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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Vaccine of Ancient Times: Sharing Water

 The "Old Normal" was an age that spanned from the end of the last Ice Age to the start of the Covid Age. One of the weird things that the people used to do during those remote times was to collectively dip their fingers into a horrible soup of bacteria and viruses called "holy water." Then, they engaged in a ritual gesture that involved touching one's own face with their fingers still wet with that water. How could they survive that remains a mystery. (image source)


Last week, I stopped to visit a church in my neighborhood. An eerie silence reigned among the benches where no one seemed to have been sitting for ages. The holy water bowls at the entrance of the deserted church were completely dry -- not even a trace of humidity! They had been replaced by disinfecting gel bottles. You see both the empty bowl and the gel bottle in the picture. Maybe the priest had blessed the gel?

The elimination of the holy water dispenser would seem to be an obvious thing to do. Think of the unhygienic condition of the water: with people dipping their fingers into it, it must have rapidly become a cocktail of viruses and bacteria, maybe holy, but surely unhealthy

But, amazingly, these "stoups" of holy water are a very ancient tradition. They go back to the very origins of Christianity. Were our ancestors so stupid to pass germs to each other in this way?

It is a diffuse hobby to think that our ancestors were ignorant and superstitious. But if they had been really so ignorant and superstitious, we wouldn't be here. If the holy water rituals were killing people, that would have been noted and people would have stopped using them

But all the variants of Christian religiosity include this kind of ablution rituals. Islam does, too, although in different forms. And many other religions include communal ablutions. These rituals go very deep into the very essence of religion. Whether it is water, wine, or bread, it doesn't matter: it is the sharing that counts. And if those habits were supposed to be purification rituals, they had to purify something.

There is a good reason why purification rituals were good for the health of the faithful. They were early forms of vaccination. 

Think about that: the idea of a vaccine is to put a person in contact with some forms of pathogens in order to stimulate one's natural resistance. An early form of vaccination was called "variolation" (from the Latin term "variola," "smallpox"). It goes back to several centuries ago and it consisted of actually infecting people with smallpox. The idea was to have them develop a mild infection that would then protect them from more dangerous forms. Later, variolation was replaced with vaccination using a live form of the smallpox virus, taken from cows. And, of course, our modern vaccines are small miracles of molecular biology, but they do basically the same thing. They put our bodies in direct contact with some forms of the pathogen we want to fight.

You see that our ancestors were doing the same with their ablution rituals. Of course, they knew nothing about bacteria and viruses but, again, they were not stupid. They tried many things and they kept what worked. The idea of communal ablutions was to put everyone in contact with the skin biome of the whole community, sharing the "good" germs and stimulating an immune reaction that would protect the person from worse infections. That was done also outside religious practices -- in Buddhist countries, for instance, there is no equivalent of the holy water basin of the West, but they do have a tradition of communal bathing.

These old traditions could also go beyond ablution. Look at the picture: it is the "Madonna del Parto" in the Church of St. Augustine in Rome. If you go there, you are supposed to kiss the foot of the statue for good luck. Imagine many people kissing it, one after the other. Can you imagine a better way to transfer bacteria and viruses to one another? Actually, the foot is in silver, known to have some bactericidal properties. The idea may have been that, yes, it is good to share germs in this way, but let's not exaggerate. But, surely, if you didn't want bacteria to spread, you'd better avoid that people would kiss the Madonna's foot, rather than making it in silver! They wanted some germs to be transferred!

So, the ancients had empirically understood the concept that today we call "holobiont."  Our bodies are not single organisms, we are colonies of microscopic creatures: our microbiome. These creatures are part of us and, among the many good things they do for us, one is to protect us from the external microbes that tend to invade our bodies. The microbes living on our skin are the first line of defense we have, but we are protected by multiple defensive layers. The active immune system, the "adaptive" one, is the final layer. It enters into action only after that the other lines have been breached. Your microbiome makes sure that it rarely happens. It is part of the good thing that is being a holobiont!

But there is more than sharing water in being holobionts. It is a deep and significant way to show that we belong to a community, which we can see as a higher-order holobiont. The basic idea of religion, any religion, is sharing. Sharing is the essence of the great planetary holobiont we call sometimes Gaia, from which we came and to which we return. Without sharing, there is no God/Goddess, no community, no life. 

Something of this attitude has filtered through the rather anodyne ritual of modern vaccination, with many people reporting a feeling of spiritual completeness after receiving their vaccine against the Covid pandemic. They felt they had done their duty in protecting not just themselves, but the whole community and they were proud of having shared the burden with everyone else. Which is the way any good holobiont should feel! 

Of course, this kind of feeling depends on trusting that you are doing the right thing. One thing is dipping one's finger in a bowl of holy water: you trust your local community. Another is to have synthetic RNA being delivered inside one's cells to operate the molecular mechanisms of protein creation: you trust science.  

Is science an entity worth our trust? Trust is not bestowed by definition, it must be earned. And we must say that the composite entity we call "science" has not been always up to the standards that would make it deserve everyone's trust. Especially in recent times, scientists have shown attitudes involving petty squabbles, greed, ignorance, subservience to power, arrogance, political partisanship, and more. That explains the diffuse resistance against the modern forms of vaccination, perceived as a violation of one's body. Scientists must do much better than they are doing now if they want to maintain the trust that the community still places on them.

In the end, we keep making the same mistake we have been doing for quite some time: contrasting religion with science, as if the former were superstition and the latter the truth. It is not like that. They are different forms of understanding ourselves and the world (and, eventually, understanding is sharing). 

Even in health care, we are creating a schizophrenic situation by creating an artificial contrast that doesn't need to exist. Are we sure that we did well in abolishing the basins of holy water? They were ways to "prime" our skin microbiome against infection. With our emphasis on molecular vaccines, we forgot that the human defense system is multilayered. And if this first line of defense works, we are not necessarily forced to recur to more invasive ones.

Worse, we are forgetting that being human means sharing with others. Saint Francis would kiss lepers when he met them. We don't need to go to such extremes, but we still need to remember that we are human. Masked, disinfected, and isolated, as we all are nowadays, we are declaring that we are not willing to share anything with anyone. Are we still human? And, if we are, why we treat each other as if we weren't?


  1. I am a member of the Episcopal church in the United States. The ceremonies are based on the Catholic tradition: lots of well known readings (the Book of Common Prayer), a strict three year cycle of Bible readings, a font that people dip their fingers into when entering, the priest dressed in elaborate robes, and the passing of the peace where people shake hands or hug one another (the occasional kiss).

    We had a funeral recently. A friend of ours who attends a non-liturgical church said that he wanted his funeral in our church because he was moved by the ceremony.

    Our tradition is that each person takes a sip of wine from a communal chalice. We do not have separate cups, so, if 20 people participate, then you can pick up the germs of up to 19 other people by drinking from the same cup. This tradition is a requirement. Since we cannot practice this tradition now, we do not share the wine at all.

    Once the pandemic is over I am pushing for our church leaders to emphasize the formal and liturgical nature of ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and infant baptisms (another case of sharing water). People will want more ceremony, not less.

    1. "a community, which we can see as a higher-order holobiont"....well, I've always considered by community of "vaccination" the lower orders too...the bats in the cabin, the dogs in my home, the bugs and bees...the "dirt" on the ground, filled with so much life. There's way too much cleanliness in the way of good health these days.
      Thanks for pointing this essay out. I missed it when you wrote it.