From my earliest days, my Irish Catholic origins infused me with rituals of holy water in those weekly visits to the church. I would touch my fingers into the font of holy water at the door and anoint myself, coming and going. Though I grew up in such far-flung places as Canada, New Zealand and the United States, I was a child of folk Irish and Scottish Catholics, where the Christianity is only a tenuous patina superimposed over thousands of rich years of earth worshipping pagan practices. The world I grew up in was full of mystery, magic and the constant presence of saints, a life full of rhythms and rituals that constantly reminded and rewove me into the sacred.
A First Stop in the Circle of Pilgrimages -- Lourdes
Once I was an adult -- and a naturopath -- I was reminded of the healing potential of sacred waters when I gave a woman who was unable to conceive some I had just collected at Lourdes (the most well-known and venerated Christian healing shrine in the world). The woman became pregnant within three months after nine years of trying. She carried to full term, gave birth, and then easily became pregnant a second time in short order. This experience seeded the idea that holy water, potentized in the same way as flower essences or homeopathic remedies, might be one of the most life-changing substances on earth.
I made my pilgrimage to Lourdes to collect waters when I was 32, traveling 1500 kilometers by bicycle from my home in England, visiting other sites of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary along the way. Similar to many other apparition sites, Lourdes is founded on healing waters used by ancient pre-Christian inhabitants of the land. Before Mary, the site was attended by a goddess who dispensed sacred healings through the waters that gushed from the earth at that spot.
I was one of a river of thousands of pilgrims, many crippled and suffering, in long lines reminiscent of the efficiency of Disneyland. Waiting with them to visit the grotto of the holy waters amplified my own awe, and being immersed in their faith that they would be healed potentized the tiny vial of Lourdes water I took away with me. It carried not only my pilgrimage but also the hope and faith of all those gathered with me. Just like that woman, I also became pregnant with my first child -- born in the water sign of Cancer -- within months of completing this pilgrimage. I continue to use this water as one of the major "Mother Toners" of holy water combinations I have since made.
Second Stage -- A Pilgrimage to India
I've always had a passionate and sacred relationship with water, and in reflection see an ongoing thread of experiences guiding my learning. When I was 21, I made a pilgrimage to India, hitchhiking overland from London through Europe, Greece and the Aegean Sea, then taking a rather perilous overland journey through rural Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I lived in India for a year, and near the end of my stay I ran out of money, and survived for six weeks by living on the streets of Delhi while awaiting funds from home.
I was taken in by the beggars and the wandering ascetics -- the holy Sadhus. For some reason, these eccentric, radical holy men accepted me into their company without question, and kept me kept safe while living and sleeping on the streets. I have vivid memories of crouching in long begging lines, quite happy amidst the friendly, accepting lepers and cripples waiting to receive food donated by devout Hindus. No one ever questioned why I was there.
Many of the beggars were heading to a celebration on the banks of the Ganges River that happens once every 12 years at a special full Moon. The Kumbh Mela is the "Festival of the Urn" that pours out the nectar of immortality to Humanity. It is a great roving festival that has traveled around India for more than four thousand years, erecting temporary cities along the Ganges River. The beggars encouraged me to come along, as food and care would be dispensed by the wealthy as part of their spiritual practice of charity.
And so I went, along with 6 million devout Hindus gathered for this event. I stayed there under the protection of a magnificent Sadhu, a man who wore a leopard skin, hair in dreadlocks, and rode through the crowds on a beautiful white horse. I ate with my friendly lepers, sitting quietly for hours, crouched. Each of us had a large leaf on the ground in front of us readied for some wealthy family to arrive with offerings of food.
I sang and slept on the banks of the river for seven days and nights. I washed in the river with millions of devotees, passionate to cleanse their souls and release themselves from the wheel of old and familial karma. Ganges water is seen by Hindus as the purest of the pure. They believe it possesses powerful antibiotic properties and is miraculous for all ailments, despite being crowded with living praying bodies, and awash with remnants of dead bodies burned on the many adjacent funeral pyres. For me, this time became the healing closure of four difficult years following a serious head injury. I stood in the water, digging my toes into the sand under my feet. I was fascinated and awed by the awareness that this sand was actually shards and bone fragments of centuries of bodies released into the loving, healing care of the sacred river. I gathered and kept some of the river water at that event, and later turned a diluted and potentized form into an essence that I still use with clients.
Making the Circle Whole -- A Pilgrimage to Ireland
In 1995 and 1996 I went to Ireland on a quest to touch my own motherland and to visit her holy wells. These wells are considered to hold very specific healing powers, some for the healing of eyes, others for hearts or bones or grief, or for the lifting of curses. They can be found -- though not all that easily -- scattered through certain countrysides. Many are in secret locations known only to locals, and are usually surrounded with odd and ancient items of offerings or petitions.
