Broken cross in Scotland

{Excerpts from the heart of Life After Faith, published in 2010}

The Broken Cross and Beyond

In 1992 and again in 2000 I made a kind of kindred pilgrimage to Scotland.  Seeking, in part, family roots, I was surprised to find no Highlands except for the craggy and clouded mountains of that name—the wild and wet region distilled to drink in the peaty waterfalls and ancient Caledonian forests.  The “old country” is steeped in a history as rich and mysterious as the fog over a deep, quiet loch or spacious glen.   I quite literally touched the history, and my own ancestral roots, by climbing high waterfalls, hiking into the deep woods, sitting to eat lunch on gnarled knots of roots, and by entering aged castles, estates, museums and churches.  The buoyant boy Johnny Muir seemed near, running and climbing with youthful exuberance, especially when I strolled the soggy muirs of his home town of Dunbar near Edinburgh.

Throughout Scotland I found graveyards particularly interesting.  Many churches can only be accessed by meandering a forest of gravestones.  That told me a great deal.   Yet it was one misty afternoon, shortly before I boarded the silver airship for the return from the “old country” to the “new country” over the ocean of the sky, that I drove along a single-track road, over verdant hills and landscapes bounding with spring lambs and Highland cattle, out to the ruins of an old chapel.  Inside and outside the roofless ruin of the sanctuary were lichen- and moss-covered, wind-sculpted markers.  At the time, I was captivated by anything Celtic and the ancient designs on the gravestone crosses were fascinating.  I read the names, traced the knots with my chilled fingers, and guessed or imagined the lifestories of my country-folk buried there.  Then I saw it.  Resting back against a damp wall, in the far corner of the chapel-cemetery, was a broken cross.  It had fallen from a nearby grave.  Under it—dark, rich earth.  Above it—a cold, cracked wall, but something else.   Emerging from behind the graves, in back of the fractured cross, were greening leaves of a vine, peeking out of the darkness and shadows.  I snapped a photograph.  Over the years, as I’ve studied that photo, I’ve reflected on that crumbled metaphor, carried back from the soggy country of my ancestors.  That fallen and broken cross symbolized and perhaps foretold the future fracturing of my faith.  And more importantly perhaps, the living, greening vine offered a gift, a hint of hope and healing—of an abiding and abundant life after the crumbled cross, a life after faith.  This book is no repair manual, no mending of the broken cross.  It is an honest sauntering along the rough and ragged edges of a shattered and scattering spirituality—where every living tree sends roots and branches, scatters seeds and fruit in myriad directions to become a sacred virescent symbol, every Celtic knot becomes an invitation to unravel mysteries—or let them be.

My story, soaked as it is in Scotland and every home I have journeyed through, offers the reader only a brief saunter through the forests—among the evergreens as well as the stumps.  My message is simple: you can leave the faith of your childhood and be o.k. It will be difficult, challenging, lonely at times. You will no doubt find Doubt a constant, and necessary, companion. Yet, there can be a meaningful, renewing life after faith.  On the far side of faith there is open land, waterfalls, glens, oceans to cross.  There is music, poetry, laughter and deep contentment. There are countless open trails for exploration and discovery.  The natural way is continually open and inviting to us.  There is always opportunity for exodus, good news, resurrection, freedom—to use ancient biblical frames.  And this freedom is true liberation because it is rational, responsible and, as the old Janis Joplin song sings it:  “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose; nothing ain’t worth nothing til it’s free.”

Chris Highland

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