Sacred Signs: Holy Water

Authored by Romano Guardini in Issue #31.3 of The Sower

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Full of Mystery

Water is full of mystery.  Quite clear and simple – chaste, as St Francis calls it.  Quite unpretentious, as if it would signify nothing in itself.  Selfless, we might say: only there to serve others, to cleanse and to refresh.

But have you ever seen it in great depths and allowed your soul, as it were, to sink into it?  Have you felt how mysterious this depth is?  How it seems as if everything down below were full of wonders, enticing and yet terrible?  Or have you listened when it is raging?  Or have you watched a whirlpool spinning, foaming, sucking things in?  Then can such a depressing force come from the water that a man’s heart must tear itself free.

Water is full of mystery, simple, clear, selfless – ready to clean what is soiled and to refresh the thirsty.  And at the same time unfathomable, restless, full of riddle and force; enticing one to destruction. A true likeness of the mysterious origins from which life streams forth and death calls; a likeness of life itself, which seems so simple and is full of riddles.

Channel of Grace

Now we can understand why the Church makes it the likeness and the channel of divine life, of grace.

From the baptismal font we once came forth as new men, ‘born again of water and the Holy Spirit’, when the old man died in the water and was destroyed.

And with the holy water in the Sign of the Cross we sprinkle our forehead and breast, shoulder and shoulder – with this old element so full of riddles, so clear and simple and fruitful, which is the figure and the channel of the element of supernatural life, of grace.

By blessing the water the Church has made it clean.  Clean from the dark forces which slumber in it.  This is no empty word.  He who possesses a feeling soul has already felt the magic of the nature-force which can rise from water.  And is it only a natural force?  Is it not something dark, something preternatural?  In Nature with all its riches and beauty there is also evil, devilish.  The soul-crippling city has brought it about that men too often have no such feeling now; but the Church knows it, and she purifies the water from all that is against God, and blesses it, and prays God that he may make it the means of his Grace.

Signing Ourselves

When, therefore, the Christian enters the House of God, he sprinkles his forehead, his breast, his shoulders – that is to say his whole being – with the clean and cleansing water, so that his soul may be pure: is that not a fine thought?  In this practice we bring together sinful nature and grace, man seeking purity in the Sign of the Cross.

Or at night: ‘the night is no man’s friend,’ says the proverb, and it has truth in it.  We were made for the light.  Before man gives himself up to the power of sleep, of darkness, when the light of day is extinguished, and also the light of consciousness – before he does this, he signs himself with the sign of the cross and with holy water, the symbol of freed, redeemed nature, so that God may shield him from all that is dark.  And in the morning, when he comes forth again out of sleep, out of darkness and unconsciousness, and begins his life anew, he signs himself again.  It is then as a silent reminder of that holy water from which he came forth from baptism into the light of Christ.  This is also a fine practice.  Here the freed soul and freed nature meet in the sign of the cross.

This liturgical meditation is taken from Guardini’s book, Sacred Signs.

This excerpt is found on page 29 of the printed edition.


This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact sower@maryvale.ac.uk

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