You've heard of Stonehenge, but you may not know that there are standing stones all over the Celtic lands of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man. While other cultures used standing stones, the Celts used them extensively. Scotland, alone, has over one thousand standing stones. Some are in circles, others in long lines that can go miles, and some are clustered around huge cairns used -- probably -- as burial sites back around Moses' time. Many of the stones were originally plain and then adorned later by master stone carvers of the Picts. Others were elaborately adorned but time and weather have worn them down to the point where only sophisicated electronic equipment can discern the old markings. Some have ogham script along the sides, but most of that has been lost -- again, due to time and tide.
Many imaginative theories have arisen over the years to explain why these stones were raised and placed just so all over the northern lands, but it must be said that every theory has been lacking in one way or another. Caesar said they were Druidic temples but we now know the stones predate the Druids by a thousand years. More modern theorists declare that they were astronomical observatories or calendars. "See," they whisper excitedly, "how they point just so on such and such a date!" Unfortunately, everything is pointed somewhere at some time so these theories are probably just wishful thinking.
Whatever their original purpose, enough records survive to show how the later Celts used the stones. They served as touchstones for the community, places of gathering where the people could reconnect as a tribe -- one with each other and different from all others. It was where they came to settle differences, to trade, to worship, to find brides or husbands, to set races or other competitions, or to touch base with their cultural history and listen to the storytellers (the seannachies).
We all need touchstones. They are the re-centering points of our lives. They give us meaning, or remind us of our meaning. They serve the same purpose as our to-to lists: they show us how we are doing. Touchstones comes in a stunning variety of forms. For some, family is a touchstone. For others, it can be the raising of the flag. Everytime I see that flag go up and hear the Star Spangled Banner my allergies act up and my eyes start watering... even though my people lost that war! When I see a soldier walking through the airport, it is a touchstone, reminding me that the important matters in life aren't American Idol and Paula Abdul. When I come to worship with my brothers and sisters I encounter a significant touchstone that re-centers, re-focuses, and re-aligns my life. Others use vacation spots, hobbies, favorite old books... but touchstones are important to all of us. They keep us from descending into the anonymous, grey "they." We are something and we are going somewhere and we can tell because of the touchstones in our lives.
Every year or so I travel back to the Western Isles of Scotland. I stand on the tiny island of Iona where Christianity came to Scotland and reconnect by the huge stone cross in front of the ancient abbey. I watch the ships come and go in the little harbor of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. I go the winged isle, the isle of mists -- the Isle of Skye -- and walk the cliffsides north of Portree before heading over just out of Edinbane and touching the stones. When my daughter was two I placed her atop one of the stones and took her picture. She is smiling, laughing, beaming in that photo. I saw her graduate from Lipscomb this weekend and took more pictures -- she was smiling, laughing, beaming. Touchstones.
Today is very busy. I got home at 1:30AM, was in my office by 8AM and I have tons of work to get done. But whatever else I do today, nothing will be as important as visiting the touchstones. I will pray, tell my wife I love her, hug my parrot, talk to my son, call my daughter, play a song on a guitar or ukulele. If I do not do these things I become a wanderer, a lost soul, without compass, community, or meaning.
Whatever else you do today, get to the touchstones in your life. Reconnect with the eternal.