By Anja Renkes, University of Notre Dame
When I arrived at the ferry in Galway, I knew I was meeting a man who would be carrying a walking stick. That was pretty much all I knew. This fairly limited preparation characterized much of my research and travel over the course of two months in Ireland, which unfolded by the grace of God and His radical mercy and attention to detail. I had to learn how to be dependent, and receive gifts.
I used to read stories that started like this and think, “Okay, great. I am happy for you. I really am. But I am not travelling the world, living in a dreamland. I have a normal life, and normal temptations, that seem to be too normal to merit much attention.”
All this is to say—this story is meant for people like me, who are searching for any sign of a loving and careful God in our often unglamorous reality. I happened to get a chance to see what reality looks like in another country. And that is just what it is—mundane reality. My greatest interest as a student of reality is searching for examples of God’s action in our often beautifully mundane lives. I am also an artist, an oil landscape painter (so, really bringing in the big bucks!) This question and trade took me to Ireland, travelling to photograph holy wells and their landscapes—sites of Catholic popular piety in some of the humblest, natural places in the country (think graveyards, in a field over the hill, tucked away in a clearing on the other side of a dilapidated bridge across a creek, etc). One of the most profound things that struck me as I visited these holy wells are the votive offerings and other physical, material signs of a pilgrim’s presence in these places.
In some cases, what you would find might be strange or confusing without the pilgrim present to tell their own story. One might find dolls, pins, a wide array of religious paraphernalia including holy cards, rosaries, statues and scapulars, and any number of other apparently random objects. This got me thinking, “Okay, so whoever came here before me was compelled for some reason to interact with this place in a physical way. What does this say about these pilgrims? What is the deal with hanging rosaries and ribbons on every nail and tree limb?” After visiting 26 holy wells all over the country in about a month, meeting locals who generously interrupted their daily routine to direct me to these hidden sanctuaries, I am inclined to attempt to describe the profound hope in God’s mercy demonstrated through popular piety in these places.
I should probably say more about what a holy well is. Holy wells are sites of Catholic popular piety in Ireland. They are found all over the country, and often exist as naturally formed or miraculously created freshwater springs that bear ‘cures’ in many cases. Some holy wells are known for having a cure for certain ailments and are dedicated to a saint or to the Blessed Mother. The devotional practices at these sites include praying different combinations of traditional prayers like the ‘Our father,’ ‘Hail Mary,’ and ‘Glory Be,’ as well as prayer(s) specific to the patron saint’s devotional culture. In addition to praying, people interact with the water from the well in some way. They often drink three ritual sips from the well, bless themselves with the water, and perform other practices such as bathing the ailing limb in the water or anointing the injured body part. People also leave beautifully humble offerings in the form of bits of cloth, small items, crutches, prayer cards, statues, rosaries, etc. at these sites as a sign of their prayer, to petition God for help, to ask for the saints’ intercessory prayer for their intention, or to thank God.
As I searched for these elusive holy springs, I was required to surrender my plans. I would often begin days of field research by praying at a bus stop in Dublin, headed somewhere more rural to meet a local who had generously offered to take me to see wells in their county. (I didn’t have a car.) I had often generally researched what wells might be in the region I was visiting, however, only occasionally ended up visiting the holy wells that I had in mind at the start of the day. As I realized that this research was very much out of my direct control, I began to learn the real lessons at hand for me.
In the beginning, I was generally uncomfortable without a plan or sense of control. When I had to let go of my plans and control over the situation, I became free to receive the gifts extended to me by the locals who helped lead me to these often hidden holy sites. After the first few holy wells, I became more consciously aware of the fact that I wasn’t really doing research: I was learning how to receive gifts.
As an American who has spent a lot of time in the Midwest, I responded in these situations by spouting profuse thanks, often repeating thank you more than once. The reaction I got for my many “thank you’s” caught me off guard. On at least one occasion, my benefactor looked at me and said, “Once is enough.” This lesson, in conjunction with these gifts of time and assistance, helped me to realize something else: with my thanks, I was more concerned about how I was being received, whether I was doing “enough” to receive the gift. These Irish people helped me to learn how to say thank you, from my heart, just once, and to let go of the rest.
As I continued to travel and began practicing this newfound thanks, I noticed how this attitude was reflected in the way devotional prayer occurs at the wells. People visit these places, in humble and often naturally beautiful locations, to recognize God’s presence in the midst of the mundane, often painful reality of sin, illness and death described by what people leave behind as a sign of their prayer at the wells. They came to pray, bless themselves with the holy water, and receive the gift of God’s presence. Sometimes, they will leave a votive offering (rosary, ribbon, etc) like those described earlier— a humble expression of what had occurred in that moment of Godly recognition and recollection.
When I write about these experiences, I have often used the phrase “the Irish taught me how to say thank you.” I really believe this to be true. The ramifications of this simple lesson in my spiritual life have been some of the most significant graces I have received.
When we approach Jesus in the Eucharist, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit in prayer, we need not behave like I did—seeking to say thank you in the right way and formula so as to merit the gift being given freely. God’s mercy is not rationed depending on our action. God gives freely and abundantly, according to our willingness to recognize our need, our lack of control, and to receive the love of Christ in our hearts. This love gently washes and heals each wound and dry patch left by the difficulties and brokenness of our mundane, fallen world.
At the beginning of this story, I said that our reality is often unglamorous or mundane. This is true only if one refuses to give over the reins to our merciful God. Through this mundane reality God allows us to experience the wonder of Christ’s love, which makes all the difference. Christ chose, with His free will, to descend to the depths of our mundane materiality so we would not be alone there. Through His brutal death on the cross, Jesus sanctified our mundane materiality, our flesh. Through this sanctification, our free yes to receive God’s mercy makes possible the experience of wonder in the midst of confusion and a lack of control. Jesus, be glorified in our need. We surrender everything to You.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs