I’m too egalitarian to be corralled by organised religion. All that bowing and scraping, whether to monarchy, or church is a bit too subservient for my tastes. For what it’s worth, however, I do believe in a power greater than myself. Shifting my perspective to appreciate a wider perspective has been both psychologically and spiritually beneficial to myself and the people in my orbit.
And although I am not a Christian, I’m not beyond being moved by their rituals and ceremonies. Indeed it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the sight of over 100,000 crosses standing erect on a hillside in the middle of the Lithuanian countryside. Kryžių Kalnas (Hill of Crosses) in Siauliai is the site where hundreds of thousands of souls are commemorated, hundreds of thousands of lives are recalled, hundreds of thousands of loved ones are remembered.
No doubt, then, that the Lithuanians have strong beliefs. Pope John Paul II concurred. He visited the site in 1993 only a couple of years after the Soviet Union recognised Lithuania’s independence. Free to publicly display their faith, tens of thousands of people flocked to the service. The Pope declared the hill a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice, and Lithuania as the ‘country of the crosses.’
I arrive on a Sunday. I don’t know whether this is modus operandi for Siauliai on the Sabbath but TV cameras tower over a makeshift stage and rows of seats form neat lines in front of a lecturn. Over the course of the day, people come, sit, pray, meditate, and place their own crosses on the hill. In the afternoon men in white, gold, and purple robes address the congregation in Lithuanian and then give communion to the assembled.
Eventually the crowd disperses and the friars can be seen walking back to the nearby monastery, conversing about matters of theological importance, or maybe what to have for their dinner, who knows? I climb the hill and, despite my lack of faith, place my own small cross in memory of absent loved ones. I’m pleased. Reclaiming the cross today for my own purposes feels like a small act of rebellion, albeit one that is thoughtful, egalitarian and reverent. I wouldn’t have it any other way.