COMMENTARY: Rocks and witness

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant, managing large-scale database implementations. He lives in Durham, N.C.)

LA MADDALENA, Italy _”Want to climb those rocks with me?”asks my 7-year-old son, after simply sitting beside the Mediterranean loses its appeal.

Off we go to an inviting stand of rocks beside a sandy cove on the western side of this little island near Sardegna. We work our way up, around and over strangely shaped, sand-colored rocks. The higher we go, the more we see of this seven-island archipelago and the ancient sea surrounding it.

What force of nature sent these rocks bursting through the water’s surface? Or was it the other way around: a mountain range suddenly flooded until only the tops of peaks stood above water? What, then, lies beneath the calm that once bore Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Spanish, Italians and now ferry boats?

Across a small inlet we see a little house and head toward it. The stone house turns out to be one room, with a door in front and a small, barred window in back, a covered patio and a chimney.

In a garden out front, tall pieces of rock have been stood on end and cemented in place, creating an effect like Easter Island. We see no other signs of recent habitation, just the stone house and its garden of vertical stones.

To what do these stones testify? An owner’s whimsy, some local custom that we haven’t encountered yet, or something religious? There’s no way to tell. We can examine them, but it is unlikely we will ever understand them unless some human voice explains.

In the early Christian era, believers were witnesses. Through their lives, their words and their steadfastness under trial, they testified to the saving grace of Jesus. Events that might otherwise have sunk beneath the surface of memory remained alive. Good News that might have lost its pungency after a generation or two gained momentum. A band of frightened stragglers became an army of saints, who spread throughout the known world carrying the banner of Jesus.

Later, from an impetus that probably reflects human nature more than anything else, believers became builders of structures and custodians of permanent spaces. They began to let their stone walls and statuary speak for them.

To this day you can visit the ancient sites of Christianity and find majestic church buildings, architectural wonders far more grand than anything else built in their times. You can see remnants of everything from crude statues to breath-taking sculptures like those of Michelangelo. Humankind has a deep need to make the abstract concrete, to leave a permanent mark where mystery occurred.

Sometimes the walls and statues speak. But their testimony is vague. Even a work as profound as the”Pieta”might speak to the sculptor’s genius, or to his deep faith, or to the faith of his patron, or to a biblical moment, or to the wealth of the church that houses the blissful statue of Mary.

The buildings _ not just in Europe, but in the cities, suburbs and towns of America _ to what do they bear witness? I wonder if a nonbeliever could look upon our stone and see anything of Jesus.

Could these stones ever tell of his birth, or of his gentle healing of an enemy’s child, or of his stern words to distracted disciples? Could the walls and statues retell the parable of the prodigal son, or convey the horror and yet the glory of Calvary?

How would anyone know the tomb was found empty just by looking upon these shards of granite, limestone and brick?

Then and now, witness comes only from people, from human voices that tell the mighty deeds of God and relate especially how those mighty deeds are still happening.

The brass we polish says little. The stones we maintain so faithfully say little. Our buildings, by themselves, bear witness to little more than good taste, deep pockets and steadfast maintenance committees.

We alone can bear witness.

It takes a human voice to explain the God who touched the life, who bowed in thanks and told another, who found a stone and built a shrine, which yearns to say,”I mark a spot where grace flowed down.”


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