A pebble offers a narrative framework when we start to think about its story. Having emerged from deep within the earth, where rocks run fluid in conditions of very high temperature or else formed in sedimentary deposits of ancient rivers, lakes and seas, the pebble will have undergone many processes on its way to the object we turn in our hand.
It is humbling to know that it will have been around for aeons before we were born, and will continue in existence for long after we have turned to dust. We bring nothing into the world and we take nothing out of it: rocks may be worn away as we walk our earthly pilgrimage but their endurance is immeasurable greater.
Our relationship to stone emerges in multidimensional readings. Habitation, artefact, sculpture, jewellery. And these in turn break out into a network of relationships to people, to things, and to our natural environment. But we have also learned to apply our technology to crush stone for large scale projects, thus separating us from the natural world in which we live. We need a dialogue with modern science and technology, if we are to have a proper faithful response to the potential harm destructive living brings; and to relearn how to understand and to appreciate our surroundings – to enjoy them, and take simple pleasure in them.
A pebble should indicate something to us about its creator. In its shape, colour, texture and hue we may see something of the beauty of God; unselfconsciously in its tactile nature, we should sense the intimacy of God; perceive by its endurance something of the faithfulness of God; and in its longevity a sense of the eternity of God shining through.
In the first of his 2009 Gifford Lectures, Professor Alister E. McGrath considered Newton’s attention to nature and how it signposted something deeper, lying beyond it. Newton said, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
He was reflecting that if we just concentrate on the geological features of a pebble or observe the skin of a shell, we may lose sight of the deeper structures and meanings of the world that lie beyond. McGrath said that the pebble and the shell are images of liminality – the awareness of standing on a threshold.
At the Gathering Event, beginning of our Lent Course ‘Driven into the Wilderness, on Sunday 6th March at St Mary’s Carden Place, Aberdeen, we each chose a pebble, which had been gathered with loving care from the River Dee and one of its tributary streams Neil Burn. This will be carried with us as we journey through Lent. It will become a symbol of those important things we discover, or rediscover, about our relationship with all of creation during our Lenten pilgrimage. When we meet again for the Sending Out service at St Ninian’s, Mar Lodge, by Braemar our pebble will be returned to the River Dee as a signal of our intentionality to live more lightly on the earth.