Aug 24, 2009


I have quite a few souvenirs from various places, trips, and experiences. Some of the ones in the picture are: a walking kiwi toy from my wife and I's honeymoon in New Zealand, a samovar from my study-abroad trip to Russia, a little jewelry box/container from our trip to Brazil where I spoke at a tech conference, a funny Irish doll from a trip we made with my brother and his wife to Ireland+Scotland+England, and a pointless Eiffel Tower-shaped container of some kind of bath salts I got for Tiffany when I visited my sister in Paris.

Most of them aren't functional - we've obviously never used those bath salts, nor is there anything in any of the containers, and the walking Kiwi got kinda busted on the flight back. We mainly keep them as mementos - objects that remind us of travels and stories that have affected us; they're personal artifacts. Looking at them, I recall those experiences and how they've shaped our lives.

In a similar manner, I appreciate all the symbols and signs we use in the Catholic Tradition to recall to our minds the way God affects us in our faith. From personal signs like the Sign of the Cross to the myriad of symbols we find in a Cathedral and other Christian artifacts.

Sometimes, a personal artifact is so significant and profound that it stands the test of time, affecting the Christian community for generations. These are relics. The Church has a robust appreciation, and even a systematic doctrine, for relics. Read up if you like.

I'll just write about my own small experience.

Every Catholic church contains a relic within its altar. It is also (always?) a relic of the church's patron saint. My parish is the Church of Saint Benedict; we have a small bone fragment of Saint Benedict contained in the altar at the front of the sanctuary. And in many (all?) churches, there is also a relic contained in the altar of the chapel.

This is one of the reasons Catholics bow towards the altar. I didn't even learn this until I had been in RCIA for a few weeks - and had been doing it that whole time! Though the layout of some churches might make it appear we're bowing to the priest, it isn't necessarily the case. