Sunday, July 13, 2014

He Put It Under His Head

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place (Proper 11(16)A, Pentecost 7A). Jacob's choice has echoed since he put his head on the pillow.

One of those echoes involved Irish monks. We are used to associating stone crosses and stone buildings with Celtic monks of the 8th - 10th centuries. But Jacob's story, too, brought stone into the monastic life. We hear of a specific instance from Adomnan, biographer of Columba. In his Vita Columbae he writes: Having written the aforementioned verse at the end of the page, the saint went to the church to the nocturnal vigils of the Lord's Day; and so soon as this was over, he returned to his chamber, and spent the remainder of the night on his bed, where he had a bare flag for his couch, and for his pillow a stone, which stands to this day as a kind of monument beside his grave (VG.3.23).

The biography was written about a century after Columba's death, but even then the story of Columba and his stone pillow was part of the saint's story. Columba was not the only monk to use a stone for a pillow. Some stones were carved with a cross, identifying them as more than purely natural stones. The stone shown below was found on the Shiant Islands, off the west coast of Scotland. Discovered during the excavation of a blackhouse on Eilean an Tighe, the stone is thought to date from between the seventh and tenth centuries.

It's easy to imagine a monk lying down at night, thinking of Jacob and his remarkable dream. As they drifted off to sleep they could look forward to the possibility that in sleep, they, too, would see God's messengers moving freely between heaven and earth. And when that happened they would know that indeed they were standing at the gate of heaven.

You can read about the pillow-stone shown below (which looks remarkably like a round loaf of bread), and its discovery, in Adam Nicolson's book Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides (Harper Perennial, 2007).

The gospel reading for this week is Jesus' parable of the wheat and weeds. Art&Faith Matters explores that parable here.

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