The Well of Hospitality

I think about water a lot, living here on the banks of the Narramissic. We live on the river bank where for hundreds of years the Wabanaki people lived and fished, giving thanks for the bounty of “the river of many fish” and for this “quiet place between the rapids”. Rivers, waterways, springs and wells have been experienced as holy places in many cultures. Not only do they provide water– the source of physical life and nurture– but in doing so they provide meeting places. A place where different people, tribes, cultures, or species meet is indeed a holy place. In the Celtic tradition of Christianity, the wells that had been holy to the pre-Christian people remained meaningful. They were “thin places” where among all the other meetings, the human spirit could meet and know the divine presence. St Brigid of Kildare, whose Saint Day is February 2 has wells dedicated to her both in Ireland and Scotland. St Brigid is a saint who has particular care for the poor, for those who have no voice and for the marginalized. She is also the saint of hearth and home, who welcomes all to her bright fire and her cup of cheer. Indeed a poem she wrote imagining heaven gives an image of the host of saints and angels dancing and singing around a lake of beer! I think of St. Brigid’s Well as the Well of Hospitality.

In 1928 a book was published in England that turned the world upside down. It was written by a poet, novelist, and woman-before-her-time, Radclyffe Hall. It was the first novel with a lesbian heroine and to deal openly with non-normative sexuality. It was based on her own life as a woman who loved women and felt that she was a man trapped in a female body. Her lovers and friends called her John. But she published under her own name. Her book was immediately banned and lost its obscenity trial despite the courageous witness of a few literary leading lights such as Virginia Woolf (who berated her other writer friends for not stepping up to the plate in defense of the freedom to publish). Part of the sentence handed down by the judge was that every copy of the book should be found and burned lest it “corrupt the youth.” Luckily, pirate editions were published in France and the U.S. so Radclyffe Hall’s groundbreaking work was not destroyed. The novel’s name was “The Well of Loneliness.”

I read “The Well of Loneliness” when I was in my twenties, struggling with my own sexuality. It was a blessing to read anything with a lesbian protagonist, but extremely disheartening at the same time. For in Hall’s despairing vision, too feel and act on same-sex attraction inevitably dooms a person to heartbreak, abandonment, and unrelenting loneliness. Part of this vision was the conclusion that the Christian Church had no place in it for those people we now know as the LGBTQ+ community. She can be forgiven for believing this, but at least in some branches of the church today, it is no longer true. My own spiritual journey, in and out of the Church, has led me to many meetings with hospitable and generous people, including many saints, and Jesus too, who have helped me replace The Well of Loneliness in my life with The Well of Hospitality.

At Oranbega we strive to offer the nurturing waters of the Well of Hospitality to all.