Friday, September 30, 2005

Too many Crosses?

On the way from Riga to Vilnius, we visited Šiauliai to see the Hill of Crosses. We got a bus out of town - back the route we'd just come, in fact - and then walked for half a mile or so. Getting off the bus we met a couple of students from the local university. She spoke English, which Peter and I can manage, and he also spoke in Russian to Trevor, which he's rather good at by now.

As we chatted and walked along the tree-lined road, we neared a low hill which rose from the flat farmland. Gradually we saw it was literally packed with crosses and crucifixes of all shapes and sizes. Small tracks wove through this thicket, and a broader path let to the top of the hill.

Originally locals had placed crosses to commemorate those who had died during the Soviet repression. From time to time the Soviets removed them, but people brought more - it became a symbol of Lithuania against the regime. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it grew, as people from further afield brought their own crosses (or bought them from stalls at the site), and added them to the hill.

I have rarely felt so protestant as when I looked at the sea of crosses. It was hugely impressive, and I felt a sense of how much oppression and how many victims there had been. But the jostling religious symbolism and the souvenier stalls by the fence left me uneasy. I couldn't help reflecting that there was only one cross that mattered. Hanging crosses on crosses, simply because that is what pilgrims are expected to do, seemed to miss the point - maybe even to obscure the uniqueness of the One.

The hill has become a site of pilgrimage and an attraction - even Pope John Paul II came, and addressed huge crowds. I'm not sure if it's about the original victims any more. There is no longer a Soviet Union to defy, though Russia still seems like a threat to many. In spite of the crosses, I don't think it's about Christ either. I think perhaps it just IS. But just being there, in its sheer scale and detail, it's an arresting sight. It made me pause and reflect. But spirituality is more than just reflecting occasionally, isn't it?.

We'd promised to email the photographs to the couple we met. Unfortunately, when my organiser was nicked in St Petersburg, so was the email address. If you do see this Regina, contact me and I'll send you them...

1 comment:

Flaming Firegeni said...

welll...that is true. But sometimes I think the modern church has forgotten all about the value of symbols and icons, and the power they have to stir something deep inside.

I can see the point of too many crosses, but what I like about it is the symbolism of the place that made people respond to it.

Maybe people need places like that they can come to and bring their deepest needs symbolically. I guess that is something I like about the Catholic church.

Back home all our Catholic churches are open throughout the day, and some through the night too. And you can always walk in, and sit quietly to pray. I have always found people in there, some of them standing at the foot of a cross or statute, some kneeling at the altar, some just sitting and looking at the cross.

I think we are creatures of symbols and they are potent in some way - as per a wedding ring or an engagement ring. After all Jesus himself instituted one of the central symbolic rituals in the church - of bread and wine.

But yeah - it is only one cross that matters and the Unique one, and this site seems to lose that sense of the Uniqueness of the Cross of Christ. Maybe they should have found another symbol.

And yeah spirituality is more than just reflecting occasionally, but :( unfortunately many of our churches and christian activities are not geared towards reflection or meditation but are full of sound and fury ;)