Mountains, Monuments and Memories
Cairn /kern/ n. a mound or stack of rough stones used as a memorial or landmark, usually on a hill or skyline.
People of various cultures around the world have been stacking stones for thousands of years. Often these stones are used as a signpost. A reminder to turn here or there. A directional to help travelers find their way or warn of possible dangers. Sometimes a cairn is used to cover and bury the dead. Other times the cairn is astrological in nature.
The word cairn derives from the Gaelic word càrn. In Scottish tradition it’s said that before a battle, each man in a clan would carry a stone and place it in a pile. Those surviving the battle would remove a stone. The remaining stones would be left as a memorial to those who were lost.
They stacked stones.
In the book of Joshua chapter 4 there’s a story of the Israelite nation crossing the Jordan River into the land promised them by God. Their leader (Joshua) instructs one member from each of the twelve tribes to gather a stone from the middle of the Jordan and carry it with them. That night when they made their camp, they were to take the stones and place them in a pile. You see, the Lord had stopped up the flow of the river allowing the people to cross over safely. So these stones were to serve as a memorial, a reminder of God’s presence on that very spot, at that very moment, at work in their lives.
They stacked stones.
Now, as modern people we can choose to believe or not in the presence and power of a God at work in the Universe. But even if we do, very rarely do we stack stones in memorial.
Sure, as a community we build monuments to commemorate soldiers or battles. We build statues for national heroes or famous athletes. Skyscrapers and bridges are built and named for corporations or politicians. We even build grand churches and cathedrals.
But as individuals? Stacking stones? To commemorate God’s presence at work in our lives?
What about this…
Think of that t-shirt you wear. The one of your favorite band. The one you bought at the concert you’ll never forget.
Or the selfie on your phone. Or maybe it’s the screensaver on your laptop. Of you and your spouse at the beach, on a hike, or at a wedding. The selfie you took to remember a time you’ll never forget.
Maybe it’s a pair of shoes that you can’t bear to get rid of.
A necklace you never take off.
A favorite toy.
It’s probably something so small, so worn out, so well loved, that it would seem completely insignificant to anyone else.
But to you it’s everything.
My stack of stones is a song.
Last night I drove up to Foothills Parkway in the Great Smoky Mountains to watch a meteor shower. I wasn’t the only one with that bright idea as every parking area was full of cars. Couples with camping chairs. Parents with kids and telescopes. Teenagers in the beds of pickup trucks. And motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.
As I leaned against my car, straining my neck to take in the full night sky, I felt a slight breeze. And I couldn’t help but remember.
Another breeze, on another night. Whispering through the trees and brushing my face.
Clouds floating by silently in the moonlight.
Planes in the distance circling a runway.
Lightning too far away to hear the thunder.
There’s an idea that while quite popular in early Celtic Christianity was rejected by the church in Rome, so it’s existed only in the teachings of mystics and philosophers. It’s called panentheism. And it means “God in all things.”
To believe that, to live like you believe that, changes everything.
Suddenly, every moment becomes an encounter with the living God. Each interaction, from the most grandiose to the most mundane, becomes an opportunity to experience the divine.
Sometimes those moments are found underneath the stars. At the top of a ladder. At the top of a mountain. But sometimes they’re found on the way back down, in the dark, on a winding road, listening to a song.
As I leaned back against my car, craning my neck to scan the night sky for a falling star, I had one more thought.
Moments are fleeting. They don’t last forever. So, we’d better make the most of each one while we can.
And if we’re lucky, and we see a falling star, maybe just maybe, our wishes will come true.
May you see and fully experience each divine moment of your life. May the cairns you build be constant reminders of God’s work. Reminders of love, and joy and peace.
Editor’s note: As I said, every divine moment is uniquely our own. And the cairns we build reflect that. One person’s prized Motley Crue t-shirt is another person’s old dust rag. That said, since I shared my stretch of road, I might as well share the song too. …Song For Zulu