The weekend before I left for England, I went to the beach with my close family friends. Their little son, now a year and half old, hadn’t been to the ocean since he was an infant, and he was immediately fascinated by the expanse of it, then frightened as his toes touched the surf, and then fascinated all over again. And no wonder — this little boy loves water, and whether it’s raining or he’s thirsty or a plant is covered with dew, he’ll point at it and say, “agua! agua!” as he happened to learn this particular word in Spanish. The Spanish word for “water” rolls so much more easily off a baby’s tongue, and he delights in the way we react, both tickled by his early bilingualism and able to understand just what he’s talking about.
I can relate to my little nephew’s fascination with water. I realized in my twenties that just being near the water soothes my nerves and lifts my spirits. I lived within a couple of miles of Lake Michigan, which has sandy beaches of its own, for all of my pre-California life, and the Chicago River is still my favorite thing about visiting home. I now live about ten miles from the Pacific Ocean, and that distance is about as great as I can stand; my first year in California, autoless and 15 miles inland, I would pay $30 to borrow a car and drive to Newport Beach for an hour or two just to stick my toes in the sea.
In all my fascination and reverence for water, though, I never really stopped to consider its sacred significance. Sure, there’s “holy water,” but I never drew the line between this consecrated bowlful of liquid and the vast bodies of water that dominate this planet. But in our trip to England, the connection was impossible to miss: there was holy water everywhere you went, and it was coming out of the ground.
Consider our first week in Wells. Wells. It’s called Wells because of the natural freshwater wells that spring up from the ground there, and those wells were the reason it was chosen as both a place to settle and a place to construct first a church and then the massive cathedral (in which, some 900 years later, our choir sang). From a modern perspective, having the water there was obviously convenient — after all, you need to it live — but for the people who chose it, the water marked the site as holy, chosen by God as a good place to set up shop. If you think about it, they had a pretty good point.
On to Bath, the nearby city we visited on our first day off. Again: Bath. It’s not a clever name. Putting aside the watery fact that it sits on the gorgeous Avon River. Look past the town’s Victorian charm, past its Elizabethan heritage, even past its Abbey, the site where the first King of England was crowned. Go back, back, waaaay back to the first century AD and you’ll find the Roman Baths that the town was built around and named after. Those baths were centered around a hot spring, even more mystical and rare (especially in England) than regular old cold water wells. Pre-Christianity, a temple to the goddess Sulis was constructed on the site — after my visit, I wrote about the connection between what the ancient Roman pilgrims experienced there and my choir’s own pilgrimage to England.
Literally the day after Bath, I took a bus ride over to Glastonbury, where I stumbled into one of the most grace-filled hours of my entire trip. On my way to the Arthurian town’s main attraction, Glastonbury Tor, I walked past a sign that read “Chalice Well and Gardens” and because I was on my own with no agenda, I decided to go inside. What I found there will have to be the subject of another essay, but needless to say, the entire place centered around a wellspring like the one in Wells, complete with a pool you can wade in and a fountain from which you can drink the reddish, iron-rich water. Oh, and possibly the Holy Grail was buried there, which I didn’t hear about until after I left.
In both Bath and Glastonbury, you could drink the holy water. And I did. It didn’t taste great, but it was fun to try.
All of that was just week one. Then on to Salisbury, where, come to find out, the entire, gargantuan Cathedral was built on the site of the convergence of the town’s five rivers. Not, like, near the convergence, but ON TOP of it. They filled the wet ground with gravel and then, in just a few short decades, built a cathedral that has stood for 800 years. When we toured the cathedral, imagine our surprise when our tour guide grabbed a special pole and lifted up a particular stone in the floor. Under the stone was a hole, into which she lowered the pole. She pulled it up again and it was wet. “See that? That’s the water table.” It was just a few feet below our feet.
I have more tales of water from our trip. The moat in Wells where the swans are trained to ring bells. The way we discovered that instead of taking the busy gray street from our hotel into town, we could make a quick right turn and find ourselves on a peaceful riverwalk with more swans and ducks and possibly otters. The fact that rain was forecasted, but got hardly any. The intense dampness in the air of Salisbury that pervaded our hotel rooms and may have been responsible for getting a large portion of the choir sick. The baptismal font in Salisbury that, despite being less than a decade old, was every bit as breathtaking and beautiful as the medieval glory that surrounded it, largely because of how perfectly that glory was reflected in its smooth waters. The way that everywhere we went, the proliferation of seagulls reminded us that we were on an island after all, and the ocean, though not visible, was not far off.
Back home again, especially right now, our relationship with water is more complicated. The drought in California isn’t really over, and we returned to fires and heat and prayed for rain…which we got. But more fires rage to the north. We returned to a Houston that was drowning in flood waters, and now watch as the Caribbean and Florida and now South Carolina are pelted with more winds and rain. It’s exhausting, confusing, demoralizing.
Yesterday, feeling tired and emotionally thin, I resolved to go to the ocean, even if it was just for a few minutes — the ocean I love to commune with, but which is so powerful that the last few times I’ve ventured in past my knees, I’ve gotten my ass kicked by the one-two-punch of waves and rocky seabed. I took off my shoes, hiked up my skirt, and waded in a few inches. I watched a teen girl rush up to to the surf, then rush back as it threatened to meet her toes, and then forward again as it receded. I saw a tiny boy, not much older than my little nephew, carried gleefully into the water by his loving parents. I thought about the baptisms I’d seen at church that morning, the way the babies all stayed stunningly quiet even as the water was poured over their heads. An adult was baptized too, and the sensation of the act, with its arcane but significant novelty, must have been stranger still for her.
I thought about water. What did I want to say about it, and what was it saying to me? It’s elemental, it’s everywhere. It surrounds us, but with such apparent fickleness, so essential, so sought and yet so fearsome. Impossible to fathom, impossible to predict, impossible to contain, impossible to ignore, impossible to live without.
No wonder humans throughout history have counted it as holy. It is so like God.