We pilgrim along the forested path. I smell the peonies and primroses that border the trail. Crosses populate a little cemetery on one side of the path, their planted stones listing but not toppling, mark the graves of the holy ones. I finger the rough limestone, trying to trace the faded names.
Up ahead, a ruined cathedral emerges through the trees—a huge, wounded hulk. We walk across a clearing and into the roofless nave, now open to the sky, where a brisk wind disorganizes my hair. I look above the bare columns, up to where the flying buttresses still support the clerestory walls, and see the sun pouring through their pane-less, sightless windows. Below, the fragrance of mown grass fills all the space where stood the pews. In the apse, birds walk and peck among the weeds that grow atop the abandoned altar. All else is silent.
Long ago, workmen sweat blood building these piles—impelled by hunger, or the need to gain church absolution through penance-work. Later, ignorant armies spilled blood grappling in the night, and then the winners torched these towers, burnt the roof, and besmirched the stones.
Time floods over this place, but, like battered antique furniture, it stands timeless, and still testifies to the ancient faith, the ancient ways. People worshiped and died here, and now lie in the nearby plot awaiting resurrection. How many Christmases and Easters were celebrated here? How many hymns sung? How many prayers lifted, sins confessed, and Eucharists chanted? We kneel and pray on the hallowed grass.
Today, heedless grass-muffled feet tread here. Careless hands caress the ruined columns, unmindful of those who built these halls, tilled this garden, dug these graves. I see a father with two children running beside him.
“What mean these stones?” they ask.
The father replies, “They remind us that Godly men performed great deeds here—deeds that still touch us today.”
This place demands nothing of me, calls me to no task, and only asks that I stop here, and reflect. The stones whisper, “Traveler—go slowly here. Reflect on these crumbling walls, walk the grass-grounded halls while you consider your short, anxious life. Is it not as a vapor? Who will care? Who will remember you? Live well, for one day you too will be missing from the earth.”
So many places we tread and heed not the dead beneath our feet—their labors and longings, aspirations and desperations, losses and lamentations. God has given us these places, spaces which time cannot erase. Dare I fail to pause and ponder the power of the past? I am found here on holy ground, wondering at the mystery, straining to see the disappeared faces. I feel as if I am a fragile, transient thing, who today haunts these eternal halls. As I stop to pray and worship, I can feel all the past leaning into my present.
Reluctantly, we chastened pilgrims turn to continue our journey. It is good to have been here.