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Thinking Out Loud

Pagan Shrines in the Crypt

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 10, 2015

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!
Pagans in the CryptCarl Jung once said that beneath the foundation of every Christian cathedral there lies a sacred pagan site. His comment was more metaphorical than historical, but nonetheless true. I was thinking about Jung's words when my old friend, the Rev. Dr. Alan Gregory, head of an Anglican theological college, took us down into the crypt below Canterbury Cathedral back in June.

I thought again about Jung's observation, especially its symbolic and spiritual significance, a few days later when Debbie and I stayed in the Kilmartin Valley. As I mentioned in the previous blog, it is almost impossible, at least for me, whenever I visit this valley, not to reflect on the fact that it was set apart for sacred purposes for thousands upon thousands of years, through a succession of different religions.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor, in his new book on Britain's prehistory, spanning the period from just after "the Ages of Ice" (9600-8000 BC) through the rise of Celtic Britain (1000 BC – 45 AD), reflects on "certain 'natural places' " which were "viewed by Neolithic communities as being special in some ways." In doing so, Pryor makes an observation that deserves further consideration: "Religions tend to come and go, but places retain a more secure hold on people's consciousness." [Francis Pryor, Home: A Time Traveller's Tales from British Prehistory (London: Allen Lane, 2014), 56-57]

People return again and again to particular places with a sense of expectancy regarding the holy, with a sense of possibility, of hope, but also of dread that they may indeed meet the Transcendent there. This is why, I think, Philip Larkin's poem, "Church Going," is not only poignant but prophetic. The somewhat bewildered cyclist in the poem who enters a small Irish church concludes that the church probably wasn't worth stopping for, but he also recognizes that he was drawn to this patch of earth, "this cross of ground," and that others will likely be drawn there long after the last Christian believers depart:

"Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round."

[Philip Larkin, "Church Going," in The Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett (London: Faber & Faber, 2012), 35-37]

Jung's observation not only speaks of the tenaciousness of a people to keep expecting to meet the holy on the same ground, but also the tenaciousness of past faiths to keep their hold on a people. There are layers upon layers of strata buried in the human heart. Just because a new structure of beliefs has been erected does not mean the old is forgotten. The people of a place, out of a sense of reverence (and not just superstition), may be hesitant to let go of an ancient ritual or belief even at the cost of the strong remonstrances of the officers of a new faith.

A seventeenth-century entry in the Minutes of the Synod of Argyll, from the Western Highlands of Scotland, demonstrates this. The minutes read: "1650 the parishioners of Craignish were rebuked by the Kirk Session for 'goeing sun-gates about the church before they go in to the kirk for divyne service." One might have assumed that hundreds of years of Christianity - first Celtic Christianity, then Roman Catholicism, then Presbyterianism - would have expunged pagan religious beliefs and practices from the people of this place. One would be wrong about that.

We have considerable evidence that ancient monuments, like burial cairns and stone circles, were used apparently in succeeding ages (for example, from Mesolithic to Neolithic to Bronze Age communities) for very different ritual purposes. But the older rituals exerted their pull even in the midst of the new. For example, there are standing stones in the Kilmartin Valley that were erected around 1800 BC, but the stones used were actually quarried and carved a millennium or more before that and had long been employed by earlier people for their own ritual purposes. It seems that the ancient carved stones were, in fact, chosen specifically because they had been held sacred in the distant past. They were transported to a new location and set up (they had previously lain in the ground) to be re-employed in an arrangement of standing stones.

In much the same way, ancient rituals and old beliefs survive among the people of a place, although they may be (metaphorically speaking) kept hidden in the crypt beneath the church. And, sometimes, as we see in the Synod Minutes, they are not hidden at all.

When this happens we tend to speak of syncretism, usually in a derisive tone. And, yet, I would agree with G.K. Chesterton who thought that syncretism was not a curse but a blessing in Christian faith, part of the genius of this Jewish Messianic religion which within just a very few generations of its origin in Palestine had taken on Hellenistic and Roman ways and over time incorporated various elements of the Paganism of its adherents. Each time we put lights on a Christmas tree or utter the word "Easter," the pagan shrine peeks out from the church crypt and gives us a wink. Let's smile in reply.

Doesn't it make sense that we should? In the name of the God who will not be held captive by any creed and against the puritanism of every age that wants to make God small enough to fit into its own little box, we can celebrate the contents of our crypt. And perhaps we too can walk the sun-gates before going into the church for divine worship.

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