Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Easter Water

I like quirky religious things.

I did not like the finger of John the Baptist in the spooky darkened room of the Florentine museum. That gave me the creeps. And I suspected there were more than ten of them out there. So, not relics. But rituals.

A friend once told me how when she was a child, her mother used to give her and her brother a peppermint before they went into the service. On Communion Sundays, the two kids would save their candy until the Host had been distributed to all the adults and then they would reverently remove the wrapper and place the wafer on their tongues in unison with the other worshippers. Another friend used to make the communion bread for his church and he mused that if he made raisin bread, he could get the whole communion in one shot – a two-for-one deal.

I love that kind of thing.

Last week I went into a little soap store near my house. I’ve only ever been in there once before but they are the only source for violet soap I’ve been able to find in Canada, so I went in. On the shelf next to the violet soap sat a collection of small 4 ounce bottles of clear liquid. On the front of the bottles were labels with a crowned woman with a double chin, luminous skin and a middle distance stare. Below her portrait, it reads “Eau de Paques/ Easter Water.”

It was ten days until Easter.

I spied Easter Water Soap on the shelf above and opened a box to sniff the soap. It was shaped with crosses and crowns and it smelled fresh.

“Can I help you?” asked the clerk, who turned out to be the owner.

I asked about the water and she rolled her eyes. She had been sent a box from head office after Christmas and had been able to sell exactly none, so she was giving a bottle away with each purchase. She had no idea what was in the bottle – “I’m not superstitious, I mean, religious at all,” she said.

I checked out the company website when I arrived home. This is what it said: “For our ancestors, Easter water was known to have multiple virtues. Then and for some, still today, Easter water protected houses against bad spririts [sic], thunder and bad weather. It was also used to heal skin and eye problems and was also used for sacraments. This Easter water was collected according to the purest tradition, from a spring before sunrise, on the day of Christ's Resurrection.” Apparently it was to retail at 19.95

I opened the bottle. The water smelled sweet, with possibly the lightest hint of mint or rain. It cautioned against internal use. I put a dab on my wrist and googled ‘Easter water.’

Apparently, it is an old tradition to fetch water before sunrise on Easter morning from a source of running water. Prayers are said and hymns sung as the water is gathered. Family members take a drink of the water.

“It wasn’t a sacrament or something official that was promoted by the church,” said Marc Pelchat, a Catholic priest and professor at Laval University in Quebec City. “ But it was not denounced, either. It was more of a cultural manifestation of faith.”
Another variation on this was to bless ordinary water during the Saturday evening Easter vigil. Families would be given some blessed Easter water to take home as a symbol of the family’s renewal in Christ. It would be sprinkled on all family members and friends present, as well as in all the rooms of the house.

As the rooms are sprinkled, the father may read the following prayer: Graciously hear us, Holy Lord, Almighty Father and Eternal God, that, even as You protected the homes of the Hebrew people leaving Egypt by means of the destroying angel; which homes were stained with the blood of a lamb (which prefigured our Pasch in which Christ was immolated); so may you in the same manner condescend to send your holy angel from heaven that he may guard, foster, protect, visit, and defend all the inhabitants of this dwelling. Through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.

I was willing, at the start of our spell of bad luck, to buy a pot of shamrocks before St. Patricks Day. For some reason, however, I’m reluctant to sprinkle my house with Easter water. It does feel superstitious and I’m not sure I understand it.

At the same time, at this time of year of miracle and deep mysteries, neither am I willing to dismiss it or to throw it away. I keep it on my shelf and I look at it, shake it periodically like a snow globe, and open it occasionally for a strengthening breath. And I wonder.

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