What The Gray Stones Said
A Visit to the Seven Churches
by Ken Rummer
May 23, 2023
Our minibus driver pointed out the Seven Churches, but all I could see were gray stone ruins. The site was one of the must-sees on our tour of Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland.
Stepping out of the van for a photo or two, I waded through spongy grass past fences of dry-stacked stone. Remnant walls stood, some to their ancient roof lines, others barely rising above their foundations. Doors, windows, roofs – gone. And all around, burials marked with slabs and carved crosses.
We didn’t stay long. With the wind blowing damp and cold off the sea, we were glad to reboard the bus. But our visit to the Seven Churches site has stayed with me. What was it about that place? Was it the dark clouds putting everything in semi-shadow? Was it the broken buildings rising up out of a spooky graveyard?
Home now, I’m still trying to sort it out.
Christian faith spread into Ireland in the 400s. Patrick of the shamrock and the green beer usually gets credit for breaking the ice. Not long after Patrick, two Irish monks, Enda and Breacan, each planted a monastery on Inishmore.
The ruins I saw were once a thriving monastic center, a holy destination for Christians on a pilgrimage. St. Breacan’s grave is on the site, and one of the churches there is named for him.
Think of all the prayers those saints and monks and pilgrims offered through the centuries. I’m convinced that leaves a mark on a place, something you can feel. So maybe it was that spiritual resonance I felt in the ruins, an awareness that I had stumbled onto holy ground, no longer just a curious tourist, but now also a pilgrim unaware.
Or maybe what I was seeing was a graveyard vision, like the one granted to Ebenezer Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, a dream bearing the message: Your current path leads here.
My clan of the larger Christian family, the Presbyterians, has been “fewer-ing.” Fewer adherents. Fewer churches. The downward trend extends back across most of my life. As a young pastor, I lived in optimism that we could bend that arrow back to growth, but every year I heard a version of this year’s headline: “PC(USA) church membership still in decline.”
Will decline lead to demise? Fears for my Presbyterian clan – perhaps I was seeing those fears materializing out of the gray stones like a ghostly apparition.
And Yet, Hope?
Why is the site of the Seven Churches still tugging at my sleeve? Could there be something beyond holy ground and ghostly vision? Perhaps this: the ruins point me toward hope.
The Irish Catholic Christians of the island suffered attacks by the Vikings. They were commanded to close by King Henry VIII. They were targeted by Oliver Cromwell’s campaign to rid Ireland of Catholicism. Their lands were taken, their worship outlawed, their priests killed or sold into slavery, their monasteries reduced to ruins.
And yet … and yet. The Catholic form of the Christian faith is still alive on Inishmore. I find three active parishes currently listing their worship times on the internet.
If the Irish Catholics could survive and persist through all their storms, maybe there is hope for the rest of us, even my Presbyterians. Perhaps in our story another chapter or two remains to be written.
The broken walls and rain-lashed ruins of the Seven Churches testify to faithfulness through difficult seasons. The gray stones speak of persistence, and resilience, and hope.