Water and Spirituality

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James Balog

Filmmaker James Balog has a core conviction about the value of water and acts on it. To raise awareness of the effect of global climate change on water, Balog films the world’s receding glaciers, often at great personal risk. View the trailer for his film Chasing Ice. 1

Science helps us know the properties and function of water in the natural world. Ethics helps us decide how to preserve, protect, and distribute Earth’s water resources. Spirituality helps us identify our core convictions about the meaning and value of water.

If we genuinely hold that water has intrinsic value, it will be demonstrated in how we act; our actions will express a spirituality of respect for Earth’s water resources. Conversely, if we routinely act in ways that misuse water, we will display an inner spirit that lacks respect for water–regardless of what we may say about its value. Paying attention to how we act puts us in closer touch with our operating spirituality; greater awareness of our inner spirit helps us identify the strengths of our true convictions.

Along with identifying our core convictions, awareness of human spirituality opens us up to a deeper appreciation for the rich array of spiritual meanings other people and cultures have given to the natural world. This is a valuable resource for our own reflection on the meaning of the natural world and our place in it.

This is especially true of water, a feature of the natural world that has been a centerpiece of spiritual symbolism and religious ritual in human communities for thousands of years. With remarkable regularity across human cultures, water has been used to communicate the sacred value of life; the spiritual dimension of purification, protection, and healing; and the profound meaning of suffering and redemption in human life.

This section begins with select examples of water use in the world’s religions and then returns to the question of our own spiritual understanding of water with special focus on the Christian tradition. In this approach, we follow the spirituality questions posed in the River Ganges case study that began this chapter:

  • How have human beings approached the nature and meaning of water from a spiritual perspective?
  • What aspects of our spirituality might we draw on to help us address the global water crisis?

Water in Symbol and Ritual

Flutist Ronald Roybal1

Human beings have long been in awe of water. Its movement, its forms, its colors, its power--all these draw our attention, fascinate us, and sometimes spellbind us. We can stare at a running brook or overlapping, windswept waves and enter a mood of calm wonder. The physical properties of water that you studied in the science section–especially fluidity, solvency, and the hydrologic cycle–give water the features that evoke our awe. They also explain why humanity has so often used water as a sacred symbol.

Symbol of Life

Inspired People

Tangiora [photo]

Pauline Tangiora is a Maori elder from New Zealand and a world leader in environmental spirituality. Listen to her remarks on water at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

Human beings have often taken water’s refreshing, fluid quality as a symbol of the power of life itself. Many Indigenous People have understood water this way for thousands of years. Some of the most beautiful sacred music among indigenous tribes of North American celebrates the life-giving power of water. Listen to Ronald Roybal, a Pueblo Indian, celebrate this power in his performance of Where the Water Cuts Through on the Native American flute. Like the Pueblo Indians, the Navajo (Diné) people of the southwestern United States consider water the sacred center of life, “the heart of all that is”. Indigenous leaders from around the world were among the leaders at the UN Wings of Water Conference at the Hague Peace Palace, and they created the International Inter-religious Spiritual Manifesto on Water which emphasized the role of water in the spiritual lives of human beings worldwide.

A 12th century Christian mosaic depicting God calling forth life from the waters. From the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily. 1

In the creation story of the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible, God’s spirit first moved “over the face of the waters” and God said “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:2, 20). In Islam, water is the origin of all life on Earth. The Qur’an says water is the substance from which God created the human being (25:54). At creation, even God’s throne “was upon water” (11:7).

Symbol of Purification, Protection and Healing

We learned in the River Ganges case study at the beginning of this chapter that the Hindu people in India consider the river Ganges an embodiment of the goddess Ganga. This makes the Ganges River both a symbol of life and a place where one can wash away spiritual impurities, thereby drawing closer to the sacred source of life.

Muslim Ablution

Spiritual purification through ablution in Islam.1

In a similar way, ancient Jewish tradition calls people on special occasions to cleanse their bodies spiritually by immersion in a ‘mikveh’ bath. For Muslims, ablution with water, or wudu, is an obligatory preparation for daily prayer. The prophet Mohammed states in the Qur’an: "O you who believe! When you rise up to prayer, wash your faces and your hands as far as the elbows, and wipe your heads and your feet to the ankles” (5:6). These are only a few examples of the use of water for spiritual purification in the world’s religions. As with fluidity, human beings have found in water solvency a cleansing power that reaches beyond the physical body.

Roman Catholics use holy water for spiritual protection.1

Water has also been associated with spiritual protection in many of the world’s religions. In Roman Catholic Christianity, for example, water can be ritually blessed and serve as a spiritual symbol of God’s protection over a person or group touched by this Holy Water. Symbolizing both purification and protection, Catholics often dip the fingers of their right hand into a Holy Water font and make a Sign of the Cross as they enter (purification) and leave (protection) a church. Many Eastern Orthodox Christians also drink a small amount of blessed water when saying their morning prayers or put a little holy water in their food as they cook their meals.

Inspired People

Sacred healing practices in most world religions also involve water. For centuries, Eastern Orthodox Christians have identified certain springs of water as possessing healing power. One of the most renowned springs is at the Church of St. Mary of the Spring in Istanbul, Turkey. Here, in 450 AD, the future Byzantine Emperor Leo I encountered a thirsty blind man near a grove of trees. As he looked for water to give the man, Leo heard a voice say "Leo, go into the grove, take the water which you will find and give it to the thirsty man. Then take mud and put it on the blind man's eyes. Afterwards, build a temple here so that all who come will find answers to their petitions.” Leo did as he was told and the blind man regained his sight. Leo erected a magnificent church on the site where its water is believed to work cures to this day.

