Holy water

In Brief

The "cold black marble bowl" beside which Bloom stands "unseeing" for a moment in Lotus Eaters as he adjusts to the daylight outside St. Andrew's, "while before him and behind two worshippers dipped furtive hands in the low tide of holy water," is the font in the church's entrance porch. He stands near another such "font" at the entrance of the mortuary chapel in Hades, and then watches as the priest shakes some droplets over Dignam's coffin: "Holy water that was, I expect." Many Catholic churches dispense holy water—water that has been sanctified by a priest's blessing—to worshipers at the entrance of a church. Priests also administer it in baptisms, funerals, exorcisms, and blessings.

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Gifford explains the ritual function of the basins located at the entrances of churches: "Traditionally, worshipers dip the first and second fingers of the right hand in the water and touch their foreheads or cross themselves on entering and leaving the church" (97). This ongoing wetting reenacts the original sanctification of baptism, and holy water is thought to cleanse venial sins. Jacquelyn Lindsey's Catholic Family Prayer Book (2001) supplies a prayer to utter while anointing onself: "By this Holy water and by your Precious Blood, wash away all my sins O Lord" (65).

Priests can also dispense holy water with a short metal stick with a knob on the end of it that Bloom, in Hades, calls "a stick with a knob at the end of it." The church prefers to call this liturgical implement an aspergillum (or aspergill, aspergilium), which can take the form either of a knobbed stick or a brush. It assigns the name of aspersorium to the "brass bucket," held by a server, from which Bloom sees Father Coffey lift his water-loaded stick. As with worshipers dipping their fingers into a font, these ritual sprinklings commemorate the believer's original sanctification. Gifford quotes the Layman's Missal to the effect that the holy water sprinkled over the coffin by the celebrant recalls "the water that flowed over the deceased person's head at baptism" (118).

The buckets and basins appear to have figured as strongly in Joyce's imagination as the water they contain. In the caption attached to his photograph of the font at the entrance of St. Andrew's, Tindall offers some insightful close reading: "This font is only one of the many vessels in a chapter of pots and tubs. Consider Plumtree's Potted Meat and the Gold Cup race. After all, the symbol of the Lotus-eating chapter is the Eucharist and that comes in chalice and ciborium. Eucharistic Bloom sits, at last, in a tub" (90).

Tindall is absolutely right about this imagistic patterning in the chapter. In addition to chalices of holy wine, ciboria of communion wafers, tubs of bathing water, pots of processed meat, and vaginal Cups welcoming phallic Sceptres, Lotus Eaters features "the dead sea" on which bathers float like leaves, the "nosebags" of "the drooping nags of the hazard," the "jar" that Bloom imagines the biblical Martha carrying on her head as she prepares to cook, the "lovely cool water out of the well" carried in the jar, the "paper goblet" that he thinks he must take with him to the Phoenix Park "trottingmatches," the pints, quarts, gallons, and barrels of slopping, churning porter whose value he tries to calculate, the "alabaster lilypots" in which the chemist stores his ingredients and the "Mortar and pestle" in which he grinds them, the "neat square" of newspaper sheets in which Bloom lodges his lemon soap, the "Fleshpots of Egypt," and the poster showing a "cyclist doubled up like a cod in a pot." 

So pervasive are these images of "pots and tubs" that they may be judged a defining leitmotif of Lotus Eaters, comparable to the imagery of hearts in Hades, winds in Aeolus, and foods in Lestrygonians. The repeated figures of containment contribute to a mood of safety and comfort consistent with the chapter's many references to intoxicating pallatives. For Catholic believers a basin of holy water or ciborium of wafers offers the powerful physical reassurance that exhausted horses find in feedbags, weak swimmers in the Dead Sea, thirsty travelers in jars of cool water, alcohol enthusiasts in pints, afflicted sufferers in compounding mortars, and questing penises in receptive orifices.

At the end of the chapter, Bloom pulls together all of this imagery, and indicates a nodding awareness of its ultimate source, as he imagines lying in a "clean trough of water" at the Turkish baths: "He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved." Sexual hunger and the torturing anguish of Molly's adultery dissipate as he contemplates his "limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower." His floating penis and his "navel, bud of flesh," lift him out of his tired body into the body of another, the universal mother. Beneath all our dreams of safety, comfort, sanctity, and fulfillment lies the primal basin, the original memory of floating in our mothers' wombs.

One final, tangential thought about fonts of holy water, inspired by a Wikipedia page, perhaps deserves mention: church fonts have been shown to harbor bacteria and viruses capable of causing human infections. An 1898 study by bacteriologists publishing in the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette (14: 578) found staph, strep, E. coli, and diptheria-causing bacilli in samples of holy water taken from an Italian church. A 1995 study in the Journal of Hospital Infection (32: 51-55) prompted by the bacterial infection of a burn victim who had been treated with holy water found a similarly "wide range of bacterial species," some of them implicated in human illness. During the swine flu epidemic of 2009 the bishop of Fresno, California ordered that fonts be emptied of holy water, and an Italian church installed a motion-activated device that dispenses holy water automatically, like sinks in an airport restroom. It would seem that in some instances holy water, rather than warding off evils, may introduce them into the human organism.

Such considerations do not figure in Lotus Eaters or Hades, but Bloom is well aware of the public health aspects of microbial transmission. In Lestrygonians he reflects that the basins of potable water at the base of "sir Philip Crampton's fountain" may spread "microbes" among users. By 1898 bacteriologists had subjected church fonts to the same sort of scrutiny, and one can easily imagine Joyce taking pleasure in this irreverent intersection of religion and science.

JH 2018
William York Tindall's 1950s photograph of the font at the entrance to St. Andrew's church. Source: The Joyce Country.
18th century Portugese aspersorium and aspergillum. Source: www.invaluable.co.uk.
Pope Francis performing a blessing with holy water. Source: waarmedia.com.