Mosaic, Baptistery, Basilica of St Maurice, Valais, Switzerland
R.S. Thomas had a holy well in his parish, sacred to Mary:
‘… Ignoring my image I peer down
to the quiet roots of it, where
the coins lie, the tarnished offerings
of the people to the pure spirit
that lives there, that has lived there
always, giving itself up
to the thirsty, withholding
itself from the superstition
of others, who ask for more.’
The Samaritan woman asked Jesus: ‘Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come hither to draw.’ (John 4:13–15) Like her, those visiting Mary’s Well may have mixed or inarticulate motives: thanks for the water, but ‘asking for more’? Possibly healing, as at Saint Winifride’s Holywell or fertility? At Saint Nôn’s Well in Pembrokeshire, we heard a party of pagans descending to hold a service in the water; one removing some of her clothing as we walked by. It did not seem opportune to ask whom they were worshipping.
In Bath Romans cast money into the water as an offering to Minerva. This ceased after the pious Emperor Theodosius I forbade offerings to pagan gods. But today’s tarnished offerings? Thomas says the ‘pure spirit that has lived there always’ accepts them.
Jesus led the conversation on from water, telling the woman: ‘God is a spirit; and they that adore him, must adore him in spirit and in truth.’ (John 4:24) R.S. Thomas invites us to plunge beyond introspection to offer thanks to a loving Creator rather than trying to force the hand of a coin-in-the-slot robot deity.
R.S. Thomas, ‘Ffynnon Fair’ in R.S. Thomas, ‘Collected Poems, 1945 – 1990’, London, Orion, 2000.