MAN FROM WEST VIRGINIA
MAN FROM WEST VIRGINIA
MAN FROM WEST VIRGINIA:
AN ESSAY ON ORTHODOXY IN AMERICA
Michael Jones McCormick
THIS MIGHT NOT be all that graceful, but there’s a man from West Virginia I’d like you to meet. Maybe he didn’t hail from that state originally, but he certainly died there, choosing the earthy soil beneath a rock overhang in the depths of the West Virginia mountains as his place of Resurrection.
And for myself, I’m unfortunately going to have to play a role in this story too, because so much of it is still open to interpretation.
To be honest I’m only half–West Virginian. I grew up in exile a little ways outside the state, in a suburb of one of the nearby big cities to which a young West Virginian girl like my Mama might run away when it came time to marry. My mother grew up in the small town of Bridgeport, West Virginia, next to a street named after her grandmother. Her father, Lyle Jones, was of a well-respected Welsh Methodist family, though his private opinions were more humanist than anything else. He met his wife not at church or within an ethnic community, but from among a circle of partygoers orbiting the Clarksburg Country Club. Thus, in a match made possible in secular America, he married a woman from a staunch Irish Catholic family. And so it was in the Catholic Church that my mother was raised. As the youngest of three children, she thus bore the cruelty that naturally seethes from older siblings (I also am the youngest of three). Worst of all, though, her mother, who was a passionate artist, was also an alcoholic with a volatile temper. And as my grandmother was abusive to herself and to her paintings, so was she abusive to her children. She herself had had a loveless upbringing, being virtually abandoned by her mother in favor of another sibling. As an adult she eventually left my grandfather, receiving a divorce and having subsequent affairs. She died before I was born.
My mother grew up in a lot of pain (also an artist), with a self-esteem deficiency and a Catholic guilt complex — but also, on the other hand, with a very dear love for her very kind father, of whose character one will only ever hear good things. For instance my mother, who was awkward throughout high school and never successful with boys, tells the story of how in her early twenties during her brief courtship with my father, she had planned to visit him in army training at Indianapolis. She was going to drive all the way there from Bridgeport, but her car died on a hill in Clarksburg. She managed to call her father who immediately came to her in his own car for her to take. My mother drove off, leaving her poor Daddy alone on the hill with nothing but her clunker of a vehicle. She never did learn how he returned home.
My father, the oldest of three children in an urban Catholic family, was in the army for a year and a half. Coming late in the war, he was saved from ever having to go to Vietnam, but was stationed instead in Rhode Island. Then it was back to Pittsburgh, where he had lived all his life and no doubt where he’ll repose. So my two big sisters and I grew up in the industrial city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or at least in the North Hills of that city, to where my father moved to start his family. We were still in hill country. The hills were considerably smaller than West Virginia, and the commercial development and materialistic secular culture obscured the natural environment — but I was on the fringes of that same country, northern Appalachia, even if I hardly realized it. We would join family parties down in the mountains up to three or so times a year, and besides that we often visited and vacationed in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, ridges that are direct descendants of the West Virginia mountains. Certainly, being confined in a godless, earthless, environment-controlled, TV culture, I didn’t realize it. But all the same, the earth in this part of the world is my flesh and blood.
It’s not that my family has lived there forever. My father tells me the first McCormick to emigrate from Ireland, James, in 1832, settled not far inland, in eastern Pennsylvania. It took a few generations before my great grandfather Peter McCormick (after whom my father is named), around the turn of the century crossed the Allegheny Mountains to settle in Western Pennsylvania where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio. No, this land is my flesh and blood not so much because I was born and raised here as because it was here that my heart broke and it was here that my soul died and was buried.
NOW WE HAVE two men buried in Appalachia, and we haven’t even gotten to Mike McCormack yet. I don’t know who Mike McCormack is, but he isn’t me (notice the difference in spelling). Nevertheless Mike McCormack wrote the article that got this whole thing started, for me at least. When I was a recently converted Orthodox Christian going to college in Boston, some link on the internet led me to the article by Mike McCormack (who is not me) entitled “America’s First Christmas Card” — reporting something strange and wonderful to my ears. Purportedly, a rock-carving, or petroglyph, in the mountains of southern West Virginia was discovered to be in an ancient Irish script that translated — in a message dated to the years 500–800 AD — as a proclamation of the following:
AT THE TIME OF SUNRISE, A RAY GRAZES THE NOTCH ON THE LEFT SIDE ON CHRISTMAS DAY, THE FIRST SEASON OF THE YEAR, THE SEASON OF THE BLESSED ADVENT OF THE SAVIOR LORD CHRIST. BEHOLD HE IS BORN OF MARY, A WOMAN.
McCormack writes of the discoverers of this message, that “they met at the petroglyph just before sunrise on December 22, 1982. Quietly they waited as the sun climbed in the east, spilled over the mountains, and streamed its rays toward the cliff face before them. They watched in amazement as the first shaft of sunlight funneled like a flashlight beam through a three-sided notch in the cliff overhang and struck the center of a sun symbol on the left side of the panel. As they watched in awe, the beam pushed the shadow from left to right, slowly bathing the entire message in sunlight like a prehistoric neon sign announcing yet another Christmas, as it has done for centuries. Before their eyes, they had received a message across the ages.”
And so it reached me too. The meaning of this discovery was immeasurable to me. They were Celts, and I am a Celt; they are my ancestors. They came to America, as did my people, and I live in America. They came to West Virginia, and I come from West Virginia. Then there’s this weird Mike McCormack–Michael McCormick connection, which seems so arbitrary and is probably unimportant. But most important, on the other hand, is that on top of all this human identification, they were Christians. And I, though pitifully, am a Christian. This is the affinity that matters to me. When love for God burns more strongly than love for man or for anything created, the importance of the earth-bound connections flakes away. I and these rock-carvers — potentially — worship the same God, the very God Who transcended His own transcendence and became man, being born of Mary, a virgin. He performed this condescension out of perfect, self-emptying love, in order to save, (despite our sins) to redeem, to rise from the dead, to raise our souls from the dead by uniting them to Himself — and not to leave our bodies behind but to resurrect them, too, starting with His own life-giving flesh.
Christ came to deify all His creation through Himself and the members of His Body, His holy ones. These potential Celtic saints not only believed in this same God and same saving work, but participated in Him and in it. They became apostles, and not just any apostles. They gave fullness (if not completion — there’s work left for us) to the Great Commission, giving sound to the very end of the earth, America, of the Incarnation, so that the name of Christ might be known throughout the world. As the Mystery hidden from before all ages was made manifest in a quiet cave at the center of the world, the Holy Land, so then does It appear on the rock-face of a secluded recess of the world’s hind-most parts — West Virginia. It is as if the news traveled by lightning bolt from Bethlehem to Appalachia. I don’t mean the divine lightning bolt that will appear at the end of time and illumine the sky from one end to the other, but the human lightning bolt, carried through the earth in the hearts of the Apostles, that which spreads throughout all time to saturation, reaching for and clinging to the Divine with all the might of the personal unity of Christ, the Godman.
Having established, then, the importance of the affinity that matters, I can now give the emphasis due unto the human connections, within the proper perspective. By the grace of God, and the work of these ancient pilgrims, the name of my God was inscribed on my land — that is, on my very flesh and blood. For I was born here, and I have lived and died here. This is not unimportant to me but is my life and salvation. And thus I had and have great incentive to believe that anything and everything in Mr. McCormack’s article is true, if this indeed were the case.
THIS ARTICLE WAS based on a hotly contested — and detested (but unfortunately as yet not sufficiently tested) — group of other articles that appeared in a 1983 issue of the magazine Wonderful West Virginia. The centerpiece of the issue is linguist Barry Fell’s sensational interpretation of the rock carving, which appears on the cover. Besides his creative translation to English from what he claims is Old Irish in Ogham script, however, there were thought to be in the petroglyph certain Christian symbols that can be appreciated independently. These are the images that are singularly important to me. Among them is, symbolized by Greek letters, the name of Christ — my God and, if the symbols are true, the God worshiped and borne by those who carved this message....
Apart from the Wyoming County petroglyph, there was also featured in Wonderful West Virginia a petroglyph from neighboring Boone County, called the Horse Creek Petroglyph (pictured right; diagram of the main panel below) — clearly of the same variety. In the upper right-hand corner of this design can be discerned, arguably, four conspicuous Greek letters: an Alpha and an Omega on either side of a Chi and a Rho. Barry Fell presented a Christian translation of this petroglyph also — another Christmas message, this one about Christ being born in
a cave in Bethlehem. If he were correct in identifying it as being in Ogham script, it would be the largest sampling of Ogham carved in stone known to the world. In 1996 another linguist, Edo Nyland, doing work based on and akin to Fell (and surely no more satisfying to the scientific community), extracted a translation very different from Fell’s, in tone and in substance. For one thing, Nyland argues that the ancient Old World language Basque is used (though also in Ogham script) rather than Old Irish. With that major difference, Nyland finds the message to be about a bison hunt, arguing that the whole petroglyph is a buffalo rebus (=picture comprised of letters). He finds alternate, non-religious explanations for the supposedly Greek letters. Despite the difference in language and message, Nyland proposes that the carving was made by “a Gnostic Christian monk, who was trained in Ogham writing in Irish tradition, and [part of a] matrilineally organized clan.” His postulated dates are the same as those used by Fell and Pyle. Neither translation is all that convincing.
As might be imagined, then, translating these petroglyphs from an Ogham script of whatever language is a highly speculative process. A lot depends on it, too. The dating of these petroglyphs to the sixth–eighth centuries is based largely on the identifications of the Christian symbols and of the Ogham script. (Pyle originally, before Fell was consulted, dated the Luther Elkins site to 500–1000 AD based on artifacts found nearby associated with the Buck Garden Indians [500–1000 AD] and the Late Armstrong Indians [100 bc–500 AD]. In 1970 a state archaeologist cataloging the Luther Elkins petroglyph conjectured that it was carved in late prehistory, circa 1300–1500 AD by an unknown group of Amerindians.)
In his 1983 article, Barry Fell presented his case for the identification and interpretation of the Ogham script. The alphabet that he employed (drawn on by other aspiring translators since) is as follows:
As can be plainly seen, however, the petroglyphs in West Virginia do not conform to this plain form of Ogham. First of all and most importantly, the petroglyphs, if Ogham, have virtually no vowels. Fell claims this is a form of Consaine Ogham — an older form of the script — which only uses consonants. Whether such a script is known to exist apart from Fell’s identification of the American petroglyphs, or even if the Old Irish language can be written in such a script, has been disputed. Fell cites the 14th-century Irish Book of Ballymote’s recounting of the creation of Ogham script, as well as an ancient tomb inscription found in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland.
Secondly, there are in fact many creative forms of Ogham whereby the tally marks of a letter may be joined at one end or positioned in a strange way. Fell provides the following list of (significantly inexact) renditions of allegedly Ogham letters found on the Luther Elkins petroglyph, with indication of how he interpreted them, to be compared with the alphabet given above:
Fell has precedent in making such decisions (although the choice of interpreting four tallies through a stem line, lying mostly above the stem line, as an S — which should be four tallies below the stem line — exemplifies the kind of egregious and inexplicable moves that has seriously damaged Fell’s reputation). The Book of Ballymote documents several different kinds of Ogham, some of whose characters do resemble the markings on the West Virginia petroglyphs. Pictured (below) are tracings from that Book.
Various tracings of Ogham letters
from the Irish Book of Ballymote, compiled c. 1391
Nevertheless, even if the petroglyph is to be identified as Ogham, the search for any certainty in interpretation has proved near impossible. Without clear breaks between the letters, it is easily seen how the consonants can be very ambiguous. The symbol for R, for example, consisting of five strokes across a stem line, can easily be broken up to be understood as many different combinations of the letters M (one stroke), G (two strokes), and N (three strokes). Thereby the same symbol could be understood as any of the following 14 combinations:
Moreover, in a number of places in this petroglyph, the position of the stem line is not clear or plainly absent. In such cases, depending on where the stem line is inferred to be, the uncertainty is enlarged to include the other consonants as possible components of the marking. If the stem line is taken to be in the middle, the above 14 combinations are possibly signified. If the stem line is taken to be below the markings, then the letters H, D, T, and C could all be read into the message. The following 15 other combinations would then also be possible:
If the stem line were taken to be above the notches, then the letters B, L, F, and S come into play, along with their 15 combinations:
Therefore, five Ogham tallies with no stem line — which actually does occur on the Luther Elkins petroglyph — has 44 different combinations of consonants to which one could add any possible combination of vowels to make words. As an illustration, if the Ogham script were used for the English language, just one of the above 44 letter combinations, D–T, would yield the following sampling of possible words and phrases:
D + T
Even further, this unexhaustive word list assumes the letters D and T can be separated from the surrounding words. As there is no clear break between letters, neither is there a clear break between words. Sometimes, even, according to Fell’s transliteration, super-stem-line consonants can be stacked on top of sub-stem-line consonants, and then the very order of the letters is questionable. The possible interpretations and degree of subjectivity thus continues to multiply, and the charge is laid that one could easily read into the allegedly Ogham petroglyph whatever kind of message (if not always whatever specific message) one desires to find.
In fairness to aspiring translators, such Ogham inscriptions as are potentially in these petroglyphs could conceivably be encoded with clues to their interpretation. Independently identifiable symbols, such as a Chi-Rho, would offer immediate signs as to the content of the message. The tally marks of a letter, moreover, can be grouped together and connected at top or bottom, as seen (a couple diagrams) above in Fell’s key of alternate letter signs. Four tally marks above a stem line could be a combination of various letters (T, D, H), but four notches curving up from a single point on the stem line would signify only one letter, a C. These groupings are not always exact, however, and sometimes Fell in transliterating seems to fudge these, too, in order to find certain letters.
Moreover, Fell writes, “When the Ogham strokes are arranged to suggest a picture, the result is what is called a rebus, obviously a device by the scribe to help the reader understand his inscription.” The radiating tallies in the upper left-hand corner of the Luther Elkins petroglyph, for example (of which Fell’s decipherment diagram is pictured below), have been interpreted as a sun rebus, sometimes referred to as “the sunburst symbol.”
Due to Ida Jane Gallagher’s imprecise and misleading language in her 1983 article in Wonderful West Virginia, this has been wrongly claimed with certainty (by Mike McCormack, for one) to be a target in a winter solstice alignment. The realization that the petroglyph faces east-southeast and thus might be aligned somehow with the winter solstice was transmitted by Gallagher to Fell along with the markings for decipherment. As can be seen, Fell’s transliteration actually involves all the uncertainty already discussed in regard to the Ogham letter R when presented without a stem line — and more. The symbol presents eighteen allegedly Ogham tallies with no stem line other than the one that might be suggested by the length of the tallies — hence, a middle stem line, with only letters that cross the stem line such as M, G, N, and R. This is Fell’s interpretation, though longer tally marks than these are elsewhere interpreted by Fell as either super- or sub-stem-line consonants. As for dividing the tallies and discerning the letters, that is completely subjective. Trying to pick out apparent tally groupings is a slippery affair when one looks at the actual petroglyph; connecting points between them, for one thing, cannot be discerned because they all converge in the center. Assuming, however, that the Ogham letters are arranged as a sun rebus, and that this is a clue to the decipherment of a message in the Old Irish language — a message which might moreover be aligned to the winter solstice as noted by Gallagher — Fell discovers that among the appropriate Old Irish vocabulary, the consonants of the phrase “am eriggren” (“time of sunrise”), that is M–R–G–G–R–N, can be seen arranged in a natural clockwise direction.
Accordingly, there is no certainty at all to this transliteration, nor to the translation on the whole. Barry Fell has merely shown, with limited accuracy, that a Christmas message announcing a solar alignment is possibly written on this stone in West Virginia. The achievement is similar, from a scientific point of view, to Tim Severin’s 1977 crossing of the North Atlantic in a historically authentic sixth-century Irish curragh sailing vessel. Severin did not prove that St. Brendan, a sixth-century navigator, crossed the Atlantic and discovered America as legend has it. He merely proved that is was possible — and proving possibility is the first step to proving probability. Then, as degree of probability builds to more impressive levels, one can begin, conditionally and cautiously, to flirt with certainty.
One assumes that the publisher of Wonderful West Virginia, Arnout Hyde, Jr., would not have gone to press with the 1983 articles if he was not convinced that a sufficient degree of probability had been achieved by their conclusions. Supporting Barry Fell’s subjective interpretation of the petroglyphs would be the inscriptions’ resemblance to the Ogham script, the Christian symbols arguably found within the petroglyphs, and most importantly the observed winter solstice alignment at the Luther Elkins petroglyph site. True, Gallagher’s suggestion of the possible alignment influenced Fell’s translation, but Gallagher’s later observation of the — by her description, very dramatic — alignment certainly gave credence to the historic discovery for many who read Gallagher’s account of it.
IN THE SPIRIT of building up context for possibility and probability, then, one might turn with joy to the ancient legends that early Irish Celts had reached the Americas. The early Irish Church’s peculiar love for the sea is well known. Before Christianity, Ireland was completely rural without any towns. Monasteries eventually played the role of towns, and thus besides being spiritual centers they also attracted those with secular ambitions. A fiercer form of renunciation was discovered when saints turned to the ocean. I once heard it called “floating monasticism.”
And to make up for the fact that Christianity spread in Ireland without the glory of martyric deaths, they called the life of exile in the ocean “white martyrdom,” as opposed to “red martyrdom.” Of course for an Irishman, forsaking one’s lush, green homeland, to which one’s soul was so vigorously attached, would be comparable to the voluntary separation from one’s body. The archetype of the white martyr was and is St. Columba, who left Ireland and in 565 founded the influential island monastery of Iona amid the Hebrides of Scotland. There were others, however, who for the sake of renunciation wanted to go farther. In the all-important Life of Columba by St. Adomnan, a primary source from the seventh century, there is told of one monk in St. Columba’s circle named St. Cormac “of the Sea” (†c. 590). St. Cormac (I cherish his name’s relation to my own and think of him as an ancestor) three times sailed northerly on a straight path in search of a distant isle on which to find a place of Resurrection, that is, a life of renunciation with anticipation of the age to come, the life after death. His third voyage in particular is said to have extended “beyond the range of human exploration.” Failing to find anything but trouble, however, he returned with fantastic stories of the Arctic Sea. He, though, was certainly not the only floating monastic.
The most famous of such sea-going monks would of course be St. Brendan the Voyager, or the Navigator. He hailed from the Dingle Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland in the sixth century (reposing c. 575). Informed by an elder and a predecessor on the sea, Barinthus, of a spacious land to the west, known as the Promised Land of the Saints, St. Brendan gathered a group of fourteen disciples and embarked in search of it. Unfortunately, we have no clear historical account of his journeys. From the legends it can be discerned that there was more than one journey and that he would be gone for several years on end. And it is recorded that St. Brendan did reach the Land of the Saints. In old age, however, it is known, he settled down back in Ireland, founding the huge monastery of Clonfert (he no doubt had garnered a giant reputation, with a following to match) on the River Shannon.
Of the legends of St. Brendan, the oldest and most notable is the Latin Navigatio, written perhaps sometime in the early tenth century (some would say early ninth century). While it is laden with fantastical mythological elements departing from Christian tradition, there has also been discerned in the legend a scientific accuracy in regard to certain nautical facets. Writer-explorer Tim Severin proved this when he re-created the travels of St. Brendan, as previously mentioned, in a curragh (a small Celtic ship) built to ancient specifications in material, design, and construction. The islands along St. Brendan’s journey in the Navigatio, as shown by Severin, form a plausible map. The so-called “Sheep Islands” visited by Brendan in the midst of his voyage can be identified as those islands halfway between the Hebrides of Scotland and Iceland: the Faeroes, the modern name of which derives from the Norse for . . . “Sheep Islands.” On the near side of the Faeroes, islands visited by St. Brendan can plausibly be located in the Outer Hebrides, while on the far side of the Faeroes, the Navigatio seems to describe volcanic activity that could easily be proper to the southern shore of Iceland. Then the iceberg that is described (“a column in the sea of the clearest crystal, the color of silver, as hard as marble”) could easily have been in the neighborhood of Greenland. And beyond that, shrouded in a dense cloud (a notorious fog zone lies off the coast of Newfoundland) — the Promised Land of the Saints. In June 1977, Tim Severin amazed the world when he and his crew reached Newfoundland in his historically authentic sixth-century curragh, lovingly dubbed Brendan.
Severin reports, “The medieval equipment on Brendan was often a match for its modern equivalent, and occasionally superior to it when used in the grindingly harsh conditions of an open boat in the North Atlantic.” It seems clear from the evidence that the Irish were sophisticated navigators of the sea. Severin further notes that wherever St. Brendan goes in the Navigatio, he is never thought of as discovering any of the places he visits. To the contrary, on each of the islands he encounters, there are normally predecessors, hermits of the sea, there to meet him. The whole story begins when St. Brendan hears of the travels of Barinthus who at first was merely chasing down his Ireland-renouncing son. The son, Mernoc, sounding very much like a precursor of St. Columba, foreswore his homeland and founded a monastery in the sea, in the Scottish Hebrides it would seem. Barinthus discovered his son living as the abbot of an active island hermitage. Together they departed the son’s monastery and journeyed to the Promised Land of the Saints, a most fertile land the end of which they could not discover even after a year of travel.
This land St. Brendan visited, too, as the last post of his sea-road along which he found other Celtic holy men — most notably, for historians, the community of St. Ailbe. This ocean monastery, positioned on an island on the edge of the northern sea, consisted of twenty-four monks living in silence and was led by an abbot, who greeted St. Brendan and his monks and showed them complete hospitality. Their community had been founded by St. Ailbe (from whom the name Elvis is derived), a historical figure of great antiquity, known to be a disciple of St. Patrick in the fifth century. As an older man St. Ailbe is said, by a consensus of ancient sources, to have retired to Thule, an imprecise term for an island in the North Atlantic — thus dating the practice of white martyrdom to the earliest of times. And the Navigatio of the early tenth (perhaps ninth) century displays a continued knowledge of the sea places of the North Atlantic. No doubt through all these centuries the Irish were actively traveling throughout this region. The Litany of Pilgrim Saints, dated to this time (later eighth century), lists scores of monks who went “across the sea.”
Historically established also (by a consensus of medieval literature) is the community of Irish monks on Iceland. Its beginnings unknown, this community could possibly have started growing in the wake of the Council of Whitby in 664, a landmark in the general trend making Celtic practices less and less welcome in the British Isles, regularizing them with the rest of the Byzantine-Roman world. At first, monks (such as St. Colman, abbot of Lindisfarne) fled to Iona, the last holdout for Celtic practices, but even that monastery in 716 began to celebrate Easter with the rest of the world. Then the community in Iceland became more visible to history when the terror of the Norsemen descended, first hitting Lindisfarne in 793, attacking the Hebrides (including Iona) the following year, and after that, Ireland. Dicuil, a monk and geographer trained at Iona in the late eighth century, was living safely in the Frankish court on the continent when in 825 — by which time Celtic presence on Iona had been completely erased — he wrote his Book of the Measurement of the World. In that work he gives an accurate description of Iceland and confirms that Irish monks fled there from the Vikings around the year 795. But he does not say they were the first, neither does he give that impression. Rather he gives the impression of a North Atlantic region, previously “uninhabited since the beginning of the world,” as being well populated by anchorites in recent ages. For example, on the Faeroes, Dicuil writes, “hermits who have sailed from our Scotia [Ireland] have lived for nearly a hundred years.” But even there, Dicuil goes on, the monks by then had been scattered by invading Norsemen (— to where? one might ask). The golden age of Irish monasticism was over, and white martyrdom turned to red martyrdom across the British Isles.
IN DECEMBER 2001, I called the Wyoming County Public Library in southern West Virginia to find directions to the petroglyphs. A librarian there gave me archaeologist Robert Pyle’s phone number in Morgantown. Over the phone Mr. Pyle was a gracious conversant. He described to me the general location of the Luther Elkins petroglyph and said that the solstice alignment that year would best be observed actually on the 20th, rather than the 21st or 22nd. He also directed me to another petroglyph, one that I had never heard about before; it was less than ten miles away from the first, on the property of Lowell Cook, at what Pyle called the Cook site. There, Pyle said, the remains of a man had been discovered and exhumed.
I was twenty-one years old at the time. The depression of my youth had inspired me to leave Appalachia, and I moved to Boston to study. I had turned my back on Appalachia, but I hadn’t wandered far. It was in Boston that I discovered the Orthodox Church, into whose saving protection I had entered the previous year. My dead soul was being exhumed and restored to life. But was my past to join me in my bright future? Would it be left for dead, or could it be baptized as well? I feel a visceral identification between Appalachia (and in a wider sense America) and my flesh and blood. Is that just a result of my fleshly desires, which truly should be left for dead? Or is there some reality to it? Shall not the American dust, whence I came and whither I will go, rise again? I speak not only of the matter of my body, dead and buried; nor only of the earth and water of my homeland, groaning and travailing; but also of the particles of time, myriad precious chambers of the past, gone and forgotten. Such are those sacred moments, known in my childhood, known in the life of my family, the McCormicks and Joneses, and in the life of my nation, America.
I have only one memory from my early childhood. It is the earliest memory I have, though it may never have happened. In the fallen world the past, especially early childhood, resides somewhere else, in some distant room without doors or windows. Memory can present us with some picture of that room, but historical accuracy is not to be expected from it. The Gospels, by way of contrast, were written from human memory but not mere human memory. Rather, the memory of the Evangelists was divinized by the grace of the Spirit, and such is worthy of all faith. In Christ memory is eternal, endless, and perfect. Outside Christ (as I have come to know), there is death, and memory mocks eternity, supposing to call to mind that which it is powerless to retrieve. This memory I have from childhood, I may not remember at all. I may have remembered it but once, and then I just remember remembering it. And then every time I recall the image it is entirely re-created. Then what item of fact is going to survive the trauma and the passions of adolescent growth from childish innocence to the self-consciousness of adulthood?
Suppose, regardless of all the uncertainty, that my memory is real. Suppose that it has life.
I was three and at home. My mother was calling me to go to pre-school, so I must have been older, five maybe. But I have always recalled being three — and going to pre-school, for which three is too young. Yet this is how it is remembered. On the fringe of the Appalachians, in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, my parents raised me in a loving home with all illusion of permanence. We had moved into this home when I was five months old, myself being carried there in a box because the car seat had been misplaced in moving. I lived in this house throughout my childhood and early adolescence, not being led into exile until age seventeen. In a way beyond time, this house was my home.
And at the time of my memory, I was in my basement, where I usually resorted. It was the safest place away from the torment of having older sisters — “basement boy,” I was taunted. My mother called down to me and turned out one of the fluorescent lights from the top of the stairs. She was trying to hurry me along. I put away my toys (they may have been those bare wooden blocks I so loved building with), and I turned out the other lights, one in each corner. I made my way to the stairs, a path on which I would get scared at night because of the possibility that, in the dark, ghosts would get me. But in the late morning some natural light from along the tops of the walls (where window wells were dug around the outside of the house) spilled below into my little catacomb. It caught my eye, and while ascending the staircase, I halted on about the third or fourth step. With my little hands holding on to the wood-carved vertical balusters and my eyes gazing through them, I beheld the image of my shadowy sanctuary afforded me by the scant, gentle sunshine. I saw, from a spot slightly elevated, the full stretch of rough, green carpet that covered the floor like grass. I saw the walls, consisting of wooden panels made to look like bark, as if the room were a clearing in the forest. The same green carpet wrapped around two support poles evenly spaced in the room, like two trees covered with moss. Overhead, the same bark panels lined heating ducts that ran like wide branches of oak across the ceiling-sky, otherwise tiled with white foam rectangles, as on an overcast day. There I stood and watched. As I recall it, the room had been recently cleaned, and so I witnessed it in its purest state. Even as a simple child, I gazed at my basement with gratefulness and love.
That’s my memory, the cryptic petroglyph carved on my brain. All of its companion memories from this age of my life having been lost to oblivion, it stands alone, surviving, but bereft. When I’m told stories about my childhood — stories I don’t remember — I wonder if my memory hears and is pained. I wonder if, like some Last-of-the-Mohicans, my memory remembers all its fellow memories, and grieves for them, in a way that I can’t, because I’ve forgotten. If after the fall all creation groans and travails until now, it only makes sense that my very human nature would do so as well.
My father left the family the summer before I entered high school. I was fourteen years old; it was just a couple months after I had been confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church. He left for another woman whom, he revealed to us, he had been seeing for two years. My oldest sister had already gone off to college, and my other sister would follow, both of them outwardly trying to get on with their lives while inwardly suffering greatly over the divorce. They were older than I and had more memories of our parents’ marriage — most notable for my father’s bitter temper, feared throughout the house, and my mother’s stubbornly quiet desperation. In three years’ time my mother had earned her teaching certificate, and for my last year of high school, my mother and I left home and began our exile. As two homeless souls trying to keep our bodies occupied, she and I moved together to her new job as an art teacher in rural Fauquier County, Virginia.
We had overshot the Appalachians and landed on the other side, on the rolling plains sloping up from the Atlantic. My mother was just over an hour or so by car from her sister in West Virginia, to whom she has grown closer in adult years. For me it was a four-hour drive over the mountains to get back to Pittsburgh. Our house, though largely gutted by my mother’s move, was not sold right away, and when I would go back to see friends I could pretend to return home. Those visits had a certain bliss about them; it would be as if I had never left and the flattened far side of the Appalachians never existed. But one Easter vacation, signs were apparent that things were changing.
My father was clearing out the house for sale, and I could no longer stay in it. I stayed instead with my friend Krissy, who has been and continues to be a very dear friend. I never really got to know her until my junior year, my last year before moving, but we bonded in a lasting way. Throughout my turbulent relationship with another young woman, Krissy remained for me, without effort, almost accidentally, a still small voice of true friendship. We spent that Saturday night on the town together. On Easter Sunday my oldest sister Callie and I (she was in town from Colorado) were to have breakfast with my father. So, since Krissy was in her writing at that time researching the meaning of home, early Sunday morning she and I went over to my vacant house.
