Wells and Metro tickets

Dec 28th, 2009 | By | Category: Spirituality

Beside the holy well, there was a heavy iron box fixed to the ground.  Perhaps it had once been for offerings people might make; now it is covered with an odd assortment  of items – memorial cards, funeral notices, prayer cards, a picture of Padre Pio, hand written requests, a child’s doll, the plastic cover from a Ventolin inhaler.  It was like some religious version of Kim’s Game.  Everything was soggy and the print had run on some of the cards.

To a hard-nosed old Protestant, there seemed a deep sadness about the eccentric collection; those leaving items could not have failed to notice the esoteric quality of the thing, was this some last throw of the dice?  Was it a case of everything else had failed, so what was there to lose in going to the well?


A tree stood nearby, skeletal, gaunt in deep midwinter, its branches were tied with strips of cloth of varying ages and colours.  Why would anyone want to tie coloured rags to a tree?  What god or saint or spirit responded to such gestures?  It seemed very alien to anything you would find in Anglican spirituality, there would be nothing in our traditions that would come remotely near anything you might find at the holy wells.

A few years ago, a friend made me a present of “Fish Stone Water: the Holy Wells of Ireland”; being honest, it had hardly been opened until today.  It seemed as remote from anything I knew as would be a book on sailing or flying.  Angela Bourke’s introduction to the book by Anna Rackard and Liam O’Callaghan, explains the customs found at the holy well; they seem at once more ancient and more modern than anything Christian.  The rags on the tree are explained:

Ancient trees overhang many holy wells, and just as the water will not boil, their branches will not burn. Often the tree-most likely a whitethorn, a holly or an ash-will be decked with rags. In some places the rags used to be red, perhaps torn from flannel petticoats. Pilgrims would use a piece of cloth to wash the afflicted body part, then tie the cloth to the tree, leaving the illness behind. Nowadays, rags are any colour, and may include plastic bags and crisp packets, and among the tokens left behind are written pleas: brief notes about the troubles people suffer. Pilgrims leave notes like these at Buddhist temples too, and travellers write them in visitors’ books in the chapels of international airports.

There seem moments when people feel a need to transcend themselves; to commune with the spirit of a person or a place, and the clutter at the holy well is a sign of the depth of their desire.

Visiting Montparnasse and Pere Lachaise cemeteries in Paris during the summer, the customs associated with the holy wells seemed to appear in a new way.  The graves of the great were frequently covered with ‘offerings’; Metro tickets, photographs, postcards, messages, requests.  Except those who left such items would probably have disavowed all religious belief.

Sartre Grave

The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir was completely covered in things left behind by visitors.  Sartre was explicit in his atheism; so what purpose is being fulfilled in his 21st Century admirers accumulating litter at his burial place?  Who is being addressed in the messages left?

The Christian veneer on some of the holy well customs seems very thin; they would find no place in the ‘official’ spiritualities of the main churches.  But the fact that a holy well in an obscure country spot is still visited in 2009 points to a need that the churches are not addressing; the covering of the graves of the great and the good in Paris cemeteries suggest that need is very widespread.

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  1. People leave things on gravesites here. Particularly children’s graves. It’s common here to find someone putting a favourite toy or a birthday card on a child’s grave. Whether they’re Christian or otherwise. So much so that many crematorium curators won’t allow it on a permanent basis and remove the items. No different to taking flowers for anniversaries etc. People have always left tokens or pleas as have other religions look at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, stuffed with pilgrim’s prayers. I rather like the idea of leaving your disease and woes behind on a tree near a holy well. I guess within the Catholic Church, we tend to light a candle sort of the same thing but different. So yes, the Church is way past it’s use by date when it comes to addressing the real needs of the hopeful.

  2. I think there is a fear in church circles of anything that they cannot control – certainly, it can lead to excess, like the weird stuff recently at Knock – but there is also deep feeling in some of the gestures people make.

