The following two essays on relics, which are excerpted below, were written in response to Mary Lane Potter’s essay Bones Are Not Bones: A Reflection for All Souls Day.
Relics, Remains, Fragments, Traces of New Life
by Mary Farrell Bednarowski
When Mary Potter asked me to join her and Victoria Ries in writing about relics, my first thought was “No, thank you.” My relic days are over: having them, thinking about them, reverencing them, explaining to the skeptical and the scandalized that, no, we Catholics do not worship them. Certainly not wanting to write about them. But I led myself into temptation by reading her essay. It was moving to learn how her interpretation of relics has emerged from the particular journey born of her spiritual maturity, an unfolding over many years.
Then I read the introduction to a collection of essays Mary had sent me: Relics and Remains by church historian Alexandra Walsham. Relics, it became obvious, are back. I was compelled to self-diagnose a case of arrested development on this subject. Two things really hooked me: Walsham’s description of a relic as “a mnemonic ligature to a world that has been lost” and her statement that, “At the most basic level, a relic is a material object that relates to a particular individual and/or to events and places with which that individual was associated.”
Walsham’s matter-of-fact statement that relics are, first of all, material objects, jolted me into asking: “I wonder if that’s absolutely true? Might there not be—how to identify them?— experiences? phenomena?—that we could call something like belief-relics or faith-relics? Not bones or hair or ashes or pieces of cloth but memories, beliefs, images, a lump in the throat at the memory of a hymn—traces or fragments of an all-encompassing spiritual reality I once accepted literally but now embrace in more complicated, earth-bound ways. Might it, in fact, be fruitful to think of our very bodies as reliquaries?
Might there not be experiences, phenomena, something that we could call belief-relics or faith-relics?
This half-formed thought jarred loose a desire to muse about stories I’ve been drawn to for many years, although I’d never thought of them in terms of relics. As a Catholic who came of age profoundly formed by the metaphysical worldview of pre-conciliar Catholicism, I have lived most of my adult life in the world that Charles Taylor has so famously written about in A Secular Age, a cosmos in which transcendence floats downward, not up and away, in which embracing transcendence in any form is not only a choice but an embattled choice, as he puts it.
But embrace it I do. The traces of a totalizing spiritual reality I once believed in without question continue to emerge in my life and my psyche as remains of a spiritual reality I once believed in without question: not as absences, in the sense that Jacques Derrida used that term—reminders of what once was there but no longer is—but as presences in the oh-so-tentative but oh-so-deeply felt, always-unfolding faith that I hold today. Thought-relics that are not dead, not inert, but still have life to offer.
According to Charles Taylor, embracing transcendence in any form is not only a choice but an embattled choice.
For years I have been drawn intellectually and in ways that touch my heart/soul/spirit/body (whatever we are calling the “all” of us these days) to stories that hint of belief-relics. I have been affected deeply by Marcus Borg’s description of the tears that ran down his cheeks as he remembered the Jesus hymns of his North Dakota Lutheran youth. What did those tears mean to the efforts of this famous Jesus scholar in constructing a coherent, personally meaningful, mature, scholarly faith that did justice to his heritage and opened his future to new understandings?
Relics We Hold Dear
by Victoria Ries
A few years ago, I was one of the presenters for the annual Novena of Grace sponsored by the Ignatian Spirituality Center in Seattle. After each Mass, there was time for individual prayer with one of the presenters or staff from the Ignatian Spirituality Center, each of whom held a small case holding the relic of a Jesuit saint.
A friend from graduate school, Mary Lane Potter, a co-author in this series, attended the Novena on one of the days that I preached. She asked me about the tradition of relics in the Catholic Church. Though I had grown up Catholic and had served in parish ministry in the Catholic Church for thirty-five years and had earned a doctorate in theology, I had not given much thought to relics in many years.
I am not sure what I said on that day when asked about relics, but Mary came forward to me at the time of prayer, and we prayed, both holding the relic of St. Francis Xavier, one of the good friends and first followers of St. Ignatius. Thus was planted the seed in Mary’s mind for this trinity of articles—and my growing recognition of and appreciation for the relics that I hold dear.
Perhaps it is easiest to understand relics if we consider our own lives. We all have relics, but we may not, at first, describe them as relics. My mother recently died. In the last weeks of her life, she prayed the rosary regularly and even slept with her rosary. I now have that rosary in a place of honor beside my bed. When I see it and touch it, I think of my mother—and remember and give thanks. She and her strong faith are present to me now through her rosary. When I use her rosary to pray I am touching the beads that she touched and prayed, and my own faith is strengthened by her faith.
When I see and touch and use my mother’s rosary to pray, she and her strong faith are present to me.
A good friend of mine from graduate school died too young. He had written a book, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics. When I hold his book and read his note to me, I remember him, his faith, his love for God, and I give thanks. He is the person who taught me to pray more deeply.