We all had long since given up the pretense of going to church. My father had in effect excommunicated himself by transgressing the sacrament of marriage. In that she had made all her children go to church every Sunday and receive all the sacraments through Confirmation, my mother’s conscience was relieved, and she didn’t have to go to church anymore. My friend Krissy happened to be Catholic too, but that was fairly arbitrary; we knew each other from school, and she could have just as well been an Indian Muslim — as was a ninth-grade girlfriend of mine, I think — and I wouldn’t even have been cognizant of that fact, no more than I was aware (which I wasn’t really) that I was an Irish Catholic. We were Americans, and thoroughly secular, even as much of the Roman Catholic Church in our country had become.
So early Easter Sunday morning my friend Krissy and I took our cameras and went over to my vacant house. I don’t know how, because we didn’t grow up together, but Krissy understood the importance of this house. So we shot pictures. The stark, bare living room. The dining room stripped empty of everything except the generic brass chandelier hanging from the low ceiling. The family room with its bright sliding-glass door that leads out to the porch, which (I am told, but don’t remember) we added when I was still a small child. The blank-walled, vacant bedrooms where once my family slept as one. And finally the basement.
I guess I must have been conscious of my memory at the time, but now I can’t say; I don’t remember. Everything was so muted and sad. Still, I managed to place the camera tripod on about the third and fourth steps, looking out between the wooden balusters at the gloomy, freshly cleaned room. All the green carpet was still there, though on the two support poles it was coming apart at the seams. The bark paneling was still on the walls but had been painted white by my mother some time after my father left. When she did, the paint reeked for weeks, and I hated being down there. My memory probably remembers that, as it does all the things that had happened there — all the forgotten chambers of the past . . . my whole youth spent in this place, now but faint shadows, and most of it entirely forgotten. But my memory remembers every last detail, inescapably living with every lost moment in one continuous day reaching back, so it remembers, to the morning it gazed out between the balusters. And now it remembers me setting the self-timer on the camera and running out to one of the mossy support poles to have my picture taken sitting beside my friend Krissy. But taking photographs is an awfully violent way we have for remembering things. I had no idea how much I was hurting my memory, and I did not hear it cry as the timer blinked and the shutter snapped. Just as the past is sealed in a distant room, I too have my private room in which my jilted memory cannot reach me. But my memory is not as dull and insensitive as I; it did not merely effect a countenance of stupidity and depression. It recognized where it was and ached for the time that had passed since its conception.
The Catholic Church was powerless to resurrect my life according to its promises. But, I learned, I was no better off in the world, where all paths lead to isolation, and all is perpetual entropy.
I ARRIVED IN Oceana, West Virginia, on the evening of December 19, 2001. It was before sunset, and I wanted to locate the petroglyph on the outskirts of this town (technically it’s in the adjacent town of Lynco) before the next morning. By the street turning off to the site, I saw posted the sign Robert Pyle had told to me look for (see picture). I knew to go down this street, turn the corner, and pull up to the railroad tracks, but once I set anchor I was uncertain where to find the actual petroglyph. Pyle had made it seem fairly self-explanatory, so I didn’t bother with specifics. Now before me, on the other side of the tracks, were a couple small mountains on land owned by a mining company and damaged by industry. I searched the land for eastern-facing rock ledges, and found some towards the top of one of the mountains, but no petroglyph like the picture I knew.
After a severely cold night spent in the backseat of my van parked in the lot of a nearby church, I returned to the site before sunrise, at six AM. Robert Pyle had told me that direct sunlight first hits the petroglyph just after nine AM, but thinking the petroglyph to be at higher elevation I thought the event must occur earlier. Pecking around the mountains for some three hours (after having spent comparable time there already the previous evening) I found nothing but growing disappointment as the sun rose and began to illumine the higher grounds. For me this was not just a scientific expedition but a religious pilgrimage. I knew God was with me the whole time. I was praying to Him, but I knew that God’s will might very well not include deeming me worthy to find or see anything. Returning to my car I had given up.
But there was a local man in sight whom I thought to query. He readily pointed along the tracks about a hundred yards down the way, directing me to the left side. It had just turned nine o’clock, and I hadn’t yet missed it. There were two people already at the site, just a few yards off the tracks and up a bank. And there was the petroglyph, which I recognized from its picture. All night long the sky had been perfectly clear, and I had expected optimal solstice alignment viewing conditions. Lo and behold, at the corner of the mountain to the east, where the sun first peeked into the valley, a single puff of cloud-like substance hung in the sky. Through it we could still see the disk of the sun, but the diffusion of light was sufficient to spoil our vision of direct rays hitting the rock before us.
By this time in my pilgrimage, I was ecstatic just to be at the petroglyph, to kneel on the earth before it, touch its images, and wonder who in the world carved them. That anomalous little cloud in the sky seemed at the time to be God’s way of graciously deeming me worthy — but not that worthy, lest I become puffed up with pride. I cherished the gift of humility even as much as the exaltation, and I recognized in their simultaneous action the hand of a loving God.
Looking back, moreover, I see that it was just as well that the sun was blocked, because if I had seen the direct rays of light hit the petroglyph, I would not have understood what I saw.
LATER THAT MORNING my two fellow glyph-watchers and I arrived on the driveway of Lowell Cook. He had known we were coming and came out to greet us. An endearing old man, he spoke with that unmistakable West Virginia accent that was heard all over those parts and that I remembered fondly from my childhood visits to the mountains. Cook’s property had been in his family since the Civil War; it was well furnished with a good-sized home and well-kept grounds. It lay directly on Route 10 out of Oceana and Lynco, on the near side of the town of Cyclone. After Mr. Cook gave us some introductory remarks, we strolled to a far corner of his yard to a large rock ledge. Amazingly it sat right next to the road we drove in on, across the street from his neighbor’s trailer.
The petroglyph was on one end of the ledge. It is definitely in the same style as the others, though not as extensive in size. In 1998, two linguists attempted independent translations from Celtic in Ogham script, tentatively following in the footsteps of Barry Fell, who reposed in 1994. One translator decoded a Christian message, and the other a pagan message, as if merely to prove that you can read whatever you like into these glyphs. Actually, both translations are fairly neutral except the one sees a Chi-Rho where the other doesn’t, and the other extracts the phrase “moon god” from a mere two letters perceived from three strokes. The most striking feature of this Cook site petroglyph is what Pyle calls a boat rebus (that is, Ogham letters shaped in the form of a boat), one of at least three which he believes are on the region’s petroglyphs. I think this one at the Cook site is the most convincing example. A Chi-Rho resembling one on the Luther Elkins petroglyph possibly forms the sail of this boat, but it is not so clearly inscribed. Perhaps the strokes comprising the Chi-Rho are meant to double as Ogham letters for another word as well, and therefore the Chi-Rho isn’t as neat. Perhaps it isn’t a Chi-Rho at all. I touched it just in case.
Cook site petroglyph (chalked) with Lowell Cook
On the far edge of the same rock shelf, about thirty feet away, is the spot, under a little overhang, where in 1989 the remains of a human being were discovered, exhumed, and, years later, reinterred.
Apparently, early reports on the Luther Elkins petroglyph site (predating any notion of Ogham script) say that human remains were found there also and removed. If they ever were, they have since disappeared. Not so the Cook site remains — and apparently, though I know nothing about this other case, human remains were found at another site as well. In 1997 Robert Pyle made his first research trip to Ireland and the next year wrote in the second edition of his self-published book All That Remains, “A tomb at Fourknocks, County Meath, shows many symbols and markings similar to petroglyphs found in North America [according to Pyle’s estimation]. One of the most significant resembles a ‘boat rebus,’ which is commonly seen in connection with burials and when so used is referred to as ‘passage tomb art.’ Similar carvings are seen at the Cook, Dameron, and Beard’s Fork sites in West Virginia; burials were found at two of these sites.”
As for the Cook site man, my Man from West Virginia, he had been reinterred just two months before I got there, in October 2001. Robert Pyle oversaw the work. He apparently realized that he was not just dealing with an archaeological artifact, but with a real live human being. He respectfully had the bones wrapped in deerskin and, once they were in the ground, had a flat rock placed over them for protection. And figuring this man is quite possibly a Christian monk, Pyle invited some Christian monks from elsewhere in the state to come attend the burial and say some prayers. As Lowell Cook told us these things, amusingly relating the adventure of having these wild, hairy monks to his home, I stood there not believing my ears. The behavior of these monks, the common American’s reaction to them — it all sounded so familiar. Lowell Cook said he had taken a picture of his wife with all the monks. He had it handy. He showed me the picture, and of this picture, yes, that’s right, I took a picture:
Those are Orthodox monks. Those are Russian Orthodox monks! I couldn’t recognize them at the time, so I took the picture in order to track them down. Who are those monks?
HOLY CROSS HERMITAGE started in Missouri in 1986, ten years later becoming the English-speaking dependency of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, the spiritual center of the Russian Church Abroad. By the late nineties, commercial growth in their area greatly threatened their peace; a major highway was planned to extend through their refectory. As their own numbers were also growing, a move was greatly desired, and they came by land in Wayne, West Virginia, south of Huntington, in the westernmost part of the state. They made the move in May 2000.
A notable member of their community by this time was the priest Fr. Alexey Young (in the picture above, wearing the cross). Back in the ’60s, the then Craig Young, of English and Scottish descent, was a young school teacher starting a family in San Francisco. He was Roman Catholic and increasingly distressed by the secularization of the Roman church after Vatican II. In 1966 Craig met two intriguing men at an Orthodox Christian bookstore in the city. He also that year attended the glorious funeral services for St. John Maximovitch at the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral. When, after a long struggle, he and his wife converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970, they were placed under the spiritual care of the two men from the bookstore, who were by then starting a monastery in the remote mountains of northern California. In this way did Fr. Alexey become the disciple of Fr. Seraphim and Fr. Herman of Platina. It was Fr. Seraphim Rose, in particular, who as a fellow American convert and a saintly man led Fr. Alexey into becoming a profound and loving pastor of American souls even as he was. Both the fathers of Platina guided Fr. Alexey in publishing Orthodox literature in English and starting a humble mission in Etna, California. At Platina Fr. Alexey was ordained a reader in the Church the same day Monk Seraphim was ordained a priest. Fr. Alexey would himself soon become a priest, and before too long would be serving Communion to a dying Fr. Seraphim in his last days at a hospital in 1982. Fr. Seraphim Rose, having formerly been a fervent atheist and blasphemer, suffering horribly under the godless, rootless Californian culture, miraculously came to know Christ and bear the flame of Him in his heart, drinking deeply of the Gospel message of Christianity. It was this flame that Fr. Alexey caught in Platina, going there continually and living under the fathers’ direction and formation for more than a decade.
