Sep 17, 2023Liked by Paul Kingsnorth

The earth in it's varied splendours is a manifestation of God's grace.

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“All topography viewed as sacred... as a manifestation of the creator.” Machine society totally misses this, seeing all places to be interchangeable. But for those praying and listening, God speaks through the landscape and “genius loci” of place. Very much looking forward to your stories as you seek to out these sacred places and enlighten us with your discoveries. And Hooray to the uprising of a fresh Folk Christianity!

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Oh quite excited for this series!

I’ve mentioned this in another essay, and I think I’ll write about it (can use a break from thinking about politics), but the metaphor of “fake unicorn horns” is always how I’ve understood wells and sacred trees.

In “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle, a witch captures the last unicorn and puts her in a circus. But knowing that most don’t have the innocence required to see unicorns any more, she puts a fake unicorn horn on the real unicorn so people can see her.

Often at such sites, the religious iconography (neopagan, Christian, etc) is there to point to the fact the place is sacred. In Shinto, it’s the same: there are markers to tell you a tree or a spring has been noticed as being sacred. None of those external signs make the place sacred, they’re just the fake unicorn horns pointing to the actually-existing “unicorn” most have forgotten how to see.

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These ancient places hold rich memories still lingering even in the air. As Dr McGilchrist emphasizes so often, our relationship to nature/creation is fundamental to a real under-standing of our place, every which way.

I do think the descent into a holy well captures our intuitive feel of the unconscious attracting reality.

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‘Once more. Say, you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries - stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.’

Moby-Dick page 2.

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This written nearly 30 years ago helped me on my way (little tribute at the end to Derek Brown - a good man)

Finding old wells

Paths lead to wells

And waiting water;

Our feet inscribe history.

Darkly into an earth

Filled with clarity

We reach and touch reality;

There is a cold slaking,

A holiness, incompressible,

In the ground of our being.

By the clean water

You shall know our houses

And the strong arms that held us

In sweetness refilled over centuries.

Written after a conversationwith Derek Brown at Stocksfield [England]

2 November 1996

Phil Harris

25 November 1996

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I definitely like the idea of community being built through conjugating the absolute, material, necessity for water which accounts for the fact that the troglodyte church in Dordogne was built right next to a spring (Brantôme ?), and the spiritual nourishment that comes from it. (Maybe man can live without bread alone, which a lot of people are trying to do right now, but he can't live without good, clean, pure water. Which reminds me that a while ago, Konrad Lorenz expressed concern about the way that we were...treating our water.)

In the Old Testament, so much goes on at the wells. So many important events. Marriages are made. A well is a good place to meet people, and chat, like the market, not just to worship, although worship is important, certainly.

Questions, and musing... the difference between holy water, and oil, and what both of them could be for.

Indoors, and outdoors... I have certainly noticed how differently Man behaves when he has a roof over his head, and he can't feel his feet on the naked soil, or see the sky above him. Big differences in the way he buys and sells, too. Too much time indoors blunts the soul (and the body), I fear.

A note on paganism : in the course of my personal readings, I have come to believe that Christianity arose out of the ashes of what we now call "paganism". Christianity arose, in part, largely due to the influence of Greek rationalism on the Mediterranean world, and the Christian faith has a great debt to Greek rationalism, while perpetuating it.

It is dangerous to throw rationalism out the window, out of the misguided ? belief that it is synonym of the machine world, even though the word "machine" comes to us from Greek.

Man does not live by bread ALONE, by rationalism ALONE... he needs to conjugate different ways of thinking/believing in order to feel fully alive. I believe.

I was interested to read about the folk gatherings to worship at the wells, and definitely like the idea of church at the wells.

In France, many people associate Christianity with a sad, dour religion that dwells on death and suffering in a way that stifles freshness and joy. And in France, it is sometimes difficult to dispel this belief when in contact with institutionalized Christianity (Protestant or Catholic). The return to Greek mythology, in people's minds, is an antidote to all this morbid sadness. But while some people tell me that God is dead in France, and we have lots of references to Greek mythology, I see no great joy or freshness around me...

Looking forward to seeing/hearing about the wells.

