Streams of Living Water
For the last 8 years, on a Saturday towards the end of September, the Orthodox Community of St Barbara in Chester has gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Well of St Winefride. It does so in faith, believing that the place where she suffered and bore witness to Christ was for ever set aside and blessed by God as a witness of His immanence in our world.
Water is a holy element, for without it life cannot exist. It has an important part in the life and worship of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the Western Church, the feast of the Epiphany celebrates the journey of the Magi to the cave where Christ was born in Bethlehem, but for the Eastern Churches it is different; for we celebrate on that day the baptism of Christ in the waters of the River Jordan. Water is blessed by the priest in church, for ‘today the nature of the waters is sanctified’ and this is so for all time, wrought by the Saviour’s own immersion in the Jordan. The priest calls on Him to sanctify the water through the descent of the Holy Spirit and at the end of the service the faithful take the blessed water to their own homes.
We tend to think of the Orthodox Church in terms of Greece or Russia. What possible reason can a group of English-speaking Orthodox have for visiting the Holy Well of a Celtic saint? The answer is to be found in our Christian history. The Church of St Winefride, her uncle St Beuno and countless other holy men and women of those early centuries in Britain was part of an undivided Church, and, many Orthodox believe, lay outside the borders of the Patriarchate of the West in Rome. Indeed, tradition has it that it was to Jerusalem, not Rome, that St David the Confessor went for consecration to the episcopate; so that we find it perfectly natural to venerate St Winefride as a saint of our own Church, in the same way that we commemorate St Alban as the Protomartyr of Britain.
Our pilgrimage begins in the gem of a chapel which lies above the Holy Well. Unused and empty throughout the year, it becomes again for one brief day a place of Christian worship. The church at Chester is transported to Holywell and only an icon screen is needed to complete the transformation of the chapel into an Orthodox church. Icons, those windows of heaven, surround us; the candles of the pilgrims shine out in the autumn light; the smoke of sweet incense rises up as a symbol of our prayers; through the kindness of the Catholic parish priest, the Holy Relic of the Saint lies on the altar for our blessing. Everything is now ready. The centre of our worship is the Eucharist, which among us is called the Divine Liturgy. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. We welcome him in the form of a service unchanged for centuries. We do so with full liturgical solemnity, for the Low Mass of the West is unknown to us. Lights and incense are always used and the music must be that of the human voice alone, for no musical instrument is permitted as an accompaniment to the singing. At the end of the service, the unconsecrated remains of the eucharistic bread are offered to all present as a sign of our love. We then process with banners and lights from the chapel to the Holy Well below, taking with us the Holy Relic and Icon of the Saint. The pilgrimage continues with a service which has two themes: the first is a commemoration of the Saint and the second is a solemn blessing of the Waters with the Cross of Christ. The Prayer Service of the Saint is called a Molieben in Russian. In it, the pilgrims pray to Christ the Physician that He may ‘expel the maladies of the ailing’ through the sprinkling of His blessing. We ask the Saint to pray for us and in a litany we remember all sorts and conditions of men and commend them to God. We sing the orthodox hymn (or troparion) to the Saint:
Suffering death for thy virginity, O Holy Winefride, through God’s mercy thy body was made whole and restored to life. Thy healing grace flows in streams of living water. Pray to God for us that our souls may be saved.
The Holy Well is then blessed by Christ, as He blessed the waters of the Jordan by His Baptism. His Cross is plunged three times in the living water of the Well as the priest sings the blessing prayer. The pilgrims are sprinkled with the water and offered it to drink, afterwards venerating the Holy Relic and the Icon of the Saint. We then go to the nearby parish hall (through the courtesy of the Vicar) for lunch and, perhaps, a talk as well. Our day of pilgrimage ends with Great Vespers in the chapel. The Orthodox liturgical day begins at sunset not dawn (Genesis 1,5 gives the reason), so that our final act of worship in the chapel is the first service of the Sunday which follows.
At the end of it all, what do we gain? There is merit and grace for those who travel long distances to honour the Saint at her Holy Well. There is the companionship of meeting friends we may only see on this one day of the year. Above all, there is the privilege of joining St Winefride and the whole company of Heaven as she seeks God’s mercy on the ills and pains of a suffering world which has largely forgotten Him. O Holy St Winefride, pray to God for us that our souls may be saved. Amen to that.
Fr Alban Barter is the Priest-in-Charge of the Community of St Barbara, which worships on three Sundays a month at Overleigh Cemetery Chapel in Chester. In 1995, the Pilgrimage will be held on Saturday, 23 September.
Text & Illustration © Protopresbyter Alban Barter (1994)
Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 23/12/99