A hill of crosses


In the photos it looks like a couple of lengths of PVC pipe, and not proportioned quite like the Latin cross Christians revere. It has stood for decades on a small pile of rocks on a craggy hill in the Mojave Desert, and is unadorned. At different times in its embattled 75 years it has been covered with a box or a blanket, with posters announcing that a religious symbol should not be placed on public land.

It has been stolen, hidden, shot at by one faction, then rebuilt by another. Every couple of decades a religious or veterans’ group takes the notion that the display of a cross out in the wild country would somehow please God or earn God’s good will.

I can’t work up much passion for either position, although this year’s offer by pious petitioners to purchase the ground the cross stands on was imaginative. That one made it almost to the United States Supreme Court, which in essence brushed it off the table without hearing it.

Having been brought up suspicious of Catholics, I looked down my nose at “idol-worship,” crucifixes, the Mass and such, until I was an adult. Having traveled a fair amount, now I see the Roman Church as guardian of a nation’s culture, its history and art.

Our daughter Mary and good faithful Rainer were our guides as we drove down through the Baltic nations on the eastern Mediterranean. Those battered little countries – Latvia, Bosnia, and Lithuania – have served as political ping-pong balls for as long as anyone can remember.

We were going to stay in Lithuania for a day or two when Mary came across an article about the Hill of Crosses and we drove out to see it. The countryside is open and green, and we had a perfect blue sky with hardly any manmade constructions – except the crosses. We parked at the bottom of a hill that at first glance could be a huge landfill.

As we approached on foot we realized that there were people wandering through and around the hill. Silent, low voices murmuring. Some were prayers. Sobs.

Then we realized that every object in front of us was a cross, from larger than life size, to the size of a grave marker, to the size of the crucifix carried into churches, to the tiny cross on a rosary. They were made of wood, iron, glass, straw and it was hard to tell where one left off and the next began.

Birds swooped about and a couple of large trees gave shade at the top of the hill.

Our own voices were subdued. We thought we’d spend half an hour or so, but we were caught up in the mystery before us on the hill nearŠiauliai. The town itself is believed to have been founded in 1250 a.d. by early inhabitants of the area who began the tradition of placing crosses here. The Hill began as a pilgrimage site until the 20th century, the number of crosses growing steadily from a few hundred to possibly hundreds of thousands.

The Hill came under threat during the Soviet regime, when it was bulldozed three times by Russians, purposefully flooded, and the road leading to the hill made impassable. This was another mystery. During the Soviet occupation, crosses were destroyed by day and restored by night. It was as though this was a Well of Crosses. There always seemed someone or some group that could dip into it and replaced the crosses destroyed by the Soviets.

And an Internet article says that after the breakup of the USSR, the Hill of Crosses gained worldwide fame when Pope John Paul II visited the sacred site in 1997. Not only a Lithuanian symbol of spiritual tenacity, it was now an international site of devotion.

One writer left a paragraph that exactly represents my experience at the Hill. I beg his pardon as I borrow his words:

Visit the Hill of Crosses on a sunny day, preferably in the morning so that you can examine the variety of crosses, inscriptions, and pictures there.

Crucifixes of all shapes and sizes, made of wood, metal, plastic, or other materials rest against one another, stand solid in the ground, or jingle against other crosses in the wind. As this is still a place of pilgrimage and prayer, it is best to stay silent and respectful as you stroll through the crosses.

However, it is the custom for every visitor to leave a cross of their own. If you don’t have a cross, you can make one of pebbles and stick as others have done. At any rate, when you leave something of yourself there, you’ll be taking away the memory of a place where so many others have shared their hopes, grief, love, and faith.

Tables at the bottom of the Hill sell souvenirs, but tastefully. Commerce fades when a small motorcade pulls up, and whirls of long skirts emerge. It’s a wedding party here to include the sacred memorabilia of a grateful nation and to add one of their own.

May the crosses continue to bless Lithuania and her people.