Holy Water / Heart Vapours

By | 15 February 2023

It is tears, often, that prove a mystic to be a saint. It is tears, too, that prove a girl a heretic, too Catholic, too Pagan, simultaneously overwhelming and refusing her audience.


Michel de Certeau, in The Mystic Fable, writes that Christian mystics begin their texts, ritualistically, with volo. I look up the phrase in a Latin dictionary. I will; I want; I wish. The mystics are always wanting, establishing themselves in this way. This is a statement with a supernatural agency, an incantation: to want is to will.

It is a loss of self that begins with I, repeats it, forms a chorus.

The mystics want without an object, without a sense of time or place. Volo, linked to nothing, is at once itself and its opposite. It is a zest for infinity, in all its permutations. I want (everything, nothing, God), offers de Certeau, in an attempt at translating the void. The mystic demands something that can’t be satisfied.

It is performative repetition, repetition as a means of marking a threshold, repetition as beginning, becoming. It is repetition that creates a frenzy, an altered state; repetition is a ritual that allows us to grasp, to cling, to believe what we need to believe.

From ‘the start’, writes de Certeau, ‘the ‘I’ has the formal structure of ecstasy’.


I come to mysticism at an oblique angle, after a bad breakup, having thrown myself into the study of tarot cards, allowing the imagery on the cards to lead me, to train my emotions and reorder my associations. I purchase a copy of the Waite-Smith deck, largely responsible for popularising tarot in the English-speaking world, designed by Pixie Colman-Smith in 1909, under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite. I choose this set because more has been written on their iconography, I believe, than that of any other deck.

I am a mess, at this point, but I am determined to contain it, to process it, to remain with my sadness, alone, rather than running away, falling into a new relationship, distracting myself. I want my misery to be more than decadence, other than failure. I am told, by the tarot cards and their many interpretative guides, that sometimes surrendering to tears is a stage within a process, that sometimes it is necessary or inevitable. I will my misery to be more than decadence.

I trace the origins of my tears. I don’t know how to be loved, having grown up without a mother, always at a distance from my peers. The motherless girl, I theorise, is often excluded from the collective. She doesn’t have the experience so often presented as universal, is an inadequate mirror. She is animated, explained, by this core absence, and others look away.

I want to disappear into the third person, but I will myself to stay.

I want, write the mystics, repeating, forming a choir of solitary voices, overlapping.

I will that altered state.


In the Waite-Smith tarot, the Ace of Cups is a golden chalice, with water overflowing, running in rivulets to a pond beneath, lilies blossoming on the surface. There are, alongside the steady rivulets, 26 smaller drops, like tears, scattering through the air. The chalice, into which a dove dips a communion wafer, is held steady by a disembodied hand, clouds curling around the wrist as if forming an elaborate sleeve.

A.E. Waite saw this card as offering the key to the whole Minor Arcana, as hinting at the possibility of communion with the Divine. He did not offer many other clues, noting that ‘the field of divinatory possibilities is inexhaustible’, and the Ace of Cups isn’t a card that’s easy to reduce to a simple or singular meaning. It is, like all Aces, the beginning of a progression stretching through the suit. Cups, in tarot, are the suit of creativity, of love and other emotions, and sit closest to water, which often represents the unconscious. In Jungian interpretations, cups represent feeling, as distinct from intuiting, sensing, thinking.

A. E. Waite was a devout Christian, and saw the chalice of the Ace of Cups as the Holy Grail. ‘Once, through legend and through high romance, the Secret Church sent out the Holy Grail’, he wrote, explaining the image and its links to chivalric romances, to the tarot as a knightly quest.


‘Imagine’, writes Mary K. Greer …

that you are the Chalice and, perhaps, the liquid in the chalice. You may be a font of water that wells up from a deep source. Become aware of the wounds gathered through your earthly experience. The water within you could begin to spill over, rising up and falling out in a continuous stream. Can you let yourself go, surrender to the movement, and then to gravity so that you fall into the pool beneath? What happens when you spill into that pond? Where do you go?


When I draw the Ace of Cups, I follow Greer’s exercise, imagining the water within me spilling over. I try, using it, to accept my emotions, to surrender to their movement. I close my eyes and imagine falling into the pond below, surrounded by waterlilies.


I cry because I love too much or do not feel loved enough, because I feel lost or lonely. I cry because it takes so much work to achieve even a small measure of confidence. I cry because I am confused by my body, because there are so many illnesses and so many symptoms, because doctors don’t always have answers. I cry because I cannot fix the problems of the world, because I have seen pictures and read descriptions of so many types of pain. I cry because I will never understand what it is like to have a mother, to feel secure, to believe in good things when they happen. I cry because I am an imposition on my friends. I cry because I cannot stay mortality, because I do not have a dog, because of mistakes that I made in conversations years ago. I cry because I don’t think I’ll ever learn not to need anything. I cry, occasionally, over spilt milk. I cry because I am an overflowing chalice, but I do not think I am in communion with the Divine.


Mystics fascinate me because they have learnt how to escape reason, have been celebrated for it. It’s true, of course, that they lived in a different time, that even then they were often viewed as heretics, rarely trusted, decreed saints only posthumously. The mystics of medieval Europe generally viewed the official institutions of the church as corrupt, choosing instead to cry in isolation.

It is crying, E.M. Cioran wrote, in 1937, that leads modern citizens to care about saints, lifting these figures into an aesthetic category, making religious devotion sparkle with a secular sublime. ‘Tears are music in material form’, he wrote.

I am one of these modern citizens, drawn to saints for the ways in which they speak to my own desires.

I read that tears, in the Catholic worldview, are brought about by intense personal experiences of God, that tears are the overflow of transcendent experience. There are three categories for holy tears; they are purifying, following fear and regret; devotional, shed due to an excess of love or grace; or compassionate, wept for Christ’s suffering. St Francis of Assisi, according to his doctors, went blind from an overflow of tears, offering evidence of piety. St Augustine cried privately, as a form of prayer, in order to ensure his tears went directly to God. St Ephraim, in the desert, cried tears enough to form a river.


In 1549, in England, the Act of Uniformity forbade excessive funeral tears. Catholicism was seen as Pagan, and tears, along with Christmas, New Year, passion plays and the cult of the Virgin Mary, were supposed to be eradicated.

Tears have always been allied with esotericism, with alchemy and magic. In late antiquity, forty days of penance was demanded of those who wept for the dead. It was Pagan to lament. ‘Christians when they come in’, Caesarius of Arles wrote, referring to women at a funeral, ‘heathens when they leave.’1


In most cases, I read, tears come about as the Holy Spirit enters a person.

The Holy Spirit is represented on the Ace of Cups as the hand emerging from the cloud.

  1. Mogen, 2020, p. 229.
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