On a delightful summer Sunday afternoon several young families picnic and relax at the Nine Ladies stone circle on Stanton Moor in Derbyshire. This bronze age site is intimate in character and its scale is welcoming and inviting. And on a day like this its woodland location is tranquil and idyllic. Small wonder then that these people appeared to be having a lovely time. Along sandy paths through the gloriously purple heather a steady trickle of folk were making their way to this sacred clearing in the woodland. As is usually the case with stone circles, the views from this location are wide-ranging and all-encompassing, once you leave the contemporary woodland that is. Up on Stanton Moor there is a sense that all is in view. The reasons why our ancestors choose this place to venerate / celebrate their dead and engage in ritual cannot be known, but they can perhaps be felt. The stone circle serves as a visible reminder to reflect on that which is beyond us, around us and within us.
And anyone who encounters this sacred place today can engage with it unhindered by precedent, tradition or authorised religious ‘keepers of the sacred stones’ – those who would determine what is permissible and expected, and how and when one should, might or could use the site. The site is always open and accessible, available and waiting. There are no locked doors, special times of entry or particular liturgies. The stone circle is what it is and will be what it will be within the free imaginations of its many visitors. Such insight as they might gain is a matter for themselves, unprompted and unbounded by anyone or anything else. It speaks of a spiritual freedom which is at once refreshing and daunting. I imagine this can be a place for being with mystery, a space of waiting, and its very openness and intimacy could well elicit access to one’s heartfelt yearnings. Perhaps, too, it is a place within which one can feel encircled by care and not alone. One way or another one might reasonably expect this to be a place of deep encounter.
Four thousand years on and there are still those who come here with a more carefully crafted spiritual intent. The large tree to the right of the first photograph bears witness to their activities. Its lower branches carry several pieces of brightly coloured ribbon and some beautifully worked handmade pagan symbols, two of which are illustrated here. Clearly this is a site with spiritual significance for seekers of divinity within and through the natural world, a special place which evokes and enables connection with that which is sacred to these particular seekers after meaning.
Reflecting on my time in this ancient place I am encouraged to learn from these sights and insights. As we try to find fresh ways of expressing the ancient truths of our Christian faith I am struck by the hallowing of place and space which I find here. Re-connecting with creation and holding it as sacred within the encircling, enfolding and encompassing presence of God is a very authentic Christian worldview.
The very openness of the circle and the panoramic prospect from the Moor challenge all that is shut in, closed off, inward-looking or narrow-minded. The church being accessible to all those who are seeking, and being so on their terms, is another challenge I recognise only too well. And what of church being a safe space in which heartfelt longings can be acknowledged, held and explored, and insight gained creatively and imaginatively?
Of course what I don’t find here amongst the ancient stones and the relaxed casual visitors is an integral faith imperative to change the world and to plunge sacrificially into the distress and injustice of life. Faith on my terms is not the same thing as faith on God’s terms. I need the Jesus of the gospels to show me what a God-shaped life looks like and to take me beyond myself to the needs of others. If the stone circle reminds me to connect and encounter, to hallow and to cherish, and of the importance of viewpoint, vista and insight, in my seeking of the sacred, it is Jesus who points me beyond myself to the sacred in other people who are equally made in the image of God. Faith on God’s terms is no picnic, for it necessarily challenges us to encircle the whole world in our care. Yet it is the trustworthy ancient truth which still brings life and engenders hope to those whose hearts and minds are open.