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.
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.