Set in stone

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 04:00am on 29th June 2015

Stone features in most of our churches, but its significance as a symbol in worship is sometimes

overlooked.  It’s there in the foundations, walls, and furniture, but it seems primarily functional.  It forms the permanent fixtures symbolising what abides for ever, unchanging.  Of course, this can be comforting or obstructive.  The stone which protects us from the elements, and sets apart a place for prayer, can build fortress walls which obscure the view of the local community.  So Marty Haugen exhorts us in his hymn All are welcome: ‘Let us build a house where hands can reach beyond the wood and stone.’


While I was Resident Musician on Iona I prayed every morning:  If Christ’s disciples keep silent: These stones would shout aloud and at one point the warden offered a fresh interpretation of these words.  He suggested we deliberately remain silent from time to time, in order hear what the stones would shout.  Hearing the stones may seem fanciful or even pagan, but perhaps you’ve visited places which have a particular atmosphere attributed to their history, joyful or oppressive.  It may seem as if the very stones have absorbed something of the experiences which have occurred there.  Speaking metaphorically, a stony silence indicates something angry and obstinate.  The stones of our churches might express something different having witnessed over the years Masses, reconciliations, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and private prayers.  When we cannot form words to pray in church, or when our words seem repetitive and superfluous, the stones symbolise the continuous flow of prayers in this sacred place before us, into which we are caught up and embraced.


So stone in church is more than functional; it is symbolic.  Milestones let us know we’re on the right path, and how far we’ve still got to go.  Gravestones are reminders of those who once walked the earth, still standing even after mortal remains have decayed, providing a marker where each person may be remembered.  Involved in services twice daily on Iona, I encountered stones used as symbols in worship in many ways:


to let go of unhelpful habits; to pick up something challenging, or reassuring; painted; washed clean; to remember someone; to notice how we are shaped by interaction with others as the stone is smoothed by knocking against other stones; to face up to something heavy or irritating (as a stone can be a burden, or annoying moving around inside a shoe); combined with others to build something, recognising our part in a bigger plan; representing violence, or on other occasions stability; reminding us of a special place; to displace water, or removing them from water; to cover or reveal something else


The imaginative use of stones as symbols may be common in informal paraliturgies, but how might it be incorporated into conventional Catholic services?  Worshippers may be asked to take a stone on their way into Mass and place it before the altar as a cairn to remember their deceased loved ones during November.  Stones could be picked up, held, then relinquished during relevant preaching.  Stones may decorate the worship space, constructing an empty tomb during Eastertide, forming a stone cross or pathway, carved as stone statues and crosses, or engraved with phrases of Scripture and prayer.  In Reconciliation services, stones may be held by worshippers throughout the examination of conscience and taken into individual Confession, then left behind to symbolise being set free from sin.  In non-sacramental rites of Penance, stones can play a part in symbolic action representing the process of confession, forgiveness and thanksgiving.  They might be placed over a beautiful picture before the service begins, then moved away and discarded to symbolise the cleansing of our sins restoring the beauty of our lives. 


Stones feature in Scripture, so can illustrate Biblical readings.  Worshippers may each hold, then drop a stone, to represent awareness of sin and judgemental attitudes, in connection with the story of the woman caught in adultery and almost stoned by her accusers until Jesus intervened (John 8:4-7).  Stones may decorate the ambo during Lent, when flowers are not used, especially when the Gospel preaches Jesus in the wilderness, whose desert conditions were described by the hymn-writer George Hunt Smyttan in Forty days and forty nights as: stones thy pillow, earth thy bed.  Stones formed a pillow for Jacob, too, on a night when he dreamt of heaven and first received the famous promise from God:


‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.[d] 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ (Genesis 28:13-15)


Jacob subsequently used the stone as a marker of this place where he had encountered God, and where he vowed to build a temple once the promises had been fulfilled (Genesis 28:18).  Matthew’s Gospel records stones splitting as an immediate consequence of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:51), following his prediction that the temple would be destroyed and ‘not one stone … will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Matthew 24:2).  Finally, Christ himself is described as a stone: a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23), the stone rejected which proves to be the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). 


Reproduced from Issue 354, Volume 41, Number 1 of Music and Liturgy, June 2015, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory

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