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What I can’t help but notice, almost daily, is that I’m running low on holy water. Truth is, this Protestant has never opened this elegant little bottle, never sprinkled its contents on anything, never tried out its holy potential. It stands atop my file now with a gaggle of other memorables, the blest water within dissipating to wherever sealed holy water goes when it disappears.
Three years ago I bought this sweet keepsake–two euros–at the shrine to St. Boniface in Dokkum, the Netherlands, a sort of open-faced house of worship that celebrates the life of a priest who may well have been Europe’s most famous martyr. He already had a great vitae by the time some pagan Frisians offed him. He’d brought Christianity to the pagans, after all. He’s the patron saint of Germany.
Some historians pooh-pooh his tactics because his methods were extreme, well, primitive. He cared not a whit for what we’d call today the indigenious culture of those to whom he brought the gospel.
The most famous tale of his saintly life surrounds his felling of Thor’s Oak, a huge tree–so saith posterity–whose massive size made it a shrine, as in pagan. Boniface would have nothing to do with heresy, so he cut the monster oak down. Some say that at the moment he was at it with his axe, a miraculous straight-line wind came along and broke the thing divinely into four chunks. The felling of Thor’s Oak was the kind of mighty deed that sped his ascension to sainthood.
But he lost his head in Friesland when a gang of the world tallest heathens martyred him for destroying their shrines. The date was June 5, the day before Pentecost, 754 A.D.
I couldn’t resist the holy water. The bottle is beautiful, don’t you think?–its water drawn right from the spring at the shrine of St. Boniface. But mysteriously now, this elegant little bottle is losing its currency.
I can joke about it. My pseudo-sophistication allows me some comfortable distance from such spiritual tomfoolery. Besides, I had two dogs in that historic hunt. I’m a believer, after all; sometime–who knows?–some ancient barbarian ancestor may well have got himself converted by St. Boniface. Almost had to be. On the other hand, I can’t help but be a bit proud of those hearty Frisians who did away with the man who belittled them. Truth is, both sides are worth telling.
Maybe that’s why this pretty little bottle is precious to me, even though it’s losing its holy cargo. Sometime, post-mortem, my kids will pick it up and toss it forthwith, as glibly as their ancestors did away with a saint. But to me, with or without its holy water, it’s precious because, like any other symbol, it is what it is and so very much more. That little relic will hold that entire story even when the water is long gone. That’s why it stands here today right behind me. It’s not going anywhere yet.
Years ago, a funeral for one of my wife’s aunts was held on a frigid January afternoon, one of those clear winter days when everyone in the county wonders why anyone lives out here in the face of a prairie wind so cold it’ll take off your face. It was so bitter that afternoon that even though a caravan of mourners made its way out to the cemetery for the burial, there was no committal. The cold was simply too brutal.
We watched from the car as the pallbearers lifted that casket from the back of the hearse and placed it on the brass set up beneath the snapping folds of a tent around the open grave. But no one–mostly it was old folks anyway–got out of the cars because the pastor had made clear that it was too cold for a psalm and prayer in that northwest wind.
But another aunt, a sister of the deceased, got out of her husband’s car and walked, determined and alone, to the gravesite, stood there alone in the cold and took a single flower from the bouquet atop the casket, then brought that single flower with her back to the car. That reverential honor, borne out of love, I’ll never forget.
And that memory explains the single blade of blue stem beneath the bottle in the picture above. I remembered the way that near-ninety-year-old aunt insisted on a flower from her sister’s casket, how she walked alone through the snow to that canopy, took a sprig of color, then hesitantly traced her own footsteps through the snow back into the warmth of the car.
Just last Saturday, I grabbed the one blade of blue stem some groundskeeper missed with the weed-whacker in a small-town South Dakota cemetery. There it was–see it? Well, now it’s here.
I pulled it up from the gravesite of a woman whose life I’m still trying to trace and understand, and now it’s here on the shelf beside what little holy water I still have and a gallery of museum pieces no one else would find of any value.
You’ll just have to trust me when I say that single blade of prairie grass is far more than what it is.
Where does it come from in us?–this need to remember, to preserve, to hold to something larger than we are? Maybe I’m speaking just for myself here, but I think we all need to be awed. We’re not really whole without something to reverence.
The truth is, I’m about out of holy water. I guess I’ll live.
But there are images, even little idols in my life, and they’re all around me, bringing comfort and good cheer; they seem to accumulate with every passing year. What’s sits and stands right now behind this Protestant, as I sit here at the keyboard this morning, is an open-faced shrine bedecked with fetishes, all of which proves, I think, what’s there in the creed I’ve recited a thousand times: really, every last one of us is part of the holy catholic church, even the Calvinists.
We do want to honor. We do want to worship. All of us.
Thank you for this lovely piece.
Well done, Jim. Vibrant illustrations, visual and mental, of how the simple gives voice to the profound.