Bones On The Altar

I tucked the keys in my pocket and climbed the stairs to the remnants of the small stone church. I’m generally not inclined to wander the ruins of churches, monasteries, or castles. But this is one of the few remaining early Catholic Churches from the time when practitioners knew that God was in them and every living thing – before they were told to believe that God was only to be found in the doctrine and structures of the Church. This turning from St. John’s teachings to those of St. Peter would change the inner and outer landscape of Ireland entirely, and not for the better. I wanted to know, to feel, whether the residual energy of the church would echo this early wisdom. It did. With yellow flowers growing from the tops of the walls this stone sanctuary held a presence of peace and harmony. It was a lovely place.

image

Down the hill and across the road were the ruins of a massive monastery originally built at the same time as the church to house 300 monastics. War, politics, and advancing Church doctrine would destroy the original structure and intention, replacing both with a larger, more hierarchical, celibate, penitential, and generally more grim institution. It was a grim place.

Making my way still further up the hill I used the keys to enter the padlocked gate of the walled enclosure and arched double doors of the small chapel. Walking softly over the dusty floor and tile fragments I approached the altar and stopped short. Lying on the altar were several long slender bones. I couldn’t tell whether they were human or animal but I could sensed they reflected the same discordant and stirred up energy that was coming from the enormous stone slab attached to the adjacent wall. The English inscription and dates, in contrast to the Latin inscription on the altar, proclaimed this imposing plaque to be in honor of a seventeenth century English overlord. An arrogant gesture of domination. A declaration in total disharmony with the much older chapel.

Just to the left of the altar was a low ceilinged passageway and narrow stone stairs that spiraled up to the only remaining anchorite cell in Ireland. Getting to the second story cell required a stooped posture and I wondered if this wasn’t intentional as I imagined those who made this holy one way journey so many centuries ago. Those who entered would never leave again, dedicating the rest of their lives to prayer. The small windows built into the thick walls opened up a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape. However those who resided within would have taken a vow to never again go outside. Never again to step into that landscape.

I could feel the peace of this joyful willing sacrifice. I caught myself. I was seeing this as a sacrifice but it was far more likely that those who inhabited this cell considered it an honor and privilege. As I stood next to one of the windows in the nine foot square room I breathed in the peace of this space. Yet being here for the rest of my life was something completely beyond my imagination. When I sensed the female presence of one of the anchorites I was reminded that women and men were equally engaged in the early church. I smiled and offered her a prayer of deep gratitude before bending to make my way down the narrow stairs.

Whether physical bones on the altar or metaphorical bones of conquest, neither could remove the sacred energy of this place. Of this landscape. Of this land.