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Holy Water in a Vodka Bottle


In Latgale, the region of Latvia where I served as a Teaching English as a Foreign Language Volunteer, Catholicism is the predominant faith. In the spring of 1994, I had the privilege of attending an Easter service there, in the village of Bernani. This is a town so small that most Latvians don't know it exists. It doesn't have a single shop, a school, or even a post office. In fact its only landmark is a 250-year-old Catholic church built entirely of wood.

The church itself is an anachronism, situated beside a cemetery against a backdrop of auburn rye fields where horses still pull the plows. One could only guess at how old its paint job is, the gray paint chipped and peeling in places. There are no stained-glass windows or statues of the saints. It's just a simple building off to the side of the road. Only its modest steeple and the cross on top distinguish it as a place of worship.

My hosts and I drove up to the church on a dirt road scarcely wide enough for two cars and parked on a narrow strip of grass just outside the gate. There were only four other cars there when we arrived, and no one else was in sight. I later learned that the church doesn't even have its own clergy. A priest has to drive in from another parish every week for the service.

I didn't expect to find the interior of the place any grander than the exterior. But I was wrong. Once inside, I found it absolutely magnificent. Its most prominent feature was a hardwood altar stained a deep shade of mahogany and trimmed with gold. Behind the altar, Saint Mary and the infant Christ were depicted in silver. Paintings as old as the church itself decorated the walls, and colorful parish banners hung from long poles at the ends of the pews. Accompanied by a beautiful antique organ, a women's choir filled the air with sonorous Easter hymns.

One of the things that I noticed first was a perfectly normal aluminum bucket that had been placed near the wall. It looked as though the janitor had forgotten to put it away after scrubbing the floor. Later I saw an elderly woman, her gray head swathed in a scarf, approach the bucket and draw out a ladleful of water. Very carefully she poured the water into a small crystal vial she had brought with her. It was holy water. I thought it terribly odd that the church kept holy water in such an ordinary vessel as a bucket.

People continued to come into the church, one after the other, as we waited for the service to start. Many of them walked over to the bucket and filled some sort of vial or jar with holy water. It struck me as a very quaint tradition, setting out the holy water for people to come and take as they like.

One man entered the church, made straight for the holy water, and began ladling it into an empty vodka bottle. How could he do that? I found myself thinking. Holy water in a vodka bottle! What an obscene mingling of the sacred and the profane. Then I saw that part of the label had been removed, as if the man had realized that holy water doesn't belong in a liquor bottle and tried to scrape it off. He filled the bottle about halfway and then joined his family.

At first I was a bit shocked by what I'd seen. Then, I realized that it doesn't matter whether holy water is carried in a crystal vial, an aluminum bucket, or a vodka bottle - it's still holy water. Usually we try to honor the sacred with something more appropriate though. Churches of every creed and confession all over the world are filled with precious metals and priceless artwork. We who attend church dress up for it. We genuflect when we enter. People invariably pay the sacred a great deal of respect. It just didn't seem right to carry holy water in a vodka bottle.

As I sat there thinking about what I'd seen, however, the vodka bottle suddenly made sense. Latvia is not a country where people can afford to buy expensive crystal, let alone gold or silver. Most of the bottles that Latvians have are misshapen or discolored. But vodka is sold in clear, attractive bottles. These are the nicest bottles to be had in Latvia. This kind of recycling is very common there. When we think of recycling in America, we think of taking our bottles to a plant that processes them. In Latvia recycling means using something over and over again until it either breaks or finds some permanent niche in the home.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. It was a perfect symbol of Easter - taking something as profane as a vodka bottle and putting it to a more wholesome use. It was redemption.

There was one other surprise awaiting me that day. After the service, the family I was visiting in Bernani invited me back to their house for Easter dinner. It is a tradition among Catholics in Latvia to drink a small glass of holy water before eating dinner on Easter Sunday. So when we were all seated at the table, someone pulled out the holy water. My friends kept theirs in a vodka bottle as well. And we drank it, solemnly, with all the reverence that holy water deserves.

Kevin O'Donoghue (Latvia)

Kevin was a foreign language Volunteer in Latvia. He has a B.A. in a foreign language and is from Plano, Texas

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