Tobernalt Well

20 April 08 | Posted in Global Catholic, Saints, Spirituality

This month I went with 24 other members of my parish on a week’s pilgrimage, “Ireland – Faith & History.” We generally followed in the footsteps of St. Patrick, a patron saint of Ireland. This former slave fled and then returned to bring Christianity to the fabled isle.  He was captured by raiders sent by one of my ancestors, Niall of the Nine Hostages.

Their second patron saint, in whose steps we criss-crossed, is St. Brigid. She was the daughter of a Christian slave and an Irish chieftain. Brigid defied her father by refusing to marry, and instead trooped off with a pack of female friends to live together as a religious community. By accident (or not) she was reputedly ordained as a bishop. St. Brigid is associated with fire and milk – no doubt from her time spent in fosterage with a druid priestess.

Both Patrick and Brigid are associated with holy wells. We had Mass at one of them – Tobernalt Well – near Sligo. This hillside site is just off a small road into the woods. Over time this site has become a sacred grove, with banks of votive candles flickering on the pathways above the well. The effect is enchanting; a blend of natural and Christian divine energy.dsc00299.JPG

The healing stone in the center of the grove has been used as an altar for centuries; perhaps millenniums. It is located just below the well itself. It has a depression at one end where you can rest your back for back pain. On top of the stone are four indentations, said to have been left by St. Patrick’s fingers. If you rest your fingers there, some of the saint’s power is transferred to you.

I walked down the several steps into the well and dipped my hand in the water to bless myself. A clear, pure stream rushes from the source. There is a tradition that the well contains a sacred trout. I believe it – the water is cold enough to support trout.

Fr. Tom began the Mass by reminding us the site was used by Catholics to practice their faith in secret when the area was under the domination of protestant overlords. We need to remember the persecution they endured, their struggle and sacrifice, and never take the practice of our faith for granted. Today, this means standing firm instead of worrying that in some circles our faith might be considered a bit…uncool. (You actually attend Mass? Really?)

I love having Mass outdoors. Sensing the presence of God in all the elements, I fully understand why the Greeks had their temples open to the sky.

The Communion of Saints felt real under the canopy of trees. We stood with all the people who ever came to this sacred place to worship. Several local people who had come to the well joined our group at Mass. They included an elderly man who pushed his wife in a wheelchair up the stony path; a mother holding a baby and chasing a youngster who delighted in skipping around the shrine; a middle-aged woman and her dog, and two young men who knelt to light candles.

After Mass was over I followed the stream to see if I could see the sacred trout.  I didn’t find it, but I’m sure it was there, waving its tail slowly in some shadow.

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