Fifty Holy Wells, #1
It’s interesting to me that Christian Saints choose solitude in wild places to get closer to God, not going to church.
I can definitely relate to that.
Great. The green desert looks a bit like Iceland. The next stop if the green desert wasn’t wild enough?
Paul! How did you learn about these places in the first time?
Are there springs, and wells in Ireland that were not holy wells ? Did people go there for fresh water the way they did in the Mediterranean ?
If there are, why do you think that some springs became holy ones, and some not ?
A question of being in a very secluded spot ?
The area is lovely. Desolate, but lovely.
There's a lot to mull over here, thanks Paul. Apart from the aching wildness of rock and greenery; there's the other things you mention: the miracle of levitation, the felling of ancient trees and the crucifixion of the spirit of place. Aren't holy wells strange attractors of powers good and evil? I've always found pools of hidden water quite threatening, as if there's a dissolution lurking there. Good advice not to drink and, yes, the real spring isn't there, but up the mountain. I just keep wondering, then, what a well really is.
We have a similar history here in Norway, with "holy places" and "hermit's places" (indeed, many missionaries also came to Norway and Iceland to seek God, probably from Britain and Ireland - some historical sources say that hermits were on Iceland when the Norwegian Vikings arrived there to settle).
In my area the small huts of the hermits were called "Kova". So that word is probably related to "cave". The word is not in use in Norwegian anymore, but some people in my area have the name "Kovajord", "cave-earth" or "cave-field", and I suspect that this name relates back to this phenomenon.
There was also much transferring of more ancient "nature mysticism" over to Christian folk beliefs, in medieval times. This also would include the intermingling of Christian faith with elements of nature (trees, plants, flowers, rocks, sites etc.) But in Norway this eroded away after the Reformation, so to speak, but especially as late as the 19th century (that is when "The Enlightenment" and modernization kicks in, for better and for worse).
I have thought about an idea of starting a scout group in my local church which would deal with practical tasks and experiences (classic scouting things), but connected to nature elements: Fire, water, earth, air, types of animals etc. The thing is: Each of these elements is "spiritualized" and "divinized" in the Bible, in complex ways. (God is in the fire (Moses), in the wind (Elijah, in a "Kova"), in holy water (baptism or ritual cleaning of the law), in wood (tabernacle) etc. etc.) So it is would seem quite fruitful to build bridges between the Tradition/liturgy/spirituality and practical experience of - and engagement with - nature. Of course there is much mysticism involved in these things, but at the same time "the metaphysics of mechanical materialism" is no longer really believable, if it ever was.
I look at the stuff I take camping and think Im a "light" hiker or minimalist but this guy just crawls between two rocks and lives there. Very impressive. I do wonder if he had anything, a knife or fire making tool. Im sure he didnt just sit around all day, would be fascinating to me to know the day to day of his life.
Sounds great Paul.. must look it up sometime en route to Doolin for the Craic agus an Ceól.
Very inspiring Sunday read. Shared with the family. Much appreciated.
As someone with earth-based spiritual leanings (what one friend calls being a "small-p pagan") I'm enjoying reading about the holy wells of Ireland and considering the places I have known in my local USA geographies that hold similar sacred energies, whether or not I was aware of them at the time I encountered them. I had visited the city of Seattle, Washington as a child, but only when I visited as an adult did did I comprehend the powerful presence of Mount Rainier. It's visible from many places, and whenever it appeared in the distance I couldn't take my eyes off it. I began to understand how the ancients perceived mountains as gods, or the dwelling places of gods.
I clicked through to the article about offerings and litter and was struck by the phrase "non-spiritual egocentric motives." Most offering traditions strike me as being both spiritual AND egocentric -- "gifts" made out of self-interest, hoping God or the gods would bend reality in one's favor. Bribes, by another name. There may be no atheists in foxholes, and we've all wanted things to turn out our way. But a gift, to my mind, is given out of love, and not in the hope of getting something in return.
Still, I find the rag and "clootie tree" tradition beautiful, and long to make offerings of my own. At various times I have, taking care to leave gifts that are discreet and non-harming ("biodegradable" doesn't have a spiritual ring to it, but it's an essential component). I have left small polished stones, a bit of ground aromatic spices, or tiny wood carvings at places I love as tokens of my affection. (One favorite spot is a small, trickling fountain tucked into a neighborhood in Washington DC.) This latest essay inspires me to resume my modest practice of leaving occasional offerings.
Very good Sunday morning reading. I do wonder how often such hermits managed to get to Mass, whether priests visited to offer confession and Eucharist. Comparing the world at that time with the way we live now and it is hard to understand how there are not thousands seeking hermitage.
Lovely piece. It brought back to mind the "spring house" on my grandparents' farm. It was a small fieldstone shed built over a spring just downhill from the house. Inside, the floor was a smooth rectangle of water, kept to a consistent level by what amounted to a small dam at the rear of the structure, over which water constantly trickled, flowing out the rear of the house so that the area behind it was always a bit squishy. On older American farms, spring houses were common features, as I expect they were in many places. While they were built partly to protect water sources, their main purpose, especially by the time my dad came along, was refrigeration. No matter how hot it got in the summer, the spring water was cool enough to preserve food, which was kept in large jars or pots sunk into the water. And no matter how cold it got in winter, that liquid rectangle would never freeze.
No one ascribed sacredness to the place (and my grandparents, being good Methodists, would have scoffed at such superstition), but it was a place that had a strong presence. On the rare occasions I saw inside (by the time I came along not much was stored there except soft drinks for the big family gatherings we had at the farm), I did feel something akin to reverence. The inside was dark, still, and silent, and but for the watery floor, the place could have passed for a disused chapel.
I didn’t think the spring house pointed toward God, but it did seem to point to a life lived close to the land, lived with a reliance on the land being itself. Taking water the land gave without being prodded by an electric pump. Cooling food without plugging in a refrigerator. That was something already appealing to me in my pre-teens. I didn’t then have the notion of deliberately inhabiting places such as I would pick up later from nature writers, but I felt like I glimpsed something like that resting in the cool shadows of the spring house. And if that spring house intimated life in harmony with some sustaining wholeness, perhaps there was sacredness about it.
Thanks, Paul. And: if you are not familiar with it, you might enjoy Brian Friel’s beautiful play, “Translations,” which deals with the Ordnance Survey and has a conversation centered around a well called “Tobair Vree “
Interesting that Christian holy men and women of old more often than not chose solitude and silence in wild places as a way of getting closer to God. I find it especially interesting since the Bible begins ''In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God'. It would seem that to experience the essential nature of the 'Word' (God) it is best to be silent and listen, truly listen, out for it. Interesting, too, is that the listening is done near to water, life-giving and life-preserving.
Wonderful. The pilgrimage begins! Thank you.
Paul, I will be traveling in Ireland next week and would like to visit the well and cave. How easy is it to find? Is it inside the Burren National Park? Thanks.