciscan brothers who taught him all the way from first grade through college, and by the priests he has heard preach in the fifty years since. But I don’t think answers are what I want.
I don’t know if what I feel is holy or magic and mystery or faith or the leftover passion of people who believed in something or even whether those are different things. But I think that sort of passion, that fervor–it has to have been absorbed for centuries by the sea and the air and the stone, and it’s emitted now like something radioactive–the presence of ancient gods and beliefs and rituals older than anything we can imagine.
There seems something so suburban about churches at home with their accidents of location. I want a church that is built on an ancient and sacred Indian site, somewhere where pacts were made with spirits, where there were sacrifices under full moons, where ancient and barbaric rituals were conducted to honor forces beyond the reach of history. I think there are places that are holy–that are magic–where there are things present that are outside our ken.
It is the language of ruins, of the remains of stone circles and abbeys, of brochs and cairns, of naves, of cannon’s choirs, chancels and cloisters, of stone arches and transepts and arcades, the shapes and textures of stone and the geometry of rose windows, that tell me things.
Stone has a half-life. Invisible waves and particles at ancient, sacred sites-the essence of monks and holy men, of druids and of prophets, of chants and hymns sung countless times-are still emitted from the stone, long ago abandoned by the temporal institutions that built them, left to ruin and reclaimed by nymphs, spirits of nature, by Dionysus, the god of wine and the fertility of the earth, or by forces so far beyond our comprehension, our language, that all we can do is call them God.