A West African water ritual of anointing

Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. – Psalm 23

The woman dips three fingers into her bowl of water. She traces her fingertips along my temple and down the line of my jaw while looking directly into my eyes. She dips again and traces the other side of my face, then my forehead, my nose, my chin, all with tenderness. Only in ritual, I’m thinking, would I ever have this privilege.

She moves down the line to the next person, and I rest my eyes on the water shrine, brilliant with little candles among the sea shells upon cloths of restful blue. The next woman comes along to anoint my face.

There was more, earlier: we filled each other’s bowls to the brim from our own bowls, a soothing rhythm of turning and pouring of pond liquid along a silent bucket brigade. We walked around the pond with our bowls, and I thought, Oh, I see–God is the pond , and we are bowls of that water, the same stuff but different, held differently, more portable. At death, we’ll be poured back into the pond to mingle, but there will still be individual molecules that were once in a bowl, carried in a circle.

Then we stopped at the ancestor shrine to offer the ancestors a bit of our water, and the pictures of my father and my great-great grandparents were there against the red cloth. In the midst of the anointing, I imagined my great-great grandfather, the war diarist, looking lovingly at me.

Stillness of mind, like the still of the pond, was the goal, but it’s pretty elusive for me. Calmness of mind was the best I could do, and there was plenty of that. It lingers the next day, ever so sweetly.

Finally, we walked out on the field and poured the rest of our water onto the ground as an offering to reconciliation and healing. I thought again of my ancestor, broken by the Civil War, and poured my libation to his comfort.

Afterwards, we went inside to speak about the ritual, and people told of acute joy, deep grief, love for each other (practically strangers, most of us), perceiving each anointer’s uniqueness. Glenn told us to think about water this week, notice when we could use a dose of harmony and calm, perhaps pour a libation onto the earth if we find ourselves losing our way.

Ritual is a powerful good, and so, I find, is anointing.

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