“If you tink about it, tousands of years ago, humans must have tought about the afterlife and here at Newgrange, we see the evidence of generations of tat tought,” said our brilliant young female Irish tour guide at the most well known burial site in the world.
Newgrange is older than Stonehenge by at least five hundred years and protected by the United Nations for its worldwide historical significance. Two kilometers to the south stands Knowth, older still. The two temples were set aside for the cremains of clan leaders and holy men and women. Between the two sites are found thirty-three percent of the world’s Neolithic art. The artistic symbols were pecked into multi-ton stones that encircle the great burial mounds.
Newgrange took over sixty years to construct. 5,000 years ago people floated ten-ton-stones down the Boyne River and then rolled them a mile and a half up hill. The people brought quartz, “The stone of the gods,” from the Wicklow Mountains fifty miles away to cover the eastern facing façade, reflecting the sunlight. They gathered perfectly rounded granite found twenty miles from the site. These people did not burrow into an already existing hill. Instead, they hauled the turf and rock from surrounding regions to construct their holy temple. Initially, from the ground up, they constructed the fifteen-foot high and twelve-foot interior cruciform shaped crypt. The burial room has not leaked one drop of water from its completion, an architectural feat rare in rare drenched Ireland. The crypt would eventually rest at the end of a thirty-foot low narrow, rock-lined path found under the 270,000-ton mound of layers of turf and rock.
Newgrange’s light box sets the holy site apart as one of a kind. The opening of the tomb faces east. The light box was created to allow the rising sunlight of the winter solstice to cascade down the path and fill the western recess of the tomb with seventeen minutes of glory. This astrological moment only happens surrounding the six days of the shortest solstice.
At our visit we were treated to a simulation. Entering the tomb in small groups the artificial light was turned off and we stood in absolute darkness for several minutes. Slowly, the “light of the rising sun” moved down the floor and up the recess to the crypt’s ceiling. For sure, a holy moment for the wise people of ancient’s past. For a postmodern people, this was a rare glimpse into an experience practiced 5,000 years ago, the ancient and the postmodern woven together as if millennia past were just yesterday. Who did the ancients worship? What was the meaning of their art? Why did they build these holy temples? Even experts only speculate.
As I have walked across Ireland it has been a privilege to witness many glorious monuments of nature and man. Unfortunately, some of man’s testimonies to time and reverence are in penultimate decay. Ancient churches torched by Cromwell are overgrown with trees and shrubs. The Anglican Church of Ireland has more historic churches closed than open. The dying institution is not replacing the church communities and crumbling buildings. The only apparent reason the Church of Ireland can remain in practice is its vast land holdings. Though there is an obvious end to that resource because the Church continues to sell its property. Even the dominant Roman Catholic Church is in rapid decline in Ireland. Worldwide, Christian churches are, at varying rates, losing a grip on the hearts and minds of the people. We are living in the post-Christian era.
Will tourist 5,000 years in the future visit Christian sites wondering what people of the past thought and why they practiced such a religion? Who can say? And what will it matter to us? If I dare purport to be a Christian, what is my responsibility to such a far away future? I do not know the answers to those mind numbing questions. I do know this, my experience is my experience and it is my reality. My experience of the divine and the ethereal continue to expand and build capacity. My soul is anamorphic. My heart is open to the cara in others. This I share as my experience of the God of the ancients and the God of the Present. This is all I can know and dare to share. It is enough, because this is all I have.