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Water … Holy Wells

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  • Water … Holy Wells

    I was thinking about how so many people nowadays seem to have lost their wonder at, and reverence for, the natural world.

    But I guess there's nothing to stop our celebrating it. How about starting with water?

    And let's begin with some poetry from Thomas Traherne. If anyone thought that "nature poetry" had to wait till Wordsworth, then they've never come across Traherne. Traherne was a clergyman and something of a mystic, born in difficult times in England—the 17th century, a time racked by war and fanaticism (the upheaval of which, incidentally, acted as a spur to Thomas Hobbes to write one of the seminal works of modern political philosophy Leviathan, a work haunted by the fear of civil conflict).

    Thomas Traherne:

    In 1653, in the midst of the Commonwealth, he went to Brasenose College, Oxford, one of the most puritan colleges, gaining his BA in 1656. But he could find no one who would teach him felicity – happiness, which he wrote of as ‘the mistress of all other sciences’. And so he returned to Hereford. In 1657 he was appointed Rector of St Mary’s Church Credenhill, 5 miles NW, supported by Presbyterian clergy who were preachers at Hereford Cathedral. With the Restoration, and the return of King Charles II in 1660, he sought ordination. With no Bishop of Hereford, he journeyed to Launton near Bicester to be ordained by the exiled Bishop of Oxford, on 20th October 1660.

    At this time he was finishing one of his first works, Select Meditations, containing thinking which had developed through England’s darkest days. In it he sought to ‘teach Immortal Souls the way to Heaven’. This underestimated manuscript did not come to light until it was found in Birmingham in 1964. It was finally published in 1997, and has remained in print. ...

    And here's his poem "Shadows in the Water" —not to be missed:

    … what can it mean?
    But that below the purling stream
    Some unknown joys there be
    Laid up in store for me;
    To which I shall, when that thin skin
    Is broken, be admitted in.

    Since this is an American-based board I'll also throw in something from Emily Dickinson:

    But we can go back much further than this. Here's an old Irish hermit delighting in his hut in the woods in the tenth century:

    I have a hut in the wood,
    None knows it save my God:
    An ash tree on the hither side, a hazel bush beyond,
    A huge old tree encompasses it. ...
    And he doesn't, of course, forget the water:

    The voice of the wind against the branchy wood
    Upon the deep-blue sky:
    Cascades of the river, the note of the swan,
    Delightful music! ...
    Who could resist the rest after that? Here's the link:

    Finally, I'll end with a quotation from Brendan O'Malley speaking to the reverence for water and holy wells in the Christian past, particularly in Celtic Christendom—appropriately enough since he himself has connections with both Ireland and Scotland and is a priest in the Church in Wales (the Anglican communion in Wales).

    The Celtic saints were imbued with the mysterious reality of the continuing presence of God: His immanent presence in the world and therefore with the incarnational nature of all creation. In the way they recognised this mystery their world view was closer to our own than that of many in the intervening centuries with their more intellectual and doctrinal formulations[*]. They had a deep and abiding love of Holy Writ, evidenced in the beautifully illuminated texts of the period, and they cultivated the love of learning and piety. But more important to a rural people very close to nature, very down to earth and dwelling in a sacral environment, every well-spring, wood and stone took on a mystical significance. No doubt this proceeded from their pagan past but that was transformed; its numinous properties spiritualized by Christian prayer. The Scottish Gaelic language has a phrase "Are you going to church?" which when literally translated says "Are you going to the stones?" The awareness of the whole world as incarnational was linked to a tremendous "spirit of place". Holy wells locate for us this long and deep spiritual and cultural tradition.
    [*] I'm not so sure, but we can hope I guess!

    If anyone is in Britain or Ireland, or will be visiting there, and wants to go on pilgrimage to some of the more important holy wells, or simply to visit one near where he or she is, here's Brendan O'Malley's book:

    And here's another gazetteer that more generally covers holy sites in Britain, such as the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in Norfolk, but also covers healing pools, ancient shrines and much more:

  • #2
    Originally posted by Lewis View Post
    ... wants to go on pilgrimage to some of the more important holy wells, or simply to visit one near where he or she is, here's Brendan O'Malley's book:

    And here's another gazetteer that more generally covers holy sites in Britain, such as the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in Norfolk, but also covers healing pools, ancient shrines and much more:

    By the way, this was partly my way of cocking a snook at Joel Salatin's sneers at pilgrimage in his latest book. (I used to be a huge fan of Joel's but I'm afraid he has rubbed me up the wrong way this time.)

