‘You Might Try Holy Water’

Sacramentality is One Thing, Sacramentals Another
Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1662 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When I went to my priest about having frequent nightmares, most of his advice was what I would have expected: praying, scrutinizing my evening habits for potential triggers, that sort of thing. There was also one item on the list I didn’t anticipate. “This might sound like overreliance on a sacramental,” he told me, “but you might try holy water.” Just get a little spray bottle, he went on, fill it up at a church, and point where desired.

“If you wouldn’t laugh, I’d ask for holy water,” Teresa of Avila once said to some fellow nuns when suffering a physical and spiritual affliction. But if the nuns had laughed, they would have no doubt gotten a scolding, since, as Teresa also says while relating this story:

The power of holy water must be great. For me there is a particular and very noticeable consolation my soul experiences upon taking it.… Let us say the relief is like that coming to a person, very hot and thirsty, on drinking a jar of cold water; it seems the refreshment is felt all over. I consider everything ordained by the Church to be important, and I rejoice to see the power of those words recited over the water so that its difference from unblessed water becomes so great.

I recalled this story while taking in the advice, which provoked mixed feelings in me. While I’m certainly not shy about my faith, I also tend to partition off what I guess I’d call its “vertical-facing aspects.” I am the sort of person who finds praying with other people outside of a liturgical context excruciating, and I avoid going to church with people I know. I often tell people I’ll pray for them (and I do), but rarely pray with them and also rarely ask for prayers. Probably the furthest I go in this direction is telling one friend that I have checked in with Anthony of Padua on his behalf. (Like Anthony, he’s having some problems with a book.)

So I stayed a little stuck on this advice. I kept on wondering how I’d feel if somebody clearly made a bit of a joke out of the holy water being in my room. (“If you wanted to keep me out of here you could have just said something.”) Or—worse—if somebody compared it to burning sage or an essential-oil diffuser, about which I would be polite, but irritated.

And then, I was also about to get rid of some furniture—surely spritzing my current bedframe and then putting it out for the trash man was a little callous. Plus there were practical questions: What kind of bottle ought one to get? Should I buy something nice—a perfume atomizer? Would it be a problem if there were traces of perfume? Should I spray my dog, too, for good measure, or should I definitely, absolutely, not spray my dog?           

 

For me, blessed objects are troublesome not because I think they do nothing but because, in my experience, they often do.

It’s sacramentals such as holy water—not transubstantiation, the cult of the saints, Petrine primacy, or the Marian dogmas—that require, at least for me, the largest mental adjustment when “thinking Catholic.” In this, I don’t think I am unique. A friend recently put out an open call for anecdotes on Facebook on the subject, asking if his friends were ever “taught about lighting candles, and holy water, and miraculous medals, and holy cards, and praying at statues, and novenas, and all those kind of things?”

Another way of putting it is that the sacramentals are one of the ways in which the gap between the church on paper and the church in practice can be most dramatic. People who are Catholic or drift in Catholic-adjacent circles often like to talk about “sacramentality”—a word people respond positively to—but the difference between sacramentality and a sacramental is the difference between a metaphor and reality. And since holy water is not restricted to a liturgical context, its quite literal blessedness can intrude just about anywhere. Praying for someone’s conversion is one thing, and even your atheist friends will tolerate it, but sneaking a green scapular into their handbag is another. (Or maybe it isn’t.)

But this difference can manifest itself in other ways, too, not just when it comes to sacramentals. One knows, for instance, that the saints are not there to be coerced into doing one favors, but stumbling across several unfailing novenas can make you wonder. I often think of Robert Orsi’s story, in Between Heaven and Earth, of his mother, concerned for his well-being (he is going to observe a voodoo ceremony), dealing out “memorial images of Jesuits she had known” until the table in front of her “was covered with the faces of dead Jesuits. Now she was ready to do battle for me…. ‘They’ve never let me down,’ she told me once.”

There is something upfront and intimate about this kind of devotion that unsettles me, the way deep trust and reverence exists with and encourages, something that feels aggressive, even slightly presumptuous. But much as it unsettles me, it’s also, in its way, attractive.

 

Walking the line between regarding a blessing as real (but not all-powerful) and regarding it as therapeutic is not always easy.

Sometimes when I’m turning something over in my head, what I like to do is find an internet forum and just type in search terms to see what conversations people have had around whatever I’m thinking about. I don’t go to these places looking for advice or answers. But if you have a question, someone else has had it too, and if the internet is often not especially useful in answering these questions there is still a kind of delight in reading its exchanges.

Poking around Catholic Answers produces a variety of issues raised by holy water, among them “can you feed your cat holy water to make the cat more holy?” Do the different ways in which the water can be blessed bestow “different levels and types of efficacy”? And of course there are quite a few practical questions, including what to do when something is growing in your bottle of holy water. “How do sacramentals work?” writes one plaintive questioner:

I have been struggling with impurity for years, so I now carry a blessed rosary, I wear a St. Benedict medal crucifix (specially blessed), Mir. Medal, St. Michael relic medal, carry a bible, wear the St. Joseph and St. Philomena cords. All this stuff is blessed and my sinning hasn’t gotten any better. Why isn’t this working?

To this question the questioner gets the correct answer (“in the end whether or not a person sins is up to his free will”), but one can see how our luckless sinner got here. Catholics can certainly talk about sacramentals in a way that makes them sound manipulative, a kind of superstitious kitsch: take two scapulars and a miraculous medal and call me in the morning. (Another questioner on Catholic Answers wants to know if he should drink holy water exclusively.) Walking the line between regarding a blessing as real (but not all-powerful) and regarding it as therapeutic is not always easy.

But for me, blessed objects are troublesome not because I think they do nothing but because, in my experience, they often do. In that conversation with my priest I did have him bless my rosary, and after sleeping with it I stopped having nightmares. These objects are something simple that make my life better simply because they have been blessed. To get some holy water, I literally just have to go into a building to avail myself of it; it costs no money and takes no effort. And this, for some reason, makes me uncomfortable, perhaps because it feels unfair.

In the end I went to a CVS, purchased a small spray bottle, and filled it up. The little bottle is sitting prosaically on my shelf. Its effect on my nightmares is to be determined. Having some excess, I did bestow a little on the dog, but its effect was hard to determine. He seemed happy, but then he generally does. But a St. Roch medal for his collar…well, it’s a possibility. Perhaps I could have it blessed.

B. D. McClay is senior editor of the Hedgehog Review, and a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York. 

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