By Jayne Hugo Davis
Truth be told, an altar was the last thing I expected to find at the end of a long hike. We were hot and sweaty, a bit worn out from the steep climb up the cliff side of Cinque Terre and the rugged descent to the sea below. The views of the Mediterranean had been magnificent at every turn along the trail. As the colorful houses hugging the rocky shoreline in Corniglia, where we began, faded steadily from view, reminding us how far we had traveled, the emerging roof tops and bright pastel facades of Vernazza jutting out into the blue water invited us onward, assuring us that there was much yet to be discovered.
The trail ended at the main street of the village. A small park sign pointed us to go left to the beach — at least that’s what we hoped the small drawing of a sun and shoreline below a few Italian words was trying to tell us. When a few steps in that direction led us into a cave, we began to have some doubts. But the bright light of the sun piercing a hole in the dark tunnel ahead of us and the presence of other travelers around us kept our imaginations and our weary legs moving ahead for a few more minutes.
Soon the cave opening in front of us framed a picture of the small pebble beach ahead. A place to rest, to be refreshed, to rejoice that we had finally made it to our destination.
With a large boulder for our beach blanket, we sat down and took in the beauty around us. That’s when I saw it. The unexpected altar. Off to the left in an outcropping of rocks along the shore. A stack of stones sitting atop a much larger rock, like communion trays on the communion table.
I don’t know who set out the first stone there at the water’s edge. Or who balanced the second or the third or the fourth stone on top of it, or why. By the time I arrived on the beach at Vernazza, the stack of large, smooth stones had clearly become a bit of holy ground for many. Small stones lie scattered around, like coins in a fountain, an enduring echo of their prayers and wishes.
Why was I so surprised to come upon such an altar in this place? Like many who followed the trail before me I had finished a journey that was difficult at times. I had been protected from harm, emerged from the darkness of a cave to an amazing picture of God’s creation, in the company of my husband, my companion on the journey for the last 27 years.
That’s why people build altars, isn’t it? To give thanks and to celebrate. To stand in awe of God and remember what God has done. To hope and to pray for what God will do.
The spiritual practice of stacking stones claims ordinary moments of life for God and invites those who pass by to notice the holy ground on which they already stand.
What markers of God’s presence are you leaving behind on the trail for those who come after you?
The spiritual practice of stacking stones:
Find three stones of decent size, somewhat flat. They don’t have to be huge. Ordinary rocks from the yard will do. Stack them someplace, maybe on your desk. Maybe in your house. As you stack them, assign each a meaning — a stone for something specific that God has done, a way that God has provided, something for which you are grateful or hopeful or struggling. Each time you notice the stack, remember what each stone stands for and offer a prayer of thanks.
And when someone comes along and asks you, “What do these stones mean?” tell them the story of what God has done.