Not far away from it, the great stone on Bere Island is much more impressive as it presides, in local belief, on the exact physical centre of the island.
About three metres tall, it stands proudly in the middle of a field overlooking the bay, shaped like a worn spearhead, covered with millennia of flaky green sea fungus. It looks impassively east and west towards the sun’s cyclical birth and death. On dawn on Easter Sunday those of us who have been on the contemplative Holy Week retreat join with islanders and visitors around the megalith. We have had some spectacular dawns on idyllic spring days over this entrance to Bantry Bay. But also, as was the case this year, we have gathered valiantly in wind and rain to sing an alleluia before rushing back to a warm heritage centre for meditation and porridge. Oddly, it is always a sacred, moment, both sacred and silly, whatever the weather – beautiful even when it isn’t very pretty.
There’s the other stone, about a metre high, standing, actually leaning, in another field. Like some personalities in any group, it attracts less attention to itself than its extrovert relative. And, as with them, it can be misunderstood and does not easily defend itself. From one angle it seems to lean at a forty-five degree angle, rubbed against by generations of itchy sheep and cattle. The reds and greens daubed on the sheep, making them look like ovine punks, have cheered the ancient grey. It leans drunkenly. But as you walk up the road beside it, it seems to straighten up and look almost self-confident. It emits a strong silent presence.
On a walk the other day, I met the present owner of the field, a teacher from Cork who comes down frequently to the family farm to look after his sheep. I checked with him about a story I had heard about the stone. According to the legend a previous owner was building a new house when the stone caught his eye as a good lintel for his front door. He dug up the stone and put it in his house. The next morning when he came to work on it, the stone was not there. He went to the field and found it back where it belonged exactly as it had been. No successor has dared to move it again.
I like the story because the stone, true to its modesty, did not take revenge on the presumptuous farmer who thought that what was on his land was his to do with as he liked. In another legend it could have produced a curse. In this one, it evokes a knowing shared smile, extended down the generations and uniting them. It suggests a resigned acceptance of the borderline between myth and reality, fact and super-fact. Of course it’s only a story that could be deconstructed, like any story, even the story of the empty tomb and the appearances of a person who had died and yet, some claim, lives.
But there are some stories you have just to leave alone and not try to dissect. These work on your deeper imagination, illustrating what the English poet Coleridge called the distinction between Fancy and Imagination. Soap operas or thrillers feed our appetite for fantasy, fuel for Fancy, keeping us entertained and stimulated. One installment merely succeeds another. Through them we live episodically, in the moment – but not the truly present moment. Greater works of art and the stories of scripture nourish the Imagination, enriching our symbolic, sacramental ways of relating to the meaning of what happens in the story of our own lives and making us more creative in our response to them.
People at all levels of faith can relate to the story leading up to the Easter climax. It resonates psychologically with the knowledge, in our personal stories, of suffering, betrayal and death. But once the stone has been rolled away from the empty tomb we have crossed the subtle line between psychology and the spirit. Henceforth we need ritual to accompany us and make the apparently fantastical stories resonate in our creative Imagination.
It surprises me each year how the rituals of the Easter Vigil, especially the play of the mystical symbols of fire and water, speak so strongly even to those who, like many modern people, have been de-ritualised and disenchanted. Those of the islanders who come to church are at home with these rituals – sometimes, perhaps, as routines which they change very reluctantly. But like the ancient stones, big and small, these rituals stand still and are still standing. They are stronger than the scepticism that would reduce them to folktales. Saying nothing they communicate a truth that expands inner horizons and gently heals the broken-hearted.
Laurence Freeman OSB
Laurence Freeman is a Benedictine and the Director of The World Community for Christian Mediation. His daily readings for Lent are available online: www.wccm.org