“Bones are bones, not gods,” the sixteenth-century reformer Martin Bucer wrote, railing against relics (Ground and Reason XI). To Bucer’s charge of idolatry, John Calvin added—almost gleefully—superstition, fraud, absurdity, and religious and political power plays (Treatise on Relics). Bucer’s own bones confirm their judgments. Five years after he died, Queen Mary of England, fearing the power of his bones to incite Protestant rebellion, had them exhumed and burned at the stake. Four years later, Queen Elizabeth, defender of Protestantism, restored Bucer’s tomb ad majorem Dei gloriam. No wonder Calvin insisted on being buried in an unmarked grave!
As a Calvinist-Evangelical-turned-Jew, I’m inclined to agree: relics are a dangerous business, ripe for abuses of all kinds, by individuals and institutions. Yet I can’t condemn preserving and venerating relics—from the Latin reliquiae, remains, from relinquere to leave behind—either body or first order relics like bones and ashes or second-order relics, objects worn or used by a dead person. Revering bodies or belongings of the dead is so widespread, even today, that it seems more an irrepressible need than a vestige of primitive religion or a hoax.
Examples are not hard to find. On Dia de Los Muertos, a household ofrenda or altar holds images of Jesus, saints, and deceased members of the family. Spirit tablets of Chinese ancestors are housed on family altars, the zither and writings of Confucius in his home in Qufu. The ashes and bone-pearls of the Buddha were spread among eight, then 84,000 stupas; his tooth resides in a temple in Sri Lanka. Nails and splinters of the cross, Mary’s breast milk, St. Peter’s brain, bone fragments of St. Kateri Tekawitha, pieces of St. Bartholomew’s skin, severed heads of saints and martyrs, St. Paul’s chains, St. Moninna’s hoe and badger-skin garment, and other relics are cared for in Roman Catholic communities. A hair from Mohammed’s beard, his footprint, and a signed letter are kept in Topkapi Palace; the bones of Rumi and Isaac Luria are in shrines built over their tombs; Lenin’s body in a mausoleum in Moscow, Mao Zedong’s in a crystal case in Beijing, and Ho Chi Minh’s on ice in Hanoi; the remains of Bruce Lee and Denise Levertov in Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery, Jimi Hendrix’s in Renton, Washington. All pilgrimage sites.
It’s too easy today to cast relics as “trash” as Calvin did, and foreclose inquiry into them by claiming, as he also did, that it’s “no use to discuss the point whether it is right or wrong to have relics merely to keep them as precious objects, without worshiping them, because experience proves that this is never the case.” It’s precisely our experience of relics I want to explore. Why do we hold on to the leavings of those we love or seek to emulate? Visit their remains? Buy letters written and signed by Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi’s gold-plated glasses, Prince’s “angel cloud” guitar? Keep close the ashes of loved ones, or things they wore or used? Here’s my inventory of my own personal relics:
- A petrified camel bone from the Sinai wilderness
- My grandparents’ Dutch Bible
- My dad’s two-handled tin lunch pail
- His Helix engineer’s ruler
- His Complete Works of Shakespeare
- A sampler my sister held on her lap, stitched with her hands
- Two terry cloth dish towels from her kitchen
- Her ashes, in one of her canning jars
We’re drawn to what those we love or admire leave behind because we, still-bodied presences, want to keep their now-un-bodied presence close, touch them, body to body, spirit to spirit. Their ashes, clothes, tools, these physical leavings of their life in our world, keep them present to us in their absence. Calvin’s admonition to put aside relics and all that is “carnal” to focus on the “spirit” isn’t helpful today, when we’re countering dualisms and investigating the body’s ineluctable role in our lives as “the knowing animal,” to use philosopher Raymond Tallis’s term.
We need to reclaim the body and its knowing, in all human activity, including spirituality. We need a spirituality that can help us understand our experience of conserving and honoring chosen objects.
By “corporeal spirituality,” I don’t mean the incarnational theology of Western Christianity, or the “religious materialism” of Eastern Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov, in which the corporeal is transfigured like the resurrected body of Jesus. I envision a spirituality that affirms human being as body-mind-spirit-being, and acknowledges the body and the material world as integral to all our experience, including the sacred. Theology aside, what do we make of living intimately with objects left behind by those who once lived among us in the flesh? Why do we wear a watch or necklace once warmed by the skin of another, cradle a book or kiddush cup once held by another, caress prayer beads once rubbed by another?
I envision a spirituality that … acknowledges the body and the material world as integral to all our experience, including the sacred.
Because objects are not necessarily objective; they can contribute to who we are. That’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a behavioral scientist, and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, a sociologist, found in their study of household objects. Objects selected to have “close at hand,” they argue in The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, “create permanence in the intimate life of a person, and therefore…are most involved in making up his or her identity.” We make order in ourselves and retrieve our identity by first creating and then interacting with the material world, and the nature of that transaction determines “the kind of person that emerges.”
The things we choose to live with are “inseparable from who we are.” And because they reflect as well as shape “the pattern of the owner’s self,” cherished objects can, potentially, represent “the endogenous being of the owner,” being that arises from within. They can become “containers for the being of the person.” More than simply representing the potential energy of a person or her power to affect others, however, “they bring that actuality about.” They produce power, “like the sound of a trumpet, not the trumpet itself, is a concrete manifestation of the communal spirit of a tribe.” The objects we charge with psychic energy by tending them, cherishing them, also act on us, and what is exchanged is real energy.
Objects we live with and hold close can contribute to who we are.
We’re comfortable seeing objects as expressions of ourselves, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton argue, but it’s “more difficult to admit that the things one uses are in fact part of one’s self: not in any mystical or metaphorical sense but in cold, concrete actuality.” This doesn’t mean their aim is to disenchant objects; their goal is to “unlock the magic of things,” by “seeing them objectively and subjectively at the same time,” a process they identify as “the basic symbolic act—sym-ballein, to ‘throw together.’” Our ability to freely create meaning, to change the meaning of goods and energy we possess, is a weapon against the deadening, fragmenting (dia-ballein, “to throw apart”) force of what they call the “terminal materialism” of our day, in which everything is measured by utility or an expected pleasure and we are dominated by mere things—mere objects.
Objects, then, can become reservoirs of meaning, conduits of energy, a locus of power in which the subjective and objective are brought together, and the profane becomes sacred—a description not far from Peter Brown’s definition of religious relics as a locus of power joining heaven and earth in the body. Objects that were loci of power for the loved one can become loci of power for the survivors. When we cherish objects that made a person who they were when they were alive, and allow those objects to shape who we are, we multiply that joining of subjectivity and objectivity, creating a meeting of endogenous beings through a material object, the dead and the living.
Objects that were loci of power for the loved one can become loci of power for the survivors.
The remains of our loved ones we keep near us, then, are not objects to be worshiped or venerated. But neither are they mementoes, mere memory jogs. They are not abstract symbols that point to someone not present. They are a “throwing together,” a physical place where energy is exchanged, a tangible moment of meeting, a palpable aid in becoming who we are. One might even say they generate real presence. Is this so far from the Buddhist concept of the power of relics to bring the “living presence” of the Buddha near? Or from the Confucian language for relics as “traces” or “tracks” or ”a footprint” of a human being who walked the earth as we do, and who can thus inspire us to live a similar life?
Body to body, spirit to spirit, the touchstones we treasure release energy for our lives. They bring the living presence of our loved ones near, to comfort, heal, form, and guide us. Miracle enough.