The Sacred Art of Well Dressing

Well dressing is an annual event in all the local villages around the Community and this year, having had local experience of ‘doing well dressings’, the Quaker Community are embracing this local tradition. http://welldressing.com/photo.php 

A celebration of that which nourishes us, being Quaker and being here in the Hope Valley. Come and join this practical celebration. Quaker Faith and Practice has a lovely testimony (Quaker Faith & Practice 29.16 ) which speaks of ‘listening with the whole of our being and seeking the baptism and communion of living water, we will be one in the Spirit”. ‘Living water’ is our imaging theme for our first witness to this tradition. And we welcome any thought or image contributions you can make, before deciding the picture to be worked-so get them in to us as soon as possible. 

Originally the local wells where water was drawn, that sustained a village or a hamlet, were simply honoured with flowers and gifts. Nowadays a village can produce several well-dressings, not just one for honouring the water well (that are now mainly disused) as traditional; but also new sources of village nourishment; a church, a school, a collage and even a cemetery in honour of ancestors or more recently those who died fighting. (welldressing.com for picture 2018 at Hope)

Further information has been extracted from the book Sacred Waters by Janet and Colin Bord. Published by Paladin Books 1986 (below) and helps us to understand the significance and honour it is to participate in doing a well-dressing. (info. in brackets are further additions, to local or Quaker context ) 

“Water is available in our homes and no one need visit places where it wells from the earth. Water, in an ever constant clean supply, is taken for granted and considered everyone’s right. Only in drought or disruption to mains supply do people realize how dependent we all are. The link between humans, life, water, and earth was instinctively known by those people who lived before Water Boards came into being.( There is a local well, known as The Seep, up the track to the hamlet of Thornhill nearby, and is a regular visiting place for us ) small wells an ever important feature of the district, that century after century it has been unforgotten”.

“Modern amenities, including piped water in almost every home, have meant that after hundreds even thousands of years attitudes towards water have changed, and wells once considered holy are now left to decay, forgotten and unwanted. The history of any given well may not have been recorded. Inland water sources have been found to show evidence that water in general was (and is to be) considered “sacred” i.e. worthy of, or regarded with, reverence, awe, or respect”.

“The waters healing roles has been taken over by the NHS and in our technological society the springs and holy wells are considered to have nothing to offer us. This attitude is mistaken, since every act which distances humanity from its natural heritage is detrimental to physical and spiritual health. Concern and care for the sources of sacred water are among the many actions which show that humanity is slowly awakening to its environmental responsibilities. Perhaps within the human psyche lies an urge to correct any imbalance of attitude which develops and thus begins to assert itself when men’s actions reach a level which threatens self destruction”. ( Fracking? and its environmental impact see website https://www.environmentalsciencedegree.com/fracking/)

“There is a universal veneration of water. The custom of throwing gifts or offerings into water- (who has not thrown coins into wishing ‘wells’?) – and the term ‘holy well’ is used to describe all kinds of ancient wells and springs,(overtaken by) Christians throughout Europe who were intolerant of any other form of worship they called pagan ( i.e. irreligious, barbaric and unenlightened) and made strenuous efforts to suppress it. Most water cults are pre-Christian”.

“Pope Gregory at the beginning of the 7th Century recommended that temples not be destroyed, but converted for Christian use. People would continue to visit their sacred places, but their devotions would be directed at the true God rather than pagan idols- this is what happened to many of the holy wells and an important reason for their continued survival for so long. Yet not all wells were taken over in this way by the Christians, many continued their old practices resulting in more decrees banning water worship”.

“Christian water rites of baptism and hand-washing  were methods of take over. Baptisteries built at wells, churches built close or even over wells. Pagan gods ousted in favour of Christian Saints, many being dedicated to Saints and thenceforth bearing their names”. ( The Church at Thornhill, built very near the local well, closed; not long after The Seep was no longer in use, with the arrival of piped water in 1947) 

“St Chad, is the patron Saint of medicinal springs- he was a 7th Century bishop, born in Northumbria. In 669 Chad was consecrated bishop of the Mercian, with his See ( ‘See’ is the political body of the Vatican City), at Lichfield (Stafford); the location of the most famous of the holy wells dedicated to him. At Stowe on the outskirts of Litchfield, a small church was built by Chad near a well where he baptized his converts. It was his custom to stand naked in the well and pray, he died in 672. This well became known as a healing well, and large numbers of pilgrims visited during the Middle Ages. In the early 18th Century it was recommended as a cure by Sir John Flayer, physician to Charles II so enjoyed fame as a spa. Up until the last century it was decorated with greenery and flowers on Ascension Day”. (Tissington Hall now continues this tradition with well-dressings on Ascension Day with several elaborate well-dressings produced)

“water symbolizes the whole of potentiality, it is ‘foris et origo’, the source of all possible existence” Mircea Eliade

St John Chrysostom wrote of baptism- “it represents death and burial, life and resurrection as when we plunge our head into water as into a tomb, the old man is immersed, wholly buried; when we come out of the water, the new man appears at that moment.”

“Often rituals were customary, for any particular well to affect a cure. It was the time at which it was used or what the water was drank from, as are rituals the church established, they worked hard to prevent people using or participating in water rituals of any kind.”

Thank God for the formalised tradition of well-dressing in modern times- allowing the communion with living water as a public statement of time spent in gratitude to Mother Earth.

Book yourself a place to join us in witness and service to Her.