Not long ago, I gave some friends of mine a little bottle of holy water as a present on the anniversary of their son’s (my Godson’s) baptism. They said they appreciated the gift, but looked at me blankly as to what to do with the water. I stammered out that people use it to bless themselves and their children and that some people cook with it. I should have anticipated the question. But the truth is that I didn’t really have any good tips as to what to do with the water. And as a sacramental object, I’m sure the parents weren’t even sure how to get rid of the water. Sorry, friends!
Holy water is a confusing item. People don’t know much about it or what to do with it. The cinematic evidence shows that vampires shy away from it, but most people don’t really worry about vampires these days. Not to mention that garlic is usually available, even in non-Catholic homes. So what else do people do with it?
Catholic churches have the little bowls just inside the doors to the nave—sometimes on the wall (like in the photo to the left), or sometimes on a pedestal, or sometimes (and IMHO, regrettably) in a pool the size of a Jacuzzi tub.
Catholics dip their fingers into the water and use the wet fingers to make the sign of the cross. Growing up, I was told that it was to “remind us of our baptism”. A phrase like that doesn’t make much sense to the modern Cradle-Catholic, since we were baptized as infants before we can actually remember the event. But I think that the phrase “remind us of our baptism” should be understood in the old Hebrew sense of the words, where remembering isn’t an intellectual activity as much as it’s an emotional one—I think we’re to remember with our hearts rather than our heads.
In baptism, our sins (even our original sin) is washed from our soul. Catholics (like most mainstream Protestant denominations) profess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, which means that we only receive that sacrament one time. After that, it’s up to us to keep our souls as clean as possible. Remember your baptism– that may be as holy as you’ll ever be again!
Some people also splash a little water on the ground for the poor souls in Purgatory. I started doing this a couple years ago, hoping that it would bring souls closer to Christ in Heaven. But it’s also been a weekly reminder that I will also face my end one day, and when I do, I should be ready for it.
Most churches have a supply tank of holy water somewhere in the building where people can take a little home with them. The indispensable website Fisheaters has a suggestion for how to turn a liquor bottle into a to-go container for holy water, but I think their suggestion is a little hokey. I’ve read about people who reuse pickle jars, people who recycle 5-gallon buckets (!), and people who buy little plastic bottles in Catholic bookstores for the purpose. I use a repurposed white-wine-vinegar bottle because it’s got a shaker top that makes sprinkling easier.
At home, people use it for a variety of things. My mother has these little ceramic basins in a few rooms of my folks’ house that are supposed to be filled with holy water. In all the years that I’ve seen them hanging there, I’ve never actually seen them filled with a drop of water, but it is not uncommon for Catholic families to have a little font by their front door so the family can bless themselves as they go out into the world, or in each bedroom so people can bless themselves as part of their nightly prayers.
It’s not uncommon to put a few splashes of holy water into the saucepot when you’re cooking the family meal, though I admit that I’ve never done this myself. I use a little holy water here and there around the house when I’m cleaning. I sprinkle a little in the bedroom, that each night I remember the blessings of the day; I sprinkle a little at my desk in our home-office, that my work is a blessing to the Lord and to his people; I sprinkle a little in the kitchen, that God will bless our food for the nourishment of our bodies and the sustenance of our souls.
I sprinkle a little holy water in our vegetable garden from time to time, praying that we never go hungry. I sprinkle a little in the flowerbed by the front door, that God’s blessings always give us a happy return home. Every now and then, I sprinkle a little bit on the dog—a blessing he doesn’t seem to appreciate for some reason.
Parents often sprinkle a little holy water on their children’s heads at night, that God would bless them with happy and holy lives. Parents might sprinkle a little holy water on their children to see if it cuts their skin—as a test of whether or not the kids are little demons after all.
I bet that parents of 2-year-olds go through a LOT of holy water.
There’s nothing magical about the stuff though. Holy water is a “sacramental” of the Catholic Church, which means that it’s a religious tool; it is a sacred sign that signifies effects obtained through the Church’s intercession. Like all sacramentals, they are worthless without the prayers of the church and user, and totally worthless if they do not ultimately point to Jesus Christ. They are tangible ways of asking the Lord to bless us. Sacramentals are devices to bring us closer to the Lord, to repel the devil and his ilk, and to prepare our souls for God’s grace—but they are not magical talismans. They (like us) are nothing without God.
My parish has a stainless steel holy water tank like the one pictured to the right tucked back in the side door of the sacristy. I think that for a lot of people, finding an industrial-looking can (that bears a strange resemblance to a restaurant stock-pot) kind of spoils some illusion of where holy water comes from. I think people assume that there’s some gold-plated natural spring under the sanctuary altar. Alas, there is not. Holy water is usually just tap water with salt added to it, then fortified with the prayers of a priest.
The salt it, ostensibly, to keep the water from going sour from sitting around. But glancing into the dishes by the church door, you can see that there’s often a little funk in the water. I choose not to let that funk bother me, but it’s kind of icky. At home, you can dispose of sour holy water the same way you’d dispose of any sacramental: by returning it to the earth. I don’t wear a scapular, but people who do tell me that they wear out after regular wear—so people dig a little hole and bury the scapular. Holy water probably doesn’t need a hole dug unless your lawn is paved, just pour it into the earth to dispose of it.
In any way, that’s the gig with holy water. I recommend that people keep a little bottle in their house and bless themselves with it from time to time.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church: Sacramentals
Angelus magazine, July 1986, reprinted on catholictradition.org: Holy Water a Means of Spiritual Wealth
Catholic Encyclopedia: Sacramentals
Catholic Encyclopedia: Holy Water
Fisheaters: Introduction to Sacramentals
Fisheaters: Holy Water