I have just been reading Holy Water and its Significance for Catholics by Rev Henry Theiler.
First published in 1909 and republished last year by Sophia Press, it is written in the rather formal, pious style of devotional books published before the modern era ushered in by Vatican II. However, it is good not to dismiss such a work as old-fashioned and thus out of date. The author reminds us of eternal truths that can never go out of fashion.
Holy water, like holy oils, blessed salt and the sign of the cross, is a sacramental. This means that unlike the Sacraments, it does not confer grace – but its usage can obtain it. What this means, as Fr Theiler explains in his measured style, is that the regular use of holy water can incite piety, put to flight the Devil and often bring about bodily health.
It is much more powerful than we think: the author quotes the famous passage written by St Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, in which she relates that the devil once appeared to her. “I was struck with great fear and blessed myself as best I could; he disappeared but returned right away…I didn’t know what to do. There was some holy water there, and I threw it in that direction; he never returned again…I often experience that there is nothing the devils flee from more – without returning – than holy water.”
Diabolical visitations are mercifully rare for Catholics but ordinary piety (this old word definitely deserves to be revived) indicates that it is prudent as well as a good custom to keep holy water in the home, perhaps in a stoup or container by the front door. Theiler advises making use of it when we get up in the morning and when we go to bed: “When a new day dawns, who will say what it may bring with it?” he asks solemnly, reminding us also that “Satan plants ruin to the soul of man” particularly at night.
Citing the Gospels and the Church Fathers, the author examines the sacred historic significance of holy water. A modern appendix added later by the publishers, advises that parents bless their children with it at night – and also to bless one’s work space, one’s pets and one’s car. I am ashamed to say that when a woman once told me that she was having her car blessed, I secretly dismissed this as a superstitious practice. Now, recalling all the narrow escapes I have had in my car, often through my own poor driving, I plan to have it blessed as soon as possible.
A friend once gave me a car sticker with the words, “Never drive faster than your Guardian Angel can fly”. Having my car blessed with holy water and driving under the influence of my guardian angel: what can go wrong? Seriously, and to quote Henry Theiler again, holy water is a proven way of helping to “avoid sin and the occasions of sin, to keep God’s commands, to make use of the means of grace and to lead a pious Christian life.”