In winter, we spend inordinate amounts of time inside, dwelling, stewing, stagnating in enforced inactivity. When our hibernating energy finally re-awakens in the spring, it is with a pronounced case of morning breath. After the dust, the must, the rust of winter, a thorough spring cleaning is called for.
The promise of renewed life prompts us to prepare a sacred and auspicious way for its anticipated arrival. We are moved to purge and purify ourselves, to cleanse and make our selves worthy of the grace implied in a fresh start. We make a clean sweep of our surroundings -- internal and external, body and soul.
In washing, we symbolically shed the old, discard the past, toss it out with the bath water. Thus removed of any spiritual pollution, we emerge refreshed, restored and recharged. Our slates are wiped clean. Naked and pure, purged and protected, we stand sanctified, ready to step confidently into the new season.
We come to this world awash in saline womb waters and are greeted upon the moment of our first breath with a warm bath. When we die we are bathed again. We wash before we eat, before we sleep, before we pray. Most cultures, in fact, require washing before worship. Here, the ablution marks the transition from the profane sector of life to the sacred.
"Meditation and water are wedded forever."
- Herman Melville
Islam requires the worshipper to wash before each of the five daily prayers performed facing toward Mecca. Muslims cleanse their mouths so that their prayers will be sanctified, and their ears so that they might better hear the will of Allah.
The Sweat Lodge Ceremony, the Inipi, as it is known to the peoples of the Great Plains, was prevalent throughout Native North America. It was, and still is, undertaken as a preparatory ritual of purification before a major spiritual endeavor, such as the Vision Quest, the Sun Dance or the Spirit-calling Ceremonies.
Water is considered to be the most efficacious purifying agent by Hindus because when it runs, it absorbs and it carries away pollution. For this reason, rivers and other moving waters are considered to be especially cleansing. The Ganges, although filthy, is the most holy of all. It is the intention of every devout pilgrim to wash in its soul-cleansing substance.
The priestesses and priests of Babylonia cleansed themselves with water from the Tigris or Euphrates rivers before performing their religious functions. In ancient Egypt, as well, the pharaoh would purify his body for prayer by sprinkling himself with the "water of life and good fortune." Ceremonial ablutions in the sea were used to initiate participants in a process of spiritual rebirth during the Eleusinian Mysteries, the oldest of the Greco-Roman Goddess mystery cults.
Proselytes to Judaism were bathed as an initiation rite, which sanctified the start of their new lives, reborn as true believers, members of the chosen people of the God of Israel, Yahweh. It was essential for the candidate to be completely immersed so that s/he might be truly cleansed of heathenish worship.
The Baptism rites of Protestant and Catholic alike, cleanse the way for a worshipper to move from the polluted world to the holy church, from the earthly plane to grace, from sin to salvation. Ultimately it is an initiation into the kingdom of God.
"...I guess I feel about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water... The longerI lay there in the clear hot water the purer I felt, and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself in one of those big, soft, white, hotel bath towels I felt pure and sweet, as a new baby."
- Sylvia Plath
Cleanliness is widely perceived as being next to Godliness. The Christian concept of heaven, like the paradise envisioned by Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims, is a place of absolute purity and brilliant cleanliness, while hell is seen as a stinking foul pit.
People have always used clean water to prepare for reverent engagement with the divine. But these days, really clean water is in shockingly short supply. We have sullied our rich resources with obtuse abuse, and the very elements, which have the power to cleanse and purify have now, themselves, been poisoned.
Picture this: In the Arctic Ocean there is an uninhabited -- never been inhabited -- island. In the center of the island is a lake. Can you possibly imagine a more pristine image? A recent water sample from that lake revealed the presence of fifty-two chemicals. There is, after all, no wall underground to ward off contamination. And there is no such place as Away.
It's time to clean up our act, don't you think? In fact, let's start this spring.
"He had a mania for washing and disinfecting himself.... For him the only danger came from
the microbes which attack the body. He had not studied the microbe of conscience which
eats into the soul."
- Anaïs Nin