Once, as I was waiting for Mass to begin, an acquaintance of mine came bustling up, sat down next to me and whispered excitedly, “Guess what I have?”
She then produced from her pocket a little round box the size of a watch. It had a glass lid and in it, cushioned on some sort of velvety stuff, was a little piece of white something or other.
I pondered it uncomprehendingly, trying to figure out if this was a microchip or something.
Finally, she announced triumphantly, “That’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton!”
I was, it dawned on me, a piece of bone.
I wish I could say my reaction was pious and reverent. But, proving my Northern European cultural roots, I found myself thinking “Ick!” and trying to find a way to hand St. Elizabeth back to my friend as quickly as possible. Relics, I thought to myself, are not my thing. Indeed, like most Americans, I was a bit creeped out by relics.
However, since my encounter with St. Elizabeth I have come to acknowledge that gut feelings are hardly a basis for rejecting what is, after all, a pretty ancient practice in the Catholic Faith.
Exhibit A: Hobbiton
Not long ago, I got to go to New Zealand. Before I left, I was given strict orders by my son, Matthew, to bring back something from the Lord of the Rings. The film was shot in locations all over New Zealand and there are still a few traces of the sets used in the production. One such place is a sheep farm near Matamata, in the central part of the North Island. For only a mildly exorbitant cost, enthusiasts such as myself could get a tour of the Alexander sheep farm and check out the remains of Hobbiton, including Bag End (where Bilbo and Frodo lived) and the Party Tree (where Bilbo gave his Farewell Speech and disappeared before the astonished eyes of all the Hobbit folk).
I figured, “Hey! I love the films and I’ll be crazy if I travel all that way (12.5 grueling hours from LA to Auckland) and then don’t take the extra effort of getting to Bag End for what is likely to be my only shot at the place. So I went and traipsed around Hobbiton, thinking things like “Here is where Gandalf shot off the fireworks for the Hobbit children! This is where the Party happened! I’m sitting on Frodo’s front step! Cool!” (Yes, I’m a total tourist. What can I say?)
Finally, in obedience to Matthew’s orders, I took a small pebble from the doorstep of Bag End and gathered a few pine needles from the ground under the Party Tree. Mission accomplished.
When I brought them home, I told the whole story of my trip to the family, who gathered round to look at the pictures and ooh and ahh over different presents. Sean and Peter (the youngest) got fun toy birds from New Zealand and Luke (the oldest) got an NZ shirt. But the biggest cheers came for the rock and the pine needles (enough for everybody, not just Matthew). We watched the Hobbiton scenes from the Fellowship of the Ring on the DVD and I pointed out exactly where I’d gathered the needles from and gotten the pebble. My kids unhesitatingly declared me World’s Coolest Father. I’m told the US Mint is going strike a medallion in my honor later this year.
And yet, what did I do but demonstrate that relics are a profoundly human thing? People love having a physical connection to things which matter to them, whether it’s Hobbiton, or the watch that Grandpa owned, or the keepsake of a lover who is off fighting in a war across the sea.
Before I was Catholic, a common complaint I often heard against relics was that they were “pagan”. When I was becoming Catholic, I began to see that this was like saying enjoying walks in sunshine, or tasting first love, or fear upon the sea was “pagan.” Rubbish. They are not “pagan”. They are human.
When my father died, my first instinct was to be sure to retrieve from our shed the fishing poles we used to use on the Skagit River when he took me salmon fishing. I have them to this day. All the money in the world would not induce me to sell them. They are a tie with him, a physical, tangible, contact with the love I have for him and, by God’s grace, that he still has for me somewhere in the heavenlies. They not only recall the past, they connect heaven and earth in a way and give me a little foreshadow of the hope of the heaven I tasted with Dad on those long summer mornings in the boat, waiting for the fish to strike.
Relics, heirlooms, keepsakes are profoundly human things. And since God has chosen to reveal himself in a human way by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, we do well to cultivate such physical connections between us and between generations. I fully expect that my Hobbiton needles will become keepsakes, not only of Hobbiton, but of the love I bear for my children. By God’s grace, I pray that they pass from being merely human souvenirs to sacramentals: tokens of the love and delight I have in my boys and of their love for me. In that way, they will becomes signs of the ultimate physical connection we have with God in the family of the saints: the Eucharist of the Word made Flesh.