The other day, I was in our local bookstore, talking to the owner, Gary, about my new book, The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales From the Journey, now available just in time for Christmas (hint, hint) from this website, independent book stores like “The Gulf of Maine” in Brunswick, or, as a last resort, Amazon.
Now, Gary is a true pilgrim who’s made a lot more pilgrimages than I have; he’s even taught a course called Pilgrimage. When he started talking about the relics he’s seen on his travels, I realized that in the seven years I’ve been writing this blog, while I’ve written about the stones I’ve collected and a snakeskin I cherish, I’ve never written about relics.
So, when I returned home, I did some research, beginning with what constitutes a relic. The word is connected to the Latin, reliquiae, which refers to the fossil remains of animals or plants. In a secular sense, a relic can be a remnant—even a person—who belongs to an earlier time but has survived into the present. Usually, however, we use the word to describe an object or article of religious or spiritual significance from the past consisting of either the physical remains of a saint or other revered person, or something closely connected to that person which has been preserved for the purposes of veneration.
The veneration of relics is a big part of religions such as Christianity and Buddhism. One of the first recorded uses of a relic is in the Bible’s Old Testament, when the prophet Elisha picks up the cloak of his mentor Elijah, who has just ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, and uses it to strike the Jordan River, parting the waters so he can cross. In the New Testament, handkerchiefs that the Apostle Paul had touched were applied by others to cure the sick. By the Middle Ages, veneration of relics was a common practice in the Christian Church.
The worship of relics, however, got out of hand. I recall reading somewhere that if all the pieces of “The True Cross”—the cross on which Jesus was crucified—were gathered, you’d have enough wood to build a city. In graduate school, I read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories told on a fictional 14th-century pilgrimage to the shrine of the martyred Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England. One of the pilgrims is a pardoner, a seller of relics. Perhaps because he’s drunk or perhaps because he’s an egomaniac, he reveals that his relics are sheep bones and other fakes. Later, after a few more drinks, he tries to sell his wares to the audience anyway.
Influenced, perhaps, by Chaucer, I’ve always disdained relics as phony and venerating them as foolish. I remember going to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre in Quebec and snickering at what’s supposed to be a 4” portion of the forearm of the mother of Mary encased in a glass reliquary. And a couple of years ago, when Mary Lee and I visited Cologne Cathedral, all I could think of was how in hell the bones of the Magi (I grew up calling them the Three Wisemen) wound up in Germany. (It’s a long story. Look it up.)
But maybe because I realize that I’m a sort of relic myself these days, belonging to another time, surviving into the present—a relic who wouldn’t mind a little veneration—I find myself reevaluating the practice of revering relics. I wonder if making a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre is all that different from going to Ford’s Theater Museum to see the blood-stained pillow on which President Lincoln died. What about the millions who pilgrimage to Cooperstown to see Babe Ruth’s 35 ¾”, 38 oz. baseball bat, which he notched every time he hit a home run?
Which has me thinking: have I ever revered a relic?
And looking around my office, I discover the following:
—Five paintings and one wood-burning done by my daughter before she died.
—A letter holder my father made for my mother when they were going together in high school and a wooden plate I remember him carving before he spent his evenings drinking and watching TV.
—Two banjos: one bequeathed to me by my friend Margaret, who was probably the closest things to a saint I’ve ever known; and one I bought from my recently deceased friend Jim, whose obituary described him as an internationally renowned legal scholar and “unrepentant” banjo player.
—A pencil holder decorated in hieroglyphics that belonged to my late father-in-law.
—At least ten different joke-books written by my old basketball and baseball teammate, Scott, before he died of cancer.
At lunch, I look around the dining room and behold a candle box and two cup holders Dad made during his retirement and a collection of demi-tasse cups that came from my mother-in-law. Various pieces of china from Mary Lee’s family sit in a china cabinet that used to belong to my grandmother.
(I’ll spare an inventory of the living room, the family room, the bedrooms, and even the bathrooms. You get the idea.)
What does that tell me about the value of relics?
I realize the relics I’ve identified in my house probably serve the same purpose as the Eastern Buddhist home altars and shrines to the family dead. Relics link us to the past, which, as I’ve often written, is where my hope for the future lies: in the love that we experience from family and friends that continues even after their deaths, and which shows me that no matter what happens to this country or to me, love is stronger than death.
Relics remind me that my Episcopal branch of Christianity considers all of us saints, and that I keep relics as reminders of the goodness of the saints in my life and their role in God’s work. They inspire me to pray to God of my not Understanding to live the same kind of grace-filled life they did.
I’m also thinking of Bob Dylan’s line: “… it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Relics, it seems to me —whether the relics we pilgrimage to or those we have in our homes—are a pretty good indication of who or what we serve. (I’m thinking now of the millions who travel every year to Graceland and the Super Bowl, or collectors, such as the guy who paid $382,000 for the transaxle from the Porsche 550 Spyder in which James Dean died.)
So, of course, I have to ask: what relics do you venerate?