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Looking forward to this venture around wells, the liminal, the life-giving water. Along that very theme is this short video of how water is a theme of life across the topography of the Christian Scriptures: https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/water-of-life/

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Gorgeous essay and introduction to the series. As compensation for the oft-miserable weather here, Ireland offers as consolation a lush and watery landscape. Here in the midlands, I'm always finding myself drawn to the incredible Camcor River, said to be one of the only pristine rivers left in Ireland. It features various bridges and small wooden jetties that allow one to watch the unique Croneen Trout lazily migrating up and down the river. Summer of 2022 there seemed to be another fish every couple of feet. This summer, I often couldn't find a single one. It was distressing. Was I imagining some sort of decline? Apparently, no: https://www.offalyexpress.ie/news/midland-tribune/869787/worrying-decline-in-numbers-of-famous-south-offaly-fish.html

Waters are perhaps the phenomenon most able to simply and clearly illustrate how we live in a world of endlessly repeating patterns arising interdependently; ebbs and flows, swirling eddies that persist awhile before vanishing, seeming mighty waves that rise and disappear back into the surf or crash along a shoreline. I sometimes think about my uncle Frederick, born in Belfast in 1910, and how he'd sit quietly smoking a pipe until some family argument became heated and he'd chime in with, "All is vanity..." Impossible to argue against, and true.

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We hear about water in the first paragraph of the Bible. Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters. Plus the many references to living water and He leads us beside still waters. Jesus walked on water, and met people at the wells as he traveled. Your trek sounds awesome, cant wait to hear more.

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This could be a reference to Australia - 'The more I think about this - and observe its impacts - the more I understand the importance of the sacred manifesting in the landscape itself ... ‘all topography was viewed by the Irish as sacred.’ From a Christian perspective, this means that the place itself was a manifestation of its creator, who, along with His saints, could be communed with through the creation.'

My parents were Irish, I live in Britain and am soon to move to Australia. I want to connect to the spirit of the land over there, to its sacred essence. Obviously I'm not an aboriginal native though. I'm a Mancunian of Irish heritage and a Christian (Catholic) in the 'baptised paganism' school of CS Lewis and George MacDonald. I know there are deep spiritual synergies between this side of the world and the Southern Hemisphere. How to make those connections though? How to serve and act as that bridge?

It seems to me from a distance - and I might be wrong - that a lot of the talk in Australia surrounding aboriginal matters revolves around proposed political and social 'solutions' to a 'problem.' But these things are on a different, deeper level. They are primordial, archetypal and eternal.

I won't know till I get there, of course, but this essay's helped me get these themes into some kind of perspective and order. And that's a start.

So thank you Paul and looking forward to the rest.

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What you wrote about here hits on probably the single biggest draw to Orthodoxy for me: that, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann pointed out, Orthodoxy sees the entire creation as sacramental, at least potentially and certainly in terms of a proper telos. Everything is meant to be the place where we meet God and can be the instrument God uses to bestow His Life upon His people.

A note on the Christianizing of Pagan sacred sites: the Orthodox priest and Biblical scholar Fr. Stephen De Young pointed out that after the incident at Babel, God gave the governance of the nations over to what we would call angelic powers, and have been called gods, but that these accepted the worship of the people and so themselves fell and became what we call demons. Additionally, there was an ancient Hebrew notion, much like their pagan neighbors, that there were different spirits that governed different aspects of creation. Now, while the pagans had a closer identification with some aspect of nature with some spirit they worshiped than did the Hebrews, the line was blurry. In proper Hebrew theology, these powers, principalities, virtues, etc. that watched over creation were themselves creatures of YHWH. Many fell and became demons. The idea of patron saints, apparently, has to do with glorified humans taking over the responsibilities abandoned by these fallen spirits. So, in many ways, the "Christianization" of pagan holy sites is simply the replacement of a demonic spirit by a holy one of God, bringing that part of creation fully into His Kingdom.

I left a lot out in the logic and references Fr. De Young provided, but this is the gist of what I understood him to be saying.

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I'm looking forward to this series immensely. I have always loved hidden gems in nature that speak to the spiritual side of humanity. Who knows, we may need these wells for more than healing in the future. With the 'powers that be' buying up natural water supplies and the G20 agreeing to digital IDs and CBDCs for their populations, we might simply just need a drink!

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Sep 17, 2023·edited Sep 17, 2023

What an incredible project. There's no shortage of holy wells in England too - as I recall, mainly in the West (Cornwall/Devon/Wales), where the pre-Augustine "wild Christianity" held sway. (I am planning an pilgrimage of my own to then wells and crosses of the West next year; it also happens to be the area from where both my paternal and maternal lines originated).

I've always loved the idea of a "sacred landscape," particularly in England (it doesn't exist in North America, with its outdated and failed Enlightenment-derived gnosticism). I know the notion of "ley lines" has been "disproven" by the "experts" but I think that there is a nugget of granite-hard truth at the core of it; one can get a sense of it on some of the national paths in England, especially the Ridgway.

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Oooh, I'm looking forward to this series - not least of which for the way you're weaving the natural world back into your narrative. I've never been much interested in what was or wasn't appropriated by Christianity; I'm happy to let the historians and theologians argue about that. Ultimately it's beside the point, because people, as you say, are drawn to wells (rivers, groves, mountaintops, outcroppings) for their own reasons, both practical and spiritual.

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Beautiful reflections

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