  3. This was a really interesting and thought provoking piece – thanks. You raise some important questions which didn’t lead me to answers but made me think and gave rise to more questions. I wonder in the Paris cemeteries whether people have only one reason for leaving something behind? Perhaps for some the visit is a very significant moment for them and they need to make some outward gesture to mark this so they leave something – a symbol of the significance. In this it is for themselves alone. I think we often feel the need to do this at a graveside. We bring flowers to the grave and I think I read that there is a Jewish tradition of leaving a stone every time you visit a grave. A tangible symbol left as witness. For others it might be a simple ‘I was here’ – or, given the large number of ‘leavings’ being part of a community, ‘I too was here’. There is some interest in seeing what other people have left. In this it’s display – it’s for other viewers. For others it might be the ‘offerings’ you suggest, and in that they are addressed to the person named on the headstone. But I wonder if they are really worship offerings or meant in that way? Maybe they are meant as identity offerings ‘I identify with this person’. At the graveside we are faced with the fact that we too will die and yet the people in these graves continue to touch the lives of other people. Perhaps we want to in some way be part of their continuing story.
    What I think might connect both the holy wells and the paris cemeteries is the need to take some outward symbolic action. Does everyone who ties a rag to the whitethorn tree really believe that it will result in a cure or an answer to their plea. Or is it the comfort of doing something? A way of dealing with distress, anxiety, illness, the human condition etc. by making a symbolic representation for others such as you to witness. You noticed deep sadness but there is also deep hope. Some would think also deep determination and striving. There is only a thin veneer of christianity around holy wells because it is really a pagan tradition which the early christians in Ireland christianised knowing that it would continue anyway. It meets a human need to do something about our circumstances. The fact that the setting is a special place marked out by the well and the tree adds to the symbolism and links it to the contemporary special places of transition of the graveyard and as Angela Bourke points out the airport. The symbolism of special places or special people is important. Karen Blixen in Out of Africa writes a story of the healing, or at least comforting, power to a wounded Kikuyu boy of a letter from the King of Denmark when held on his wound. But I also think of the story where Jesus asks who touched me while in the middle of a crowd when a women thought if I can just touch him I will be cured and was. Is all this evidence of a widespread need that the Christian churches are not addressing? Well which need? inner significance, display, community, transcendence, symbolic representation, witness, healing, hope, belief? These already seem to be part of what a church seeks to encompass. But there also seems to be a context outside of this for human meaning making – in the cemetery of the great and good, at the ancient well. Is simply recognising this from a christian context enough to meet this need?

  4. Thanks, Patricia. I think I agree with much/most of what you say. The thoughts were prompted by a complaint I had heard that Christmas had become ‘pagan. I tried to point out that the pagans had the festival first and there was a need to try to understand what was being said rather than just criticising.

    I love symbolic actions – if for nothing other than the fact that they are tactile rather than cerebral – I’m a tactile person!

  5. The weekend newspaper had a story concerning people who were working on Xmas day. One was a vicar who gave out tiny white bags at the service for people to put their hopes or good wishes in, the bags were then tied to the Xmas tree… seemed odd to me.

  6. Had I been there, I would probably have muttered about it being nonsense, but, being entirely inconsistent, maybe he was responding to needs he perceived in the congregation? At a purely rationalist level, perhaps there was something cathartic in people offloading stuff.

  7. Thanks, Ian, for the interesting post – and the fascinating responses.
    I am led to ponder my own behaviour. When I climb a hill with a cairn I often bring a stone with me, I guess to add my bit to those who came before. When I go to a beach I bring back pebbles or shells, I guess to remind me of the day. When I visit a church with candles I often light one – I recall a sermon at school by a Venerable someone, an Archdeacon I suppose, who described lighting a candle as an intelligent way of praying. I remember visiting the reputed grave of John the Evangelist at Ephesus and finding a small posy of fresh flowers.
    I wonder if these small actions may partly be to do with marking our pilgrimage through the world – creating meaning as we go, as Patricia describes it.

  8. I like placing stones. Paul Henry, the painter, is buried in Enniskerry and last time I was there there was a little pile of stones at his grave.

    Patricia points to the Jewish tradition of placing stones at graves: in Paris I saw it at the memorials to those who were deported from the city and who died in various concentration camps. I assume these are moved each day, but picked up a pebble and placed it amongst others at the memorial for Sachsenhausen victims. It would probably have seemed odd to onlookers, but I felt some physical gesture was necessary.

  9. My grandaughter gave her aunty – my youngest daughter – a stone when we parted yesterday, she was to take it to Cornwall with her. We had walked up the riverside and been to Worcester cathedral. The children all lit a candle – I didn’t, but liked to see them lighting theirs. It is to do with marking our way, making things significant.

  10. I think for the holy well goers, though, it is about much more. It is about reaching out for something they sense to be there, for if they felt there was not a sense of something, they would not travel to such inaccessible spots. The church is very uneasy with such spirituality, it would argue that it was mistaken, but there are also issues of power and control.

  11. It is the power and control that make me challenge the church and resist it completely

  12. Life’s but a waking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing

  13. The Scottish play!

    I think I prefer Prospero in The Tempest

    Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
    Are melted into air, into thin air:
    And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on; and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep.

    Naturally, I don’t agree with him!

  14. That is so perfect – what could I say that could follow it

  15. I was never very good at English Literature – I got an ‘E’ in my A Level – but was there a whiff of heresy attached to Shakespeare? Were there suspicions he was not orthodox in his religious beliefs?

    Maybe he would have enjoyed the holy wells!

  16. I can’t believe that you got an E!

  17. A combination of laziness and a plain lack of ability – the ‘E’ was a triumph! I had to seek a re-marking of the paper after my initial grade was an ‘unclassified’. I could never do literary criticism or any of that stuff.

    I Googled ‘Shakespaere’ and ‘humanist’: his lack of religious views would probably have been enough to bring a prosecution if he had articulated them forcibly.

    The ‘modern’ era is rooted in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which saw a progressive squeezing out of religious perspectives. I think the persistence of the holy wells and other such places in the 21st century is a facet of a post-modern society which rejects the alleged certainties of science and rationalism.

  18. Ian, whoever gave you an ‘E’ in your A levels was not paying attention or else you’ve travelled a long way linguistically. It was the beautiful use of a semi colon in your last sentence that prompted me to respond to your article. While admiring it, I realised that I disagreed. Just because something is finely presented doesn’t make it true. In the same way we can respond to the beauty of Shakespeare’s expression but can the thought that we live in a beautiful and gently worded insignificance help us find our way through our lives ? There are times when we do feel this futileness, which is why we respond to the sentiment. But its not what we hope for in the lives of those closest to us. There is a lot of understanding in Bette’s comment that although she didn’t light a candle she liked to see her grandchildren do so. I do think ‘Its to do with marking our way, making things significant’ . We hope our nearest will find their lives meaningful and significant and make connections to people that hold them significant. I guess the people leaving tokens of themselves by the gravesides in Paris are also part of this.

  19. I think I would tend towards a completely nihilistic view of the world and of life if I did not believe that there was a bigger context that would eventually create meaning, even in those experiences where we perceived there to be none.

    I went to Sam Beckett’s grave in Paris, expecting it to be adorned in a manner similar to that of other major figures; hardly anything had been placed on the memorial slab. Had Godot persuaded Beckett’s admirers that all such activities were pointless? I placed a pebble on the grave.

  20. At Faughart, in the Gap of the North in Louth, not far from the grave of Edward Bruce, brother of the more famous Robert, is the site of a holy (struell?) well. But it has been incorporated into an outdoor Catholic Stations of the Cross. Also on the site are three special stones – one for afflictions of the eye, another for afflictions of the knee, and a third whose particular application momentarily escapes me.
    I tell people that my Granny’s knee problems significantly improved after a visit to the relevant stone. But then may admit that two knee operations played a part too.
    It’s easy to ridicule the whole superstitious aspect of the stones. But less comfortable to snigger in the company of a child with an eye patch brought by dutiful parents.
    What can you do? Just nod, I suppose.

  21. Edward the Bruce burned down the church at Bright parish in Co Down in 1316 with the congregation inside it. I was Rector of Bright from 1989-1996 and his name was still remembered. I had not realized he was buried in Ireland; I think I may have been tempted to go and show my disrespect!

    I think I would probably have been a sniggerer in times past, but the passing years have maybe brought some appreciation that people find comfort in different ways.

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