Years ago I visited my cousin in Trewennack, Cornwall, England. She lived with her family in a farmhouse just beside a main road, but was otherwise surrounded by fields and cows. A couple of days into the visit she asked me to come with her so she could show me something. We waited for the cars to pass, scrambled over a fence, and trudged in knee high grass along the edge of a damp and muddy field.
I began to wonder what she wanted to show me. Surely it wasn’t the cows?
She walked around a small group of trees, scrambled down a bank,bent over and motioned me close.In the shadows of earth and trees was a small smooth stone enclosure, no more than five feet tall.Inside were two stone seats, across from one another. At the back was a spring, the water flowing out of the bank into a stone trench. My cousin had brought me to one of the ancient holy wells of Cornwall.
From the small stone seat, I could look out over the fields, a view, I think, not very much changed in a thousand years. The water, the stone, the grass, it all smelt fresh and tangy. It was a place of shelter and protection.
I wondered what it must have been like, living in a time when water was a gift from the ground,flowing freely. When it was carried in back breaking buckets from streams to homes,an endless, necessary, daily chore. With clean water available pretty much wherever and whenever we want it, it is easy to forget just how precious water must have been to those who had to work for a daily supply.
So precious, that the early Celtic culture of Cornwall,like other ancient cultures,expressed a deep reverence for water and its life giving properties. Water was seen as a powerful substance.The spring heads of Cornwall were venerated as places to come for blessings – or to ask for a curse on someone!
When Christianity arrived, the priests built little stone chapels or buildings around the spring heads,and insisted the blessings be asked of God instead. With that Christian transformation, the waters stayed protected over the centuries, allowing me a magical moment that day in Cornwall.
Whatever we may think of asking water, or water gods or God – for blessings – or curses – these traditions reflect a deep truth: water is a powerful substance. Life on earth would not exist had water not come into being billions of years ago. Our creation story begins in the distant oceans – our salty blood connects us to our ancient marine evolution. Water is truly the elixir of life.
We depend on the fresh water cycle of evaporation and precipitation. Water gives us body and substance – by weight we are more water than not. Water moves within our cells constantly, entering and leaving us, returning over and over to its on-going cycle. So much so that David Suzuki suggests that the whole enterprise of life might be seen simply as a vehicle for the transformation of water. Human beings, he says, might just be a way water molecules get to talk to each other (from The Sacred Balance).
Whether we are water talking or talking because of water, I don’t know. But I do know that the old religions acknowledged the vital value of water through rituals and myths. The springheads of Cornwall were kept clean and cared for because the Celtic and Christian traditions called for their protection.
Water is the source of life.
Our Unitarian Universalist water in-gathering ceremony echoes this deep knowledge. We share this whole and holy liquid to renew our community each September. May it help us remember our connections not just to one another but to all life on this wondrous planet.
Musings from the water in-gathering service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Durham.
Information about the ancient wells of Cornwall came from Terri Wilding’s blog, Myth & Moor.