    But what I will do is undermine my own response there by sharing a quote from a well-known Christian scholar who does not, in other ways, share Joel's rather narrow sectarian views. This is Father Thomas Hopko, a late Orthodox priest of the OCA. So Fr. Hopko says:

    Gregory of Nyssa has one of the most fantastic harangues against pilgrimages you ever want to read. He said for Christians there’s no holy place that’s on this earth.


    Well … yeah, he has a point … but on the other hand, OK, so that's one Eastern Orthodox Christian view. But with the Orthodox there is never one monolithic view, as often appears from the outside, and as some Orthodox speakers seem to imply. In 19th century Russia just one monastery used to have to find food to cater to 200,000 pilgrims a year - that's like a large city on the move!

    And in the West pilgrimage was an important form of devotion. Nor was it merely some kind of religious tourism. People used to be sent on pilgrimage by their confessors as a form of penance. In Ireland to this day some 15,000 to 20,000 people a year climb the hill of Croagh Patrick, many of them barefoot. That's no stroll in the park.

    Anyway, Fr. Hopko is out of tune with the Joel religious ethos in other ways. He says:

    It’s [the liturgy] all biblical, and for those who are supposedly biblical, this is crucially important to understand Christian liturgy. You can’t understand it without it, because all this was fulfilled. It [the Law and the Prophets] wasn’t done away with; it was fulfilled.
    Yes, indeed. Joel seems to fail to understand this. Not "done away with" but "fulfilled". And see, for example, Luke 24:44 (or any number of other passages one could cite.) And has Joel never noticed who is present (besides the named disciples) at the Transfiguration and reflected on what those figures represent?

    Joel, also, gratingly, seems to imply that "grace" is not present in the Old Testament. Frankly I find this insulting to the Jews. The closest concept to grace in the Jewish scriptures in hesed and it's all over the Jewish scriptures. This word is translated as lovingkindness in the 1611 Bible (following Coverdale, I believe), and there are many, many occurrences of it. In The RSV it sometimes appears as "steadfast love" as in Hosea:

    And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.

    I was so disappointed that, once he was off his own subject of farming, Joel came across as so narrow and limited. He says in the new book that he's a graduate of Jim Jones University. But for reflection on nature, man, the cosmos, science, etc. I would recommend Philip Sherrard's book. Sherrard had a degree from Cambridge.


    • #3
      I assume it was Bob Jones University, not Jim Jones. The Bob Joneses have never been noted for tolerance or open-mindedness.


      • #4
        Yeah, and Jim Jones would serve you kool-aid -once!;-)


        • #5
          Oh, dear. I'm caught. Yeah, I remembered it was Bob Jones but I couldn't resist the joke.

          And I guess I've been too critical and Joel means well. Still, even though he didn't mean it to be so that book comes across as an unintentional indictment of American Protestanism of the sort Joel was brought up in. I was frankly shocked to find that many of these people seem to take the view that if Man "has dominion" he can just do what he likes. It's a kind of licensing of the bully-boy attitude - and claiming divine sanction for that!

          It occurred to me later that the "Canticle of the Sun" of St. Francis - on which the Anglican hymn "All Creatures of our God and King" is based - has a scriptural precursor. I don't know if this has ever been pointed out by theologians - I expect so: there's nothing new in this area - but I was suddenly struck that it had to be so. St. Francis has, I'm sure, to have based that on the song of the 3 Holy Children in the Fiery Furnace. This canticle is used liturgically by the Roman Catholic Church and by the Anglicans. I'm pretty sure the Orthodox use it, too, though I don't know. But it's originally from the Jewish scriptures. It's in the Apocrphya/Deuterocanonical books, which are received by the RCs the Anglicans and the Orthodox (though perhaps Joel's people reject them). But isn't this a beautiful canticle - all God's creatures singing to him and praising him (albeit unconsciously)?

          I think if the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Anglicans and the Jews take one view of the matter - and perhaps people who have no religious beliefs at all find some resonance with that, too, as I'm sure some must, then Joel's associates probably need to re-examine their attitudes.

          Here is a recording of that canticle:

          Last edited by Lewis; 06-13-2016, 09:06 AM.