All photos taken by Mimi Hernandez. Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through album:
The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania is in essence a collective work of glorious and sacred art. My imagination’s description conjures up a steampunk holy ground and can’t help but think of the Walking Dead junkyard artists. If they had been catholic this is probably what their church would look like.
All kidding aside, the site inspires reverence for the resolute perseverance of the Lithuanian people and their commitment to faith and nationality. The first crosses were laid there by the early 1800s and despite several attempts by the Soviet Union to destroy the hill time and time again the holy site attracts pilgrimage from Lithuanian folks determined to make a stand for their heritage. The site also attracts the grieving, the faithful, and the curious from around the region and from around the world.
Hundreds of thousands of crosses have been left here from these seekers and believers over the years. Whether to honor a lost loved one, to unburden their ails, or to stake a commitment to Lithuanian pride, people have left crosses there ranging from towering statuesque monuments to miniscule tokens and rosaries.
I decided during my stay in Lithuania to visit this quirky curiosity of a holy site and to make my own personal pilgrimage. I was in the midst of a monthlong journey which spanned Bogota, Iceland, London and Lithuania but the bulk of my time was spent in Lithuania. My intention on this immaculate land was to work, write and heal. Recent circumstances in my personal life weighed heavily on me and I needed to be somewhere quiet where I could find and listen to my inner voice. Lithuania was that peaceful place for me.
As a cultural catholic and spiritually eclectic person I took the pilgrimage seriously. I was grateful for the opportunity to honor the special people I have lost in my life, to unburden the resentments that had seeped into me from past relationships, and to ask for a release from any generational grief and trauma that weighed on my children and the future generations.
It was a freezing wintery Tuesday when I set out on my personal pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses. It was December 11, 2018. The sun was in a philosophic expansive Sagittarius and the moon cast its Aquarian energy of humanistic idealism. I showed up with the sensitivity and vulnerability of my Cancerian sun and moon heart. Much of the magic was in the journey from Vilnius to the Hill of Crosses. For you fellow nomads I have recapped my logistics here in ten steps:
- Take an Uber from my home base of Uzupiz to the bus station in the old town of Vilnius. I could have walked in less than 30 minutes but it was very cold and I wanted time for a nice breakfast.
- Purchase a train ticket from Vilnius to Šiauliai (pronounced show-LAY). There are around four trips a day so there is flexibility in departure and return. I opted for a first class ticket. This is simply because it was $17 and for the first time in my life I felt it was OK to upgrade.
- Enjoy a 2 and a half hour ride in a beautifully modern and comfortable train. Honestly the coach section looked impressively spacious and comfortable as well. I was offered a fish sandwich but I was still full from breakfast. I was given a bottled water.
- Listen to music. The day’s DnB playlist included Colossus, Pablo Nouvelle, Concord Dawn, Chase & Status, Keeno, Wilkinson and Bcee to name a few.
- List my intentions. What am I willing to let go of? What do I bring and what do I take away? Prayers from my friends, grief and praise for my love ones who have passed, healing for my children and my family. I want to bury and find closure with many wounds in my heart. I want to fill these spaces with goodness and giving. I want to thank the darkness and reopen to light.
- Arrive at Šiauliai train station. I had written all the instructions on my arm because here less people know English. I knew I had to walk about a half a mile to the bus station from here. I knew I had to turn left at the brick church and walk across the street from the mall, but all I had to do was follow everyone else in that direction.
- Locate the bus to Domantai Street. I went up to the clerk and pointed at my arm. She understood right away that I was a Hill pilgrim and she laughed out loud about my arm directions. Anyone who has ever been a tourist in Lithuania knows that locals are not sociable with tourists. They are a serious and proud people and while I had been yelled at a few times in the grocery store this was the first time someone shared a giggle with me. This simple interaction added a spark of joy to my trip. She handed me a cheat sheet with bus numbers and times.
- Take bus to Domantai Street. 2 pounds. The bus is crowded with locals and I must be attentive to the stop that has a brown sign that says “Kryžių kalna.” It was a 25 minute long ride. It was packed and someone’s perfume almost made me sick.
- Exit bus and take in the nature. I got off at the side of the road along with a group of 5 other tourists. I let them move along so that I could take my time and revere. I was delighted to be in the countryside. I had been on a journey for weeks that was mostly city based. Here I walked down a long tree lined road while stopping to talk to trees, pet the moss, and appreciate the icicle studded green cover crops. I felt such a glee.
- Walk 2 kilometers to the Hill of Crosses.
When I arrived to the site I decided to visit the Visitor Center first. My toes and nose were freezing and I thought I would take some time to warm up while I visit the gift shop. I bought a few little trinkets made of Baltic amber. Lithuania is a center for Baltic amber and its crafts. Native amber and its vibrations of releasing old patterns and deeply held energies were a perfect accompaniment to the Hill of Crosses, a place where people come to unburden and offer praise.
On that misty and mystical afternoon, I assumed my trek through the densely covered “forest” of crosses. I wandered along the “deer paths” and thick mazes of crosses in all their magnificent diversity: labeled crosses with names on them, official crosses with flags on them, towering crosses for families, sweet little crosses for babies, bundles of rosaries for grandmothers, monument crosses for Lithuania, carvings of Jesus for everyone, altars of Mary for the world. There were crosses upon crosses. There were piles of crosses composting. Some crosses even had sound installed. Eerie voices enchant and in chant flowing with prayers and floating off onto an icy breeze.
I was overwhelmed. I was humbled and allowed myself to be moved. I was in wonderment. Who were these thousands of souls called here with their hearts on their sleeves in reverence to their depths?
On this crisp afternoon part of my sacred task was to find the spot where I would leave my own cross. I had a basic little wooden cross adorned with Baltic amber gravel. I stood before one grandiose monument of Jesus and just purged tears in an incomprehensible release of grief. I felt held by the empathy on his face and the love of his arms’ reach. I then sat with another statue of a pensive Jesus. I like the way he was thinking deeply and I recognized his pondering stance in myself.
Here I sat with my list. It wasn’t just an unburdening but it was also an appeal for what I could assume. How can I be a better person. Fill me with compassion. Engage me in service. Connect me with my self-worthiness so that I can live a more meaningful life of giving. Thank you for letting me leave my scars on this sacred ground, now how I can I help in return. I left a white hair, DNA of wise woman, in resonance of wisdom, on the hand of the pensive Jeez.
I wandered around some more and stopped to recognize all the artistic embodiments to the holy feminine. Statues of Maria with her tender gaze. Altars to the mother in all her praise.
Finally I knew in my heart I had found the perfect spot to leave my little cross. I hung it on the massive evergreen spruce. I wasn’t the only one drawn to the grand spruce for there were thickets of crosses under its arching and protective branches. My life honors trees and plants more than any relic or statue. It was the holiday season and this was my sole decoration this year. I removed my favorite earring to fashion a hook for my cross. I left my cross and all it represents on the greenery at the Hill of Crosses.