Closer Look

For an interesting discussion of the verification process for the healing miracles at Lourdes, see The 67 Miracles of Lourdes.

The most famous tradition of healing water in Roman Catholicism is that of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. In an apparition on February 25, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous was told by the Virgin Mary to dig in the ground until reaching water and then "drink at the spring and wash in it”. Since this apparition, many people have claimed to be cured by drinking or bathing in the spring water discovered by Bernadette. Thousands of people come every year to the Grotto of Massabielle in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes and follow the instructions given to Bernadette.

Symbol of Movement from Separation to Redemption

Religious traditions have also used the seasonal water cycle of drought, flood, life-giving rain, and the rainbow to symbolize the human experience of moving out of separation from God to redemption. In the Ancient Hebrew Torah and Christian Bible, God sent a great flood at the time of Noah because “the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). God rewarded
mosaic

Noah returning to dry land. A 12th century Christian mosaic from the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily.1

Noah’s faithfulness with dry land and a covenant “between you and me and every living creature”. The rainbow was given as a sign of this covenant (Genesis 9:12-13). Later, the Ancient Hebrews again use the water cycle to symbolize their experience of moving from separation to redemption. The prophet Elijah’s first words announce a drought for the sins of Israel (1 Kings 17: 1). When the people of Israel stop their idolatry, God blesses them with “a great rain” (1 Kings 18:41-45).

In Islam, too, water is a symbol for the stages of life’s journey. Most notably, at the end of the journey, believers will experience a garden of paradise containing cool streams and springs of fresh drinking water. As the Qur’an states, believers will enjoy “rivers of unstagnant water” (47:15) and “a gushing fountain” (88:11-12).

One religious water ritual that draws all these elements of life, purification, protection, healing, separation, and redemption together is the Roman Catholic sacrament of Baptism. The word sacrament comes from the Latin word sacramentum, which means "a sign of the sacred".

The Roman Catholic sacrament Baptism1

In the sacrament of Baptism, Christians have water poured over them or immerse themselves in water to be cleansed of sin and admitted into the Christian community. In the Roman Catholic ritual, the community prays, “In Baptism we use the gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament. At the very dawn of creation, your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness. The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of Baptism that made an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.” Here, again, water is a medium for communicating the sacrality of life and situating the inevitable cycle of that life within an ancient story of separation and redemption.

Questions to Consider

Imagine you are visiting the Maasai people of East Africa and you are invited to observe their traditional rainmaking ritual. Watch it here.

  • What does this ritual tell you about the relationship of the Maasai people to water?
  • Do you find a ritual like this meaningful? If so, why? If not, why not?

Water in Spiritual Life

water in hands

Human beings need a change of heart to fully respect the sacred gift of water.1

While water has been vital for religious symbolism and ritual throughout human history, too many members of the world’s religions neglect to respect water as a finite natural resource. Many members of religious communities and likewise many people who profess no religion, are in need of an inner, spiritual conversion to appreciate the value of water.

The necessity of this conversion, or “change of heart”, is central to the message of the Jesuit document Healing a Broken World, the document that provides the spiritual basis for this Healing Earth textbook. Healing a Broken World challenges us by saying we are “in need of a change of heart.

Click here to read Healing a Broken World.

We need to confront our inner resistances and cast a grateful look on creation, letting our heart be touched by its wounded reality and making a strong personal and communal commitment to healing it.”

We can see three emphases in this statement: gratitude for creation, reconciliation with wounded creation, and action that heals creation.

In the Christian religious tradition, a true change of heart toward the natural world manifests a deep inner feeling of gratitude to God for the gift of creation, a gift God saw as “very good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). With belief in the fundamental goodness of all creation, Saint Ignatius Loyola encouraged Christians to “find God in all things”. No less so with water. It is a gift of God and a place to find God.

Yet, Christians have abused God’s gift of creation. This not only wounds creation and insults God, but also harms people, as we all depend on the fruits of creation for our own survival. A true spirituality of gratitude prompts the courage needed to reconcile with the wounded. Healing a Broken World says we have the “urgent task of reconciliation with creation”, which is also linked to a reconciliation with the poor, the people whose lives are most affected by the water crisis.

A true spirituality of gratitude for the natural world must include a recognition that we have abused creation and are in need of the courage to reconcile with God, others, and creation.

In the Christian religious tradition, true reconciliation flows out of a restoration of one’s relationship with God with gratitude for the gift of creation. This reconciliation provides the spiritual energy to imagine a healed Earth and act in ways to make real what we imagine. You will recall from the Healing Earth Introduction, that Ignatian Pedagogy moves us through a process of seeing scientifically, evaluating ethically, reflecting spiritually, and acting effectively. This process has been creatively communicated in this video by Tomasz Śmigla, a student at Kostka Jesuit Secondary School in Krakow, Poland. It is to this fourth ‘water and action’ step that we now turn.

Questions to Consider

Imagine that you are in a conversation with St. Ignatius Loyola and he invites you to “see God in all things”.

  • What do you think he means by this? Read this brief discussion for more information.
  • If you truly followed his advice, what difference do you think this would make in how you use water?
  • What difference do you think it would make in your attitude toward the natural world?