It is said that people in the British Isles speak of the weather more than inhabitants of other countries do. Not surprising, perhaps, the climate is unpredictable. Not for us are the blues skies of California or, as in parts of Canada, the snows and sun dividing the year neatly into distinct seasons. No, in these isles each day can be as different as the next. There is one kind of weather, however, that we hope to avoid more than any other: rain.
Those who live in arid places pray for rain. We do the opposite. I once knew a parish priest who led his parish in a Corpus Christi procession through the streets of London each year. Rain was the great enemy. Each June a statue of St. Joseph was set on the presbytery balcony to implore the Holy Patriarch’s intercession for a dry procession. It never failed. I saw the favour granted year after year; I also saw the darkening sky and clouds disburse the rain at the end of the procession as the statue was carried indoors.
For many of us, water is everywhere; we take for granted the clean water piped to us each day from huge reservoirs via waterworks and treatment systems through the miles of pipes that transport it to our kitchens and bathrooms; all day and all night, aqueducts hum with life giving water.
So what of holy water? I suspect we think of this even less than we think of the H2O that flows from the taps into our homes. A new book has just been published by Sophia Institute Press called Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics by Henry Theiler. It is a slim volume, one could even say a humble work as befits its subject, for Holy Water is so much a part of Catholic life that it is easily overlooked,
Pause for a moment and think of the last time you entered a Catholic church. You probably blessed yourself with holy water. Was it an automatic gesture? A digit dipped in the stoop, a motion of fingers to forehead and across the breast – but, perhaps, accompanied by little or no thought? This book made me think again about that moment when the hand connects with the substance we call ‘holy water’ and, perhaps more importantly, with the ‘hidden powers’ contained therein.
First, a quote:
‘I was once in an oratory, and [the devil] appeared to me in an abominable form at my left side. Because he spoke to me, I looked particularly at his mouth — which was most frightening. It seemed that a great flame, all bright without shadow, came forth from his body. He told me in a terrifying way that I had really freed myself from his hands but that he would catch me with them again. I was struck with great fear and blessed myself as best I could; he disappeared, but returned right away. This happened to me twice. I didn’t know what to do. There was some holy water there, and I threw it in that direction; he never returned again … I often experience that there is nothing the devils flee from more — without returning — than holy water’.
The product of an over excited imagination? In fact, this passage is taken from the 31st chapter of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church. In light of it, perhaps we need to look again at that humble substance awaiting us as we enter our churches.
“Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics” is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Maybe, like me, on reading Holy Water you will be surprised at what you find. Theiler’s study starts with the Sacred Scriptures. In the first verses of Genesis we read of the mysterious relationship of water to creation as the Spirit moves over the waters. In the Book of Numbers, it is noted how the ancient Israelites blessed their homes and belongings with water. Likewise, the ancient Romans made use of water to bless their fields and houses. Both the Jewish and pagan practice foreshadows the use of holy water in the Christian epoch. Of that era, some of the earliest apostolic tradition testifies to its use. Around A.D. 130, Pope Alexander in his Apostolic Constitutions wrote:
‘We bless salt and water for the people, that all who may be sprinkled therewith may be cleansed and sanctified.’
So, from the earliest times, then, we find reference to the faithful, many of whom were to give their lives as a witness to the Lord in martyrdom after having been sprinkled with holy water at Holy Mass.
In theological terms, holy water is a sacramental. It is a mixture of blessed salt and blessed water, and, although, by its use, sanctifying grace is not conferred, actual grace is obtained. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that sacramentals operate by means of the Church’s intercession. We are told that, through the prayers of the Church, by the pious use of holy water, the intellect is enlightened, and the will moved from evil while being prompted to do good; and both body and mind are thereby strengthened and healed.
Fr. Theiler’s Holy Water shows how the use of holy water when blessing oneself or others is especially effective in warding off evil spirits. This marks it out as a particularly effective weapon in the Christian’s daily spiritual battle. The first prayer pronounced over the salt used in holy water commands that ‘every delusion and wickedness of the devil, and all unclean spirits… fly and depart.’ The prayer over the water speaks of the blessed water being a shield against the assaults of spiritual wickedness and a protection from temptations and, indeed, the tempter. In the context of such prayers, the holy water at the entrance of every church, and the place therein where supplies are reserved for the faithful to take home, now begins to appear in an altogether new light.
We should ask ourselves: how often do we sprinkle our homes with holy water to bless and to protect them? Do we bless ourselves as we come and go from those homes with similar intent? When we lie down at night, or rise in the morning, do we do so with this sacramental protection?
‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’. Baptism is essential to our salvation. The use of holy water daily is a remembrance that we are marked by the waters of our baptism as well as marked out by them as disciples in a world where a relentless war is waged upon our souls. Like Moses before the children of Israel in the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy, we would do well to sprinkle holy water over our families and our homes, and, by so doing, choosing life and casting out death and all its confederates.
Having already seen the power of holy water attested to by St. Teresa, we end with her testimony once more, this time speaking of its capacity as balm, healing the wounds suffered in this struggle in which we are engaged yet.
‘I have myself felt an extraordinary consolation when I have used holy water. It is certain that I have felt a great joy and inner peace which I cannot describe, a joy with which my soul was quite refreshed. This is not merely an effect of the imagination, nor a rare occurrence. I have experienced it frequently and paid special attention to it.
On these occasions I feel like one who, suffering intense thirst, takes a glass of water and is quite refreshed. From this we can see how important everything instituted by the Church is; it comforts me to see the great power which her blessing imparts to water, so great is the difference between blessed and unblessed water.’
Editor’s note: Fr. Theiler’s Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics.