Cowal is not generally short of water. Visitors don’t come here to sunbathe week after week, under clear blue skies – though we do get some of those too! But the country is full of rivers, burns, pools and lochs. And all this water played a vital role in the faith of our fathers and mothers before us. It is remarkable that every single one of the ‘places for pilgrims’ mentioned in this website is close to a spring of water or a burn.
This is ‘living water’, that is to say quick and moving water (not water lying in a puddle). It seems that people set up churches and chapels by living water because of the centrality of baptism in the life of the early church.
In the Roman Empire there were buildings for this kind of thing. Baptisteries were built around springs of water, and some early churches incoporated wells into their architecture. But here in the more remote parts of Britain, among the early Gaelic-speaking Christians of Cowal, such buildings were not made. If you sought baptism, you stood in a river, or in the pool of a spring. Thus you re-enacted more literally the baptism which Christ underwent in the River Jordan.
And so you met God outdoors, the sun dancing on the water of your ‘font’ as you stepped into it. Your fellow-Christians stood around you while the wind and the birdsong provided a counterpoint to the words of the priest as he poured water over you “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
Of course the Bible frequently uses the language of water to express humanity’s search for God, and God’s care for his people. Israel is freed from its enemies by passing through the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14), so water is at once a means of salvation and destruction. Water is also the object of desire, and we thirst for its life-giving power. So the psalmist sang: “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is thirsting for you my God” (Psalm 42).
For Ezekiel the presence of God in the world was like a river pouring out from the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing life and health: “and on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail …. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” (Ezekiel 47).
And in John’s Gospel Jesus heals people beside healing wells at Siloam (9:7) and Bethesda (5:2-8), and he talks of his own Spirit as “living water” which he gives to those who believe in him, a power which willl continuously well up within them (7:37-9).
That is why all our chapels and churches are built near a river, burn or spring: all that water is a sign of his life. Watch out for it. On the hillside, or in the glen, these cold sparkling waters are talking to you about the presence of God.
Our fathers and mothers used this water to articulate their faith – as people did throughout the medieval world. Wells were places of healing and blesssing, prayer and encounter; they were signs of hope. As well as being places of baptism, offerings were left there as wordless gestures of prayer – a piece of a child’s clothing, a white quartz pebble, a coin, a pin. You might wash in the water, or drink it. You might take some home for a sick neighbour.
And it was not only the water which spoke to people, but the creatures which swam in it. For one poet, Christ was a ‘salmon’ – a fish which in Gaelic tradition was associated with otherworldly wisdom. So he prayed:
Between me and the pitch-black abyss,
may He stand, the great Virgin’s Child,
the fresh nut of a cluster in our break,
the salmon of the well of mercy. (1)
1) McKenna, Aithdiogluim Dána, Dublin 1939 and 1940, no. 49.