I FIRST WENT to Platina in the summer of 1999. As it happened at the time, I was only there for a weekend, but the Monastery there — amid such an arid climate and a dramatically mountainous landscape that it appears to an East Coaster as though a foreign country — had a deep effect on me. I have returned since on several occasions, and for much longer stays.
The Monastery is dedicated to a white martyr — of the Russian variety, St. Herman of Alaska. This late 18th/early 19th-century monk hailed from Valaam Monastery on an island in Lake Ladoga north of St. Petersburg, about the same latitude as the Faeroe Islands. In 1793 he joined nine other monks on a mission to Alaska. Starting from European Russia, in ten rugged months they traveled virtually 180 degrees of longitude to the island of Kodiak off the southern coast of the Alaskan mainland. Sitting on the northern rim of the Pacific, at the same latitude as Scotland, Kodiak and its surrounding islands bear not a little resemblance to their north Atlantic counterparts; Kodiak has in fact been nicknamed “the Emerald Isle.”
It is here that the Russian monks based their mission, arriving in September of 1794. The positive response of the native Aleuts to the Christian Church has resounded through the centuries. Their conversion was an indigenous movement, the teaching of the Incarnation of one Person of the triune God seen as the fulfillment of their own beliefs. The process was not achieved all at once, though; a great deal of work (and among many tribes other than the Kodiak Alutiiqs) was achieved in the time of St. Innocent of Alaska later in the 19th century. As for the original mission, they met with great and quick successes, but also with not a little adversity: from hostile natives, yes, but perhaps more so by hostile Russian fur traders — not to mention an extremely harsh natural environment. Already in 1799 the leader of the mission, Ioasaph, freshly consecrated as bishop for Alaska, perished at sea on the way to his diocese, two other clergy-monks departing with him. Before too long, the simple monk Herman was the only member of the original mission remaining in Kodiak (a few replacements joined him). He would eventually retreat from the tyrannical counter-Christian leadership of the Russian fur trading company and set himself up quietly nearby on little Spruce Island. From there his exploits in simplicity, humility, wonderworking, and burning love for God and the Alutiiqs around him is well-known to the American Orthodox today, and to them he is their first saint (canonized as such in 1970) and patron of the continent.
Such was the small but awesome beginning of the arrival of Orthodox Christianity to the Americas, the arrival known to history anyway. It took a long road, first the Jews converting the Gentiles, then the Roman-Byzantine world undergoing a centuries-long conversion process, resulting in the conversion of the Slavs, who over time would then spread themselves and their faith eastward until finally slipping in the back door of the new land while it was undergoing heavy colonization by all the avaricious, heterodox European powers from the other direction.
Such avaricious Western powers, in the form of Spanish Roman Catholic missionaries, got hold of fourteen Orthodox Aleut boys in California in the early 19th century. The boys were down south on a hunting party (Russian presence in America at this time spread down to the outpost Fort Ross, 80 miles north of San Francisco). Upon being captured and imprisoned one Aleut named Chunagnak, in Orthodox baptism Peter, was wounded in the head. The pressure to convert to Catholicism was resisted by all with ardent claims that they were already Christians. Soon only two boys, the wounded Chunagnak and a companion, were left at the mission as the others were sent to Santa Barbara. A Catholic priest approached the boys in prison and threatened them with torture if they did not convert. To do the torturing the priest had brought with him some Californian Indians, supposedly disciples Christ had laid in his charge. St. Peter the Aleut had first his digits dismembered, then his hands, but still would not convert, saying that he was already a Christian. Reportedly worse things were done. Surely this young Native American convert must have received special revelation and visitation in order to withstand such demonic torments — even unto death. His friend was made to watch and the next day was saved from like treatment by a timely order received by the Catholic priest that halted his activity; the boy was later sent away with the story of his friend’s victory. The event occurred during the life of St. Herman, and when he was told the news he immediately stood before an icon, crossed himself, and prayed, “Holy New Martyr Peter, pray to God for us!”
Icon of St. Herman, St. Peter the Aleut, and St. Juvenaly, a priest-monk and member of the original 1794 mission who was martyred for the faith.
In such ways was Orthodox Christianity at last planted on this continent, primarily in Alaska through the life-sacrificing efforts of Russian monks and clergy and by a few truly noble races of North Pacific Amerindians. Orthodox missionaries, such as St. Herman and St. Innocent, along with natives such as St. Peter and the Creole priest (the first Native American Orthodox priest — and stellar missionary) St. Yakov Netsvetov, labored in the tradition of the Church. That is, they, loving and respecting all nations even while desiring their salvation, translated Christianity into the Alaskans’ own languages (providing scripts where necessary) and into their own cultures — even becoming like them, living like them — and thereby winning conversions that were free and arose within the hearts of the nations’ own peoples, as their own prayers were answered in the Person of Christ, the Godman. This is the same way that the Slavs were converted, the same way that the Irish were converted, and the same way that all true conversions have taken place.
But in 1867 Alaska was sold to the United States, and then came the Protestants. Federally funded Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and other missionaries in Alaska performed on a widespread cultural level much the same thing that the Spanish Catholics had done to St. Peter the Aleut. But to torture a culture is not the same as to torture a body. To many of the Protestants, savages such as the Native Alaskans were totally depraved and had to be changed for their own good; that is, they had to be assimilated. Native dress was forbidden, native language was forbidden, native education was forbidden, often native child-rearing was forbidden — and native religion, that is, in so many places, Orthodox Christianity — was forbidden. In retrospect one wonders if the missionaries, working in close cooperation with the government and widely supported by the Protestant American public, were really spreading the Gospel or just participating in the first stage of the cultural assimilation program that went with the sale of the territory. That very program today has resulted in a largely uprooted people who in the modern world have lost the need to struggle for survival, that struggle which gave their ancestors life and which prepared them for authentic Christianity. Now, in its stead, nothing has been given to fill the void but government money, alcohol, and satellite television.
Insofar, however, that Orthodox Christianity has miraculously survived among the native Alaskans (now U.S. citizens and Americans), contact with that authentic life of the past is still possible. As for the Russians, they’ll always be Orthodox Christians, even when they try their hardest for seventy years not to be. Russian presence in America started in Alaska and would soon enough spread down the West Coast. Upon the sale of Alaska, St. Innocent, who had been transferred to Asia, saw the changed national status of his former diocese as a way for the Orthodox Church to spread farther into the New World, reaching out to the English-speaking nations that were taking over the continent. He recommended the American diocese move its base from Sitka to San Francisco, which it did as early as 1872.
Orthodoxy’s modest history in our American culture was underway. For the most part, however, Her leaven lay dormant, with whole floods of Orthodox immigrants not up to the apostolic challenge, assimilating to America but weakening in their Orthodoxy as if the two were exclusive of each other. These immigrants never knew St. Herman or the Alaskan saints, nor in most cases did they know any saint, at least not well enough to receive a substantial transmission of faith. The grace of an established Orthodox homeland was gone for them, and America proved to be a hostile living environment, to say the least. But enough grace has been provided for spiritual survival, even amid the most traumatic cultural and historical convulsions, and one can thank the heroic faith and service of the likes of Archbishop St. Tikhon, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, and St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre — as well as those who have maintained devotion to them — for that.
Thus, only in scant places has the American Church had moments of brilliance. St. John Maximovitch the Wonderworker, a Russian archbishop of San Francisco in the 1960s, a modern apostle and a new St. Martin of Tours for our times, was just such a moment. His tradition continued when under his guidance the Brotherhood of Fr. Herman of Alaska would form and by their campaigning help earn the title, Brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska. These were the two fathers who would be tonsured monks at Platina the same year St. Herman was canonized — and the same year Craig Young and his family converted, flowering in this spiritual environment.
AT THE DAWN of the 21st century, a much older and much more seasoned Fr. Alexey Young would find himself living at a monastery in the mountains of West Virginia. His wife, a close partner and best friend, had passed away in 1996, and he mourned her deeply, if not inconsolably, having faith that she was with Christ. Joining a monastic community in Missouri, he moved with them to their new home in May 2000, thinking at the time that they were the first Orthodox monks in West Virginia. Only once he was there in the Mountain State did someone at last email him a certain article by Mike McCormack. “America’s First Christmas Card” strikes again. Throughout the two decades since evidence was first put forward that Irish Orthodox monks (from before the Great Schism of 1054) may have come to America, Fr. Alexey and the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in West Virginia have been the only persons in the Orthodox Church to express any interest. In this Fr. Alexey stands in the tradition of St. John Maximovitch, who virtually alone among hierarchs has seen that the recovery of the West’s Orthodox past before the Schism is crucial to the survival of Orthodoxy in the West today. St. John’s lead was followed dutifully and with relish by Fr. Seraphim Rose (whose research into the Orthodox history of France has borne much fruit, providing a model for future efforts in this area) and has been passed on to Fr. Alexey Young.
In the January–February 2001 issue of the periodical Orthodox Life, Fr. Alexey’s article “Were Orthodox Celtic Monks Here in America…?” appeared. In four brief pages it called attention, for the first time in print among the Orthodox, to the West Virginia petroglyphs, basing itself on the 1983 articles and holding tentatively if optimistically to their most basic conclusions. Absolutely, the uncertainty of the finds in West Virginia merits caution, but the lack of any attention paid by Orthodox Christians to the matter shows signs of a Church that is not sufficiently connected to its cultural and physical surroundings, nor completely aware of the deep needs of the American soul.
