I go to Lake Michigan every morning to pray. There is something healing about being in the presence of water, something intangible that draws me closer to God.
What I did not know until I began doing research for my role as facilitator of a three-day retreat for the women of the First Presbyterian Church of Holland, is that I am not alone. Water has been the centerpiece of spiritual symbolism and religious rituals for thousands of years.
Ancient Jewish tradition calls for people on special occasions to cleanse their bodies spiritually by immersion in a “mikveh” bath. For Muslims, ablution with water (wudu) is an obligatory preparation for daily prayer. The Hindu people take pilgrimages to one of seven sacred rivers to wash away spiritual impurities and become closer to the sacred source of life.
Baptism, a ritual used by most Christian faiths, requires the sprinkling of water on a person’s forehead or, in some cases, full immersion. While regarded differently by the various Christian denominations, Baptism is generally considered a declaration of a person’s belief and faith in Christ and is an initiation into the church.
Roman Catholic Christians dip the fingertips of their right hand into water that has been blessed, making a Sign of the Cross as they enter the church as a form of purification. When they leave, they repeat the practice, a sign of God’s protection. The Eastern Orthodox Christians drink a small amount of blessed water when saying morning prayers or put a little holy water in their food as they cook their meals, both a symbol of God’s protection.
While there are many examples of symbols and rituals involving water across cultures and faiths, that is not my primary interest. I am not an expert in religious studies. I am a person whose pathway to God includes nature, specifically, water. And I am interested in understanding how this gift from God, the first thing mentioned in the story of creation in the Jewish Torah, Christian Bible, and Qur’an, can be at risk across the planet.
What should the role of religion and spirituality be in the care of this life-giving source?
In 1854, when Chief Seattle gave up his tribal lands in the Pacific Northwest, he made an impassioned plea for us to be good stewards of the land, to honor the sacredness of life because “all things are interconnected. What befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life but are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Bombarded by 24/7 news, weather, sports, and static, I fear we will lose sight of what’s important, what we cannot live without, that strand called “water” that connects us regardless of faith or culture.
Earlier this year, I wrote a poem titled Gratitude. I am reposting the poem as we enter the seasons of Christmas and Hanukah. I believe there is a spiritual component of gratitude that includes responsibility for caring for creation, for ensuring all people have access to this essential life source. Think about it the next time you attend a religious service . . . or the next time you sip a glass of clean, safe water.
May God be with you this holiday season. And always.
Before we know what gratitude really is,
the coins we counted and saved must go
so we know how desperate
and helpless the landscape can be
between the bastions of wealth.
We must see that what we took for granted,
assumed safe, available, a right,
now flows like a foul-smelling, rust-colored soup
into the cup of an outstretched hand.
Before we learn the uplifting song of gratitude,
we must taste the salt of your tears
as you cradle your poisoned child.
We must see how this could be us,
and know you, too, were a person of dreams.
Before we know gratitude for the simplest of things,
we must feel the cruelty of denial
for the most essential.
We must wake with sorrow and sham
and speak to gratitude only after
our voices catch on the thread of responsibility
and we see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only responsibility that makes sense anymore.
And gratitude becomes the hushed hymn
we sing as we tie our shoes and go out into the day,
resolved to raise our heads in a crowded world
and bring you a cup of clear, safe water.
Influenced by Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness,” as I reflect on the tragic and inexcusable poisoning of the citizens of Flint, MI.
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