I'd been wanting to get to know the flowering hawthorn, the wild "May Tree" that opens in white explosions of flowers that dominate the Irish springtime. I was aware that the plants that call one's attention are the most potent at the time, and this one certainly called mine. I was lucky (?) to be introduced to a wonderful older man from a family of renowned horse charmers. He had a magnificent, gnarly hawthorn in his field, and I finally told him of my work with plants and asked if I might spend time with his tree. With his blessing, I spent hours in conversations with the tree, and eventually was given some of its medicine which I made into an essence. I learned in these conversations that hawthorn is the medicine that heals the cynical hardened heart, especially the type of hardness that comes with age after many losses and disappointments.
I knew about the importance of the protocol involved with receiving plant medicine, so I had made offerings to the tree. But through a painful closing lesson that day, I learned to connect with the entire environment it grew in. As I was completing the work, a hive of bees living in this tree swarmed around me and chased me out of the field, furious in their wild buzzing. In terror, I grabbed my things, said a wild goodbye, and began running through the field back to the refuge of the house. I was guided by the old man, who was ferociously waving, to run along a certain angle. The bees let me pass safely along this unmarked energy line. Though I'd made offerings to the tree, I'd forgotten to propitiate the bees that lived and loved in symbiotic relationship with the tree, each necessary for the other.
During the obligatory, nourishing cup of Irish tea I took with the old man in the safety of his home, I shared what I had learned and gathered from the hawthorn tree. In a reserved way, he asked me if he might use the essence himself, as it spoke so perfectly of his own current state. And then he offered to take me to some of the sacred wells of his countryside, saying that he now knew more of me and would trust my work.
And so in the days that followed, we walked through the Irish hills, and he told me more of the healers who associated themselves with a specific well and specialized in healing a particular related malady. He sent me off later with a map that I followed to visit a number of other wells. Some were just tiny, easily overlooked indentations in farmers' fields, which when I drew close were revealed to be encrusted with offerings and signs of both ancient and current use. Some were more public -- one at a crossroad had next to it a statue of a saint strangely standing guard in a telephone booth. Others were covered over with structures built of stones from the adjacent fields, with offerings and meditations tucked into the crevices.
I made essences from many of the wells I visited, leaving my own small offerings, always copper coins. (This is an ancient pagan practice of offering the blessings of Venus, the goddess of love, as she is associated with copper). I learned much about the art of conversation with the unseen forces through these ancient sites, as I was compelled to introduce myself and state clearly my intentions to these holy waters, and to the saints associated with each.
One of them, Saint Brigid's Well, was particularly known for its healing waters that helped in birthings. All over Ireland wells have been celebrated on an annual basis for thousands of years. They are decorated with riotous, colorful and intricate patterns of flower petals during the month of May for St Brigid's Day. And so I aligned my own efforts with this saint, asking for her potent blessings to accompany my own remedies. I've subsequently used water from Saint Brigid's Well, potentized and made into an essence, as a Mother toner for other Irish water essences.And so I'd come full circle. I'd returned to the land my own ancestors had to leave in the potato famine in the 1800s. I'd been trained as a naturopathic doctor in faraway New Zealand, where Irish ancestors from both sides of my family had settled in flight from the horror and starvation of that terrible time. I returned in pilgrimage. I was embraced by the Irish and the countryside itself; I walked the hills, and listened to and told my own stories to the waters. The proliferation of specialized wells taught me that I needn't feel that I had to cure all ills -- that I would have my specialties and others would have theirs. That I could trust that someone else would know what I did not, that the right people would come to me, somehow, for what I could offer. That I was good enough, and that I was accompanied by powerful ancient spirits in the waters of my own bloodlines.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gretchen Lawlor has been a professional astrologer for over 35 years. She has written the forecasts for We'Moon Almanac for the last 15 years, and her articles have appeared in the Llewellyn Annuals, The Mountain Astrologer and Beltane Papers. She teaches astrology to high school students on Whidbey Island, WA, to women in Seattle, and to women from all over the world at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Gretchen brings her wealth of life experience to her work. Having grown up in New Zealand, and lived in Canada, England, and the US, she understands differing cultures. As a midlife woman with two adult children, she understands the challenges women and men face in their lives. Her training as a naturopathic doctor and registered counselor adds dimensions to her sessions with you. For information on her services, visit her web page.
ART CREDITS: Design by Donna Cunningham of Word of Mouth Web Design.