Holy water

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 in basins stationed at the entrance. Priests also administer it in baptisms, funerals, exorcisms, and blessings.

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Gifford explains the ritual function of the basins: "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. As William York Tindall observed in his caption to the photograph of the font at the entrance to St. Andrew's, figures of containment (cups, pots, tubs) pervade Lotus Eaters. These images 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 sceptres in gold cups. 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."

One final thought about fonts of holy water, admittedly tangential, perhaps deserves mention: they 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.