We Americans so often take for granted our position on this continent and our rights to possession of it. Presumably for the conscience’s sake, it is much easier to forget that despite the Pax Americana our nation is built on blood. Either consumed by the passion of a maniacal greed we have plundered the land and its resources, holding in contempt those previous inhabitants that may have stood in our way; or puffed up with pride in our heretical religious ideas, we have assumed divine right to wipe out the “total depravity” of the Philistines inhabiting our Promised Land. These extreme tendencies in fact pervade the American character as it has been defined by white Protestants and those others (such as Catholics and Orthodox, not to mention everyone else under the sun) who have assimilated to their mindset. Even the best-intentioned missionaries and humanists among Americans have not been able to overcome the fallacies related to these passions — because they have not had Orthodoxy.
As a teenager I contemplated the European conquest of the Americas and wondered how that which I considered to be the supreme good, the revealed Word of God, could have been transmitted to me in time and space by a human tradition so seemingly deprived of sanctity and characterized instead by destructive powers inconsistent with what I knew from Scripture as truth and love. I did not then have a St. Herman of Alaska, a St. Peter the Aleut, and I suffered from the want. I reluctantly accepted this compromise because of my overwhelming faith in Christ, but how horrible and wrong this compromise is! If Christ conquered death and the passions, resurrecting the soul from evil and the body from corruption, how could it be that none of His followers have experienced this cure? How could it be that neither can they overcome the passions, nor does grace touch them in the very flesh? If Christ is not risen, then the Christian faith is in vain, and if Christians are not risen, neither is the faith to any avail. By their fruits ye shall know them (Matt. 7:20).
How great the relief, on the other hand — and the redemption — the American feels upon discovering the lifeline of grace that has so quietly slipped in his back door.... St. Herman of Alaska, and all the saints of Alaska, offer us the hope that somewhere, even if on a small scale, somewhere they did right by God and man, and somehow we can change and follow in their tradition. That is what I felt, anyway, when in my waning teenaged years I discovered this apostolic line that not only bears historical succession but also the original Spirit of the early Church. If the tragedies of the past cannot be averted, at least the poison in our souls that caused them — and remains with us as strong as ever — can be at last extracted and destroyed.
But if the poison is to be regarded as evil and obliterated, must our past suffer the same fate? What of the good intentions of certain missionaries and humanists — our parents, who have loved us with all their hearts? Did those Christians of the past or any of the Americans know any better, and aren’t we in a worse position now that we presume to know better and yet still perpetuate evil? The heart cannot bear to see human good squashed, even if it’s a relative good contaminated with destructive powers. One could jealously turn away from our nation’s past for all the evil committed, but it cannot be done because the soul yearns for all the good intentions that our nation has been built on from start to finish. Can the past be redeemed? It is almost easy to hope for the redemption of the future because we can’t see into it, nor the evils it contains. But those myriad precious chambers of our nation’s past — Lord, are they lost to death forever? My own youth is suffused with so much sin: self-centeredness, anger and despair, lust and greed, vanity, vanity. I am an American. But, Lord, what of that memory carved on my soul, that little boy standing on the steps of his basement, naturally partaking of Thy gratefulness and love?
INSOFAR AS THEY champion St. Herman and the Saints of Alaska, the Orthodox, I would say, could only be half-unaware of the deep needs of the American soul, and the half that they know is of primary importance. But in regard to the petroglyphs, can an Orthodox Christian beginning to the European-Amerindian relationship be recovered, if not for the Amerindian culture which has been decimated, then at least for the American souls (of all backgrounds, including native) that have resulted from the tragedy? If so — then, if only for those souls who wish to convert to the Faith of the Alaskans, an Orthodox Christian context can be found from beginning to end into which can be placed all the past, casting into the draught all that is evil and bringing to the fore and redeeming all that is good. Then the eleventh-hour back-door line of salvation from Alaska can touch and meet those unrecognized white martyrs in the West who long before history as we know it, sought to build the house of Orthodox Christianity on American ground.
And then we pitiful Christians of these last days can be given what until now has been denied us: an opportunity to discover Christianity entirely anew. Having budded from an apostate culture, we are inoculated to Christianity, something overly familiar and virtually powerless to us. We as a people have forgotten what it is like among the Gentiles to receive an apostle for the first time — for the first time to hear the Gospel message, to meet Christ, to undergo a Christian revolution, and to be initiated into the Kingdom — what it was like when the Apostles first learned of the Resurrection, and when they first received the Spirit with power. Word of the Incarnate God should always be something radically new. For centuries we have trampled on this message, preferring a man-centered life, as if, on the secular level, selfishly extracting the humanism of Christianity and relegating God to an indifferent deistic watchmaker — as if God were not still incarnate, loving us, calling us — or in the case of those incomplete Christians among us, never escaping either their man-centered forms of worship and ways of understanding God or the strife that these cause. Through these petroglyphs, if only they could be identified with any certainty, we are offered a chance — by visiting them, touching them, and praying in their presence — to meet an apostle, and through him Christ, for the first time. This is what the American soul, despite ourselves and our sins, needs and naturally craves. If only they could be identified with any certainty.
IN OCTOBER 2001, a handful of monks from Holy Cross Hermitage led by the priest Fr. Alexey Young traveled the rough mountain terrain from their home in Wayne County to the estate of Lowell Cook in Wyoming County. For the reinterment of the human remains in the original spot of burial, the monks chanted a pannikhida, or prayer service for the dead. On Ireland, at the ancient monastery of Clonfert which St. Brendan founded in his old age and where he reposed, there is a gravesite believed to belong to the great Navigator. Somehow dirt from this grave had been acquired, and it was lovingly mixed with the soil of the new grave in Appalachia. And when I visited two months later in December, I carried with me dirt from the grave of St. Herman on Spruce Island, which I acquired on my pilgrimage to Alaska that summer. So I added some dirt to the pile too.
The deeply inscribed Chi-Rho on the Luther Elkins petroglyph, which I had inlaid with dirt from the grave of St. Herman with the prayer that he help redeem America’s (and my own) past.
IT WAS TIME to make one more pilgrimage, now to the monastery in West Virginia. The occasion to do so arose when in September of 2002 the monks there hosted a weekend event in honor of their feast day (the Exaltation of the Holy Cross). For the festivities Fr. Alexey Young — now Fr. Ambrose, having been tonsured a monk that July — would speak on ancient Celtic Christianity, and archaeologist Robert Pyle would report on the petroglyphs. I desperately wanted to go but knew I couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, attempt the long trip from Boston to the westernmost part of West Virginia alone. The obscurity of the destination made any travel other than by car unfeasible. Negotiating the schedules of my interested friends was difficult, and for a long time I was uncertain whether I would be able to go. In the end, thankfully, two friends of like mind and with the same desire signed on, and the trip would happen. The trick was that, because of work obligations, we wouldn’t be able to leave until five o’clock Friday afternoon. I estimated that with continual driving and minimal stopping (taking weekend traffic into consideration), the journey would take about fifteen hours. The next day’s events at Holy Cross Hermitage began at eight am, exactly fifteen hours after our time of departure. Everything would have to go perfectly, but with prayers and effort (in that order) we would try.
Our vehicle of choice was without deliberation my minivan, the 1991 Plymouth Voyager that used long ago to be the McCormick family car. Upon my parents’ separation, my mother was given a new car and my father took the old one. And when the Voyager’s odometer reached 200,000 miles, my father handed it down to me. I immediately dedicated it to (whom else?) St. Brendan the Voyager. By his prayers and with his vehicle would I make my travels (and through his intercessions it still runs today). The Voyager had journeyed to West Virginia the previous year, and it would do so again, then to the long-forgotten petroglyph sites but now to the living monastery of Holy Cross Hermitage.
The three of us took shifts in driving. The back seat was removed and bedding laid down so that we could take turns sleeping too. We ran into a tough traffic jam in Connecticut. It was so bad and so seemingly endless that we despaired of making it on time. But as we prayed to the Mother of God the traffic let up, and we were on our way again.
I being the captain of the voyage, and most flexible in my sleep schedule, took the toughest driving shift of late night/early morning. That means I drove the mountain highways of West Virginia as we crossed the state from east to west. I was working on only a little bit of sleep snatched on the back floor of the van. A thick fog was spread throughout the mountains, making the visibility on the curvy road in the pitch black of night even lower. Nevertheless I was driving as fast as I could, speeding to get to the monastery on time. As the Voyager throttled over the rough waves of the road, the low beams swimming through a thick fog, I, with all the rapt attention I could muster while driving a car really fast at four am, repeatedly sang a little hymn to St. Brendan under my breath.
And I reaffirmed what I had realized earlier in the trip: that as I was on the road with two close friends and fellow Orthodox Christians, making pilgrimage to a West Virginia monastery to meet a close disciple of Fr. Seraphim Rose (who was a disciple of the Russian émigrés in San Francisco, who were disciples of the holy elders of Optina Monastery, who were disciples of . . . and so on in a saintly line of transmission reaching through Russia and Byzantium back to the Apostles and Christ Himself — a line in which amazingly I may now participate), moreover in hopes of gaining some certainty concerning petroglyphs that could have been inscribed in my land by Orthodox Christian ancestors so long ago — and thoroughly relying on God to get us there on time, therefore feeling myself and my friends firmly in the bosom of His protection — . . . I realized that this was the happiest time of my life. And I responded with gratefulness and love.
Glory be to God: we made it to the Promised Land, the Hermitage of the Holy Cross, in fifteen hours flat.
THAT DECEMBER NO clouds obscured the solstice sunrise facing the Luther Elkins petroglyph. I was not present to see it as I had been the previous year, but a certain Roger Wise, preparing an article for the West Virginia Archeologist, was. This journal, now a long-standing institution, was the one that in 1989 devoted a volume to refuting the work of Fell, Gallagher, and Pyle in 1983’s March issue of Wonderful West Virginia — with reproachful invective of such overzealous skepticism as to match the overzealous certitude of their opponents. Roger Wise continues in this tradition offering, if not a precisely balanced view, then at least great assistance to someone searching for such balance. Certainly, his report would be surprising to anyone reared on “America’s First Christmas Card.” Wise’s photographs of the petroglyph at sunrise (next page) document the event and epitomize his report.
Wise writes: “What would make a convincing calendrical display? Solstice alignments need two fixed features, a marker and a target. Often the marker casts a shadow on the target. Some work the opposite way, using the natural play of light to illuminate a target.” From Gallagher’s account it is not clear what the identities of the marker and the target are, nor whether the pointer illumines the target or casts a shadow on it. Her writing is unclear, ambiguous, and at times misleading.
Firstly, when Gallagher says, “A glimmer of pale sunlight struck the sun symbol on the left side of the petroglyph, and the rising sun soon bathed the entire panel in warm sunlight,” she implies that the sunlight hits the sun symbol first and then the whole panel. This notion is taken up and expanded by McCormack. But the panel’s whole face is open to the rising sun and is illuminated simultaneously. Perhaps Gallagher does not intend to imply a wrong scenario but only accidentally does so as she dramatically describes her experience of looking at the sun symbol and then realizing the whole panel has been illumined with sunlight. That would be the charitable view.
Regardless, Wise, while observing all elements of the event and considering different possibilities, seems to be most keen on the shadow cast by the large chunk of rock protruding above the upper left corner of the petroglyph panel. Indeed the most plausible alignment would involve this prominent protuberance as a marker, which could indicate a target by casting a shadow.
But that is not at all what Gallagher seems to suggest when she says, “The sunlight was funneling through a three-sided notch formed by the rock overhang, the upper left-hand wall of the shelter, and a rock shelf that jutted out above the small petroglyph on the lower left wall.” From Gallagher’s previous quotation it would seem the sun symbol is the target, which was the initial hypothesis of, individually, both her and Wise before they observed anything. Now it seems moreover that Gallagher identifies the marker as a combination of protruding features to the left of the panel (which includes the prominent upper left-hand protuberance). Indeed from the pictures, this combined formation is seen to cast a shadow in the form of an angle of roughly 90 degrees — a width greater than the one suggested by Gallagher’s unfortunate use of the words “funneling” and “notch.” The impression from Gallagher is still that the marker is illumining its target and not casting a shadow either on it or pointing to it.
Gallagher further includes, again unfortunately, that “As the group watched, the shadow inched from left to right.” Of course it does inch a little from left to right as the winter sun follows its arced path, but mostly it moves downward as the sun rises in the sky. Gallagher’s treatment of the movement, however, has led McCormack and others seemingly to believe and to portray that the shadow traverses the entire message, which it by no means does.
Nevertheless, as the compound left-side rock protuberance does cast a shadow on the panel, it remains possible that it hits a target and that that target is the sun symbol. Observation of the solstice event, however, disproves that hypothesis, as shown in Wise’s photographs. Whichever shadow you pick, whether the prominent shadow of the protuberance, or the slim one of the left wall, no shadow appears to indicate directly any specific target on the panel. And that Wise witnessed nothing different from Gallagher is supported when one reviews the photograph of the solstice event that Gallagher included with her article in Wonderful West Virginia (detail pictured above).
Roger Wise stops here and assumes complete certainty that there is no winter solstice alignment at the Luther Elkins petroglyph, heroically disproving once and for all Fell’s fantastic translation and casting grave doubt on any notion of Ogham in West Virginia. He is unwilling to question sympathetically what many people for the previous two decades had construed as solar alignment. Extending such sympathy, one must figure that people have believed that the rock protuberance in the upper left-hand corner together with the left-hand wall is the shadow-casting marker and that the target is in fact the entire panel. It is conceivable that, existing on the southern side of the panel, the prominent rock features to the left of the petroglyph would only cast a shadow on the panel when the sun is at its southernmost position in the sky. That would mean the winter solstice and most likely an unknown small number of days on either side of the solstice. (I have not been able to confirm this hypothesis.) Noticing this, a petroglyph carver conceivably could have referred to the event in a message that itself was not particularly a target in the alignment. Indeed, such inscribed words might read, in a loose translation from the Old Irish (not that I’m familiar with this language), something like: “AT THE TIME OF SUNRISE, A RAY GRAZES THE NOTCH ON THE LEFT SIDE ON CHRISTMAS DAY.” And perhaps this carver even let the shadows on the left somewhat frame the corner of the message, as Wise’s photographs might suggest. This effect, then, might be what Gallagher is referring to when she identifies the sun symbol as a target, for it lies within the parameters of the loose-fitting shadow frame.
The explanation is a stretch of the imagination. But it is, I suppose, possible. I do not know of any other naturally occurring solar alignments that have been given any significance (assuming, perhaps wrongly, that the petroglyph carver did not manufacture the overhang features). Mostly, I believe, solar alignments of any significance have been arranged by human artifice, like a standing stone that casts a shadow or a stone-pile chamber with a precisely placed window. These are the presuppositions by which the knowledgeable Roger Wise was naturally working. But I suppose the scenario I have suggested is humanly plausible.
Plausible perhaps, but the degree of uncertainty is staggering, especially so in light of the cavalier nature of Fell’s translation, and especially so in contrast to the ecstatic certainty assumed by Wonderful West Virginia. I would be remiss if I did not include somewhere in this report, and it has fallen till now to do it, the claims that have been made — but have not been, and perhaps even if true cannot possibly be, supported — concerning the Luther Elkins petroglyph, found in the West Virginia Archeologist’s initial 1983 reaction to the fantastic discovery. Arch-skeptic W. Hunter Lesser asks:
Is Dr. Fell’s translation validated by observation of the winter solstice sunrise striking a sunburst design on the Wyoming County petroglyph? The distinguished amateur archeologist Sigfus Olafson made several interesting observations in a letter published in the March 3 edition of the Charleston Gazette (Olafson 1983). Mr. Olafson is familiar with both the Wyoming and Boone county petroglyph sites, as well as many other petroglyphs in our state (Olafson 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953; Archeology Section Files). He even published an article on the Horse Creek petroglyph in the West Virginia Archeologist 33 years ago (Olafson 1950).
Mr. Olafson pointed out in his letter that there was an overhang existing at the Wyoming County site when the designs were carved. This overhang has since broken off and is lying at the foot of the petroglyph. Before the overhang broke off, sunlight could not reach the sunburst design (Olafson 1983). Thus, Dr. Fell’s translation is not validated at all.
Who knows? — maybe a previous structure allowed for a more dramatic solar alignment! . . . But that is not what Olafson is claiming (or what Lesser is claiming Olafson is claiming), and in any case, we will never know. And thus a seal of uncertainty is laid for good on Barry Fell’s translations of the West Virginia petroglyphs, no matter how much their markings might look like Ogham and no matter how much certain symbols might look Christian.
INDEED IT IS fortunate (for the cause of substantiating the claim of early Irish presence in America) that in the September just previous to Wise’s research, Robert Pyle announced — for the first time publicly at the Hermitage of the Holy Cross — that his hired tests concluded that the Cook Site man’s DNA is from the British Isles and that his remains carbon-date to around 710 AD. Meet the Man from West Virginia: seemingly, a Celt from the eighth century.
MY FRIENDS AND I were graciously welcomed at the monastery. When we arrived we were directed to park in a grass field, just like my family would do whenever we would go down to West Virginia for a party. I loved it; I was immediately drawn just to the grass — its greenness and thickness and toughness, its feel and smell — it all evoked long-lost childhood experience, but now in the context of a holy monastery, dedicated to Christ. Of course, it was the faith of the people that lent this quality to the grass.
The priest-monk Fr. Ambrose (formerly Fr. Alexey) gave the first talk, and I remember it like a heavenly dream. His long beard and hair were a soft white, his face glowing with the warmth of joy and humor. He spoke very naturally, even when reading from text, so that his many asides flowed evenly with whatever he was presenting. And his clear, calm, and animated voice was that of a loving and experienced father.
His topic was one he loved, ancient Celtic Christianity, and he enumerated its many features that people so often take to be unique to the ancient Celts, but are actually common to all forms of traditional Christian spirituality as known to the Orthodox. The ancient Celts’ intimate relationship with their natural environment is in fact known throughout the Christian world, where in so many places holy springs and the like are venerated and Saints’ Lives tell of peaceful coexistence with beasts of all diversity. The Celts’ love of art, learning, and preservation of knowledge has always been a specialty of Eastern monks such as, for example, those following the immortal tradition of the Cappadocian fathers Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. The Celtic practice of anamcharas or “soul-friends” is no different from the pattern of spiritual discipleship that is the hallmark of Orthodox monasticism, in contrast to the comparatively impersonal monastic orders that arose in the West after the Schism. In fact, many scholars and writers have noted the particularly Eastern character of ancient Celtic monasticism, an influence thought to have reached the British Isles somehow from the region of Egypt, due to striking similarities in art and culture between the two places.
Thus, so often when discussing the ancient Celtic monks, Fr. Ambrose had occasion to refer to the Orthodox lives of himself and his fellow monks in the very monastery in which we were gathered. Thereby did he teach us his students that the recovery of the past under discussion was not a matter of historical restoration, but of entering the same Spirit-filled life of the still-living Church that was also lived by the ancient Celtic saints. As I read St. Adomnan’s Life of Columba, therefore, its stories fit seamlessly into my Orthodox life and appear not as incredible fables from an irretrievable past, as another modern man might feel, but actually, in a way, contemporary. That is, the sacred time that we inhabit is actually, empirically the same. As I read about the Saints in books, they are like distant soul-friends and spiritual fathers. And then when I pray to them any notion of distance disappears, and they are present. It is truly an exhilarating experience to see so many centuries condensed so closely within the Body of Christ and the communion of Saints — like soils from around the world being mixed in a single holy grave. Such was my impression as I basked in Fr. Ambrose’s lecture.
As for those ancient Celts, Fr. Ambrose found one characteristic he considered particular to them among the Saints. Their prevalent willingness to renounce their homeland and go on permanent pilgrimage, he found unique. This is not in the least to say that pilgrimage and exile for Christ’s sake were unknown to the rest of the Christian world, but the Celtic white martyrdom was something different and a most special development amid all the various expressions of the Gospel that have occurred within the Church. Fr. Ambrose recalled the words of Christ, Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life (Matt. 19:29). Accordingly, a frequent practice among the Celts, Fr. Ambrose told us (bracing us at this point), was to give and take their children in adoption. Sometimes it was to promote peace and unity with neighboring families or tribes, but very often the children were given to monasteries, dedicated to God from the earliest age. St. Brendan, for one, was raised this way, having as a foster-mother the holy abbess St. Ita (no wonder he became one of the greatest white martyrs). This practice of adoption is a very strange one to modern sensibilities, and Fr. Ambrose tried his best to cushion the blow of hearing it without mitigating the force of the blow itself. The virtue evident in such adoption practices and white martyrdom alike is a ready disposition to sacrifice all emotional ties to this world and ultimately to be alone before God, loving Him above all else. Living already on the edge of the known world, theirs was not the calling — I speak concerning the spiritual leaders among the Celts — to convert the nations (which they did anyway in several cases among the tribes of Northern Europe, incidentally). But rather theirs was the calling to perfect their own conversion to God in repentance, watchfulness, and prayer.
This touches on a qualifying point about the white martyrs’ travels that was stressed by Fr. Ambrose and is well represented by these words of explorer Tim Severin: “God’s service on these voyages did not have its modern sense of an overseas mission to go to convert heathen lands. On the contrary, the territories that the Irish monks sought were the unknown and uninhabited lands beyond the horizon, the special places, the wondrous lands to be revealed by God. In the apt phrase of the time, they were the Promised Lands. To reach these farthest territories was a heavenly gift; to be able to live in them, isolated from the evils of the world, was an even greater prize. There can seldom have been a stronger drive to probe the unknown in the entire story of human exploration. It was the quintessential motive for exploration at almost any price, and there is no reason why it should not have brought them across the Atlantic.”
AFTER A MIDDAY break at the Hermitage, during which my friends and I could relax and prayerfully enjoy the monastery, archaeologist Robert Pyle gave a talk and slide show presentation on his work in West Virginia. Here he announced for the first time the results of his DNA and radiocarbon-dating tests on the man found near the Cook site petroglyph. The next day these results were reported in the Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail.
The DNA testing had been performed by genealogical experts at Brigham Young University. Taken from the choicest spot of a skeleton, the roots of the teeth, the mitochondrial DNA was compared with varieties of Native American and European samples, matching best with the British Isles. The possibility that the human remains, those of an adult male, might have been European was first suggested to Pyle by the sufficiently preserved skull’s indicative “brachycephalic (round headed) feature,” as he writes on his website. The radiocarbon dating results, reached by the highly-esteemed Stafford Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colorado, are thought to be accurate within forty years, plus or minus. Thus the date of 710 AD might be understood as 670–750 AD. (By way of comparison: the Council of Whitby was in 664, Iona monastery converted to the Byzantine-Roman dating of Easter in 716, both the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells date to this general period, and the Norsemen did not first descend on the Celts until the years 794–795.) Pyle privately raised some $7,000 for the tests, holding out a long while to afford the best laboratories.
The Sunday Gazette-Mail, on its part, dutifully reached for comment the president of the Council for West Virginia Archeology — the state association of professionals who have long combated the small group of what they call “cult archaeologists,” those who have been trying (without an acceptable amount of academic rigor) to prove that ancient Celts reached America. The president, Robert Maslowski, called Pyle’s recent findings “interesting,” but doubted they were true. Seemingly wary of Pyle’s lack of scholarly credentials (though being federally certified and working professionally in the field in a variety of ways for the past three decades, Pyle has never completed a college degree), he said the case still needed “to be examined by the professional community. We would welcome the opportunity to go over the evidence — to look at the skeletal material, the archaeological material, the radiocarbon data and the DNA data, then draw our own conclusions.” Perhaps Council vice-president Roger Wise’s work three months later was seen as part of these concerted efforts.
On his side, Pyle expected and accepted the skepticism. He said, “That’s science. No one totally, 100-percent endorses a new idea.... I’ll let science decide where to go from here.”
IN REGARD TO where science might go, there has long been conspicuous want of archaeological artifacts from the petroglyph sites that bolster the theory of their Celtic origin. On the need for such evidence, Tim Severin concludes his book The Brendan Voyage saying firstly of his beloved curragh, Brendan, that it “had demonstrated that the voyage could be done with medieval material and medieval technology. But in the final analysis the only conclusive proof that it had been done will be if an authentic relic from an early Irish visit is found one day on North American soil. Perhaps it will be a rock scratched with an early Irish inscription, or the foundation of an Irish beehive hut that can be dated accurately to the days of the extraordinary Irish voyages. Admittedly the chances of such a discovery are slim. Irish relics have not yet been found in Iceland [emphasis mine], where it is known the Irish hermits settled for some time, and if the early Christian Irish did touch on North America, they would have left only the lightest fingerprint. It would be singularly fortunate if such a faint trace is located on a very long coastline which is either desolate and little known, or in well-favored areas covered over by more recent development.”
Looking at the same problem Robert Pyle would ask: “We can’t say for certain that Irish artifacts have been found at the [Luther Elkins] site because, the question is, what IS an Irish artifact [that is, artifacts have been found at the site, but whose exactly they were cannot be determined] ... what would the monks have left behind? Tin whistles come to mind — they are Irish! But they’d have rusted away long ago. Fifteen hundred years ago, Irish monks would have been traveling lightly, living off the land, using the same things the natives used. Everything they had was biodegradable. Even metal knives would have rusted away if left behind (actually, pieces of rusted metal have been found many times).”
So the most indicative relic that an ancient Celt could possibly have left behind is himself, his own body, his own weary, Christ-serving bones. But is the Man from West Virginia a servant of Christ? DNA, like a photographic image, can tell a lot of things, but it can’t tell what kind of person someone is. Even if he carved Christ’s name on a rock, not everyone that saith unto Christ, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of Christ’s Father which is in heaven (Matt. 7:21). The era of conflict epitomized by the Council of Whitby was a complex one in which good and evil did battle not on opposing sides of a council but in the individual heart of each man. The main-stage adversaries at Whitby, Colman for the Irish and Wilfrid for the Anglo-Saxons, are both sainted by the Church, both seen as having traded wisely with the talents they had been given. The inevitable cultural conflict they underwent is not imputed to them. But no doubt theirs are exceptional souls, and there must be many from their times who did not respond so virtuously to the challenge of cultural conflict. St. Wilfrid enlarged his soul by humbly conforming his mind to that of the Church in a pioneering way that would provide peace for the future; and St. Colman humbly preserved unchanged the heritage of his fathers whose faith had been productive of so much manifest sanctity — the virtue of which faith is evidenced further by his allowing the sting of defeat, not to overcome him, but to work a wondrous repentance in his soul. But how many of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons alike were just stubborn nationalist snobs?
It is an easy matter to stand strongly for some relative good (such as, for example, one cultural expression of a faith among many) if one sacrifices the absolute good of Christian love for neighbors. But to strive instead for the Christ-like love entailing complete self-sacrifice is a much narrower and more difficult path. To acquire such love for man, many Christians have removed themselves from society in order more perfectly to fulfill the chief of commandments to love God, Who is the source of all love and very Love Himself. But to balance the two great commandments, to love God and man, is a tricky thing, and one can renounce the world just as easily if he hates his brother than if he loves him. The Pilgrims from the British Isles who we know for certain came to America escaping religious persecution (that is, in the 17th century), we know also to be characterized by a mixed and contradictory bag of morals. Any potential prehistoric pilgrims to America may have been saints, white martyrs, or they may have been no better than those who followed them.
Thus the skepticism so characteristic of modern science also finds purpose in the Church’s process of recognizing saints. To proclaim someone a saint worthy of veneration is a weighty matter to be taken up by Christians with a sufficient degree of discernment and gravity. The only reason we can venerate saints is because, firstly, we worship Christ, and, secondly, in some manner these men and women, by doing God’s will on this earth, open windows of grace through which we can draw closer to the Incarnate God. So one wants to be certain any veneration one gives to a man is related directly to one’s worship of the Godman. God (by Whom the saints do His will in the first place) wants this too, since it is through the saints that we come to know Him. Thus the hard-fact, quantifiable evidence from repeatable experiments, that which in science yields certainty, in the field of proclaiming saints is the seal of divine revelation — which operates according to no laws known by man, nor which can be made subject to man, as can so easily the material objects of the senses. We still await God’s own decisive opinion on the petroglyph question.
Because surely, absolute faith cannot be placed in the certainty of scientific evidence, no matter how accurate. Even if you could prove beyond a doubt that ancient Christian Celts were in America, it would be a mere empty fact. Even if you could assemble scientifically every last detail of the past, you would only be raising up the bones of the dead in order to mock them in their misery. You would not bring life to anyone or anything, least of all to your own mortal self. Indeed, scientific evidence, taken by itself, is an awfully violent way we have for researching the past. If the Man from West Virginia is not risen in Christ, no manner of certainty about him will raise him from the dead. It all means nothing if Christ is not risen, and correspondingly if man is not risen in Christ. True faith abides only in Christ, and by extension true certainty only in a creation attributed wholly to Him, the true source of all knowledge and very Wisdom Himself.
I think that if we were a pious and God-loving people, we would have been introduced to the Man from West Virginia a long time ago. And then we wouldn’t have had to deal so roughly with his body, subjecting him to so many tests. But we are a long way off from the placid shores of our heavenly home, and such offenses happen. We can and should ask him to forgive us, and with a godly generosity he can do this. Between friends (so he could graciously deem), what is a little bone extraction from the roots of the teeth, anyway? But we should not betray our friend by idolizing his DNA instead of rising above the religion of science and turning in our hearts to his and our God, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I pray very deeply, at least as best as I a spiritual degenerate can, that God reveal to us His saints, if there be any, resting in our land. My bones, my flesh and blood, my jilted memory, my loving but divorced parents, my people, my land have all made this request, even if dumbly. My heart hears them and joins their request, but in so many ways that should not be, my heart too is dumb. And Appalachia and all America continue to suffer. My only hope is that God can look down, see, and understand. And forgive.
I think that He does. For I am reminded that Christ came into the world not to take away human suffering, but to imbue it with all the dignity and glory due unto the men made in His image. To love, amidst all, to love. This is the ocean of grace located in Christ, which His saints carry with them wherever they go, amidst whatever trials they endure. I only pray that I and the souls currently indwelling our continent are prepared to receive this ocean of grace, His forgiveness, and are not drowned with shame upon being presented with what we have not achieved. Lord have mercy on my wretched soul.
And Lord have mercy on the soul of Thy departed servant, the Man from West Virginia, wherever he’s from and whoever he is, that in Thy holy and glorious Resurrection he, and we all, may be granted everlasting life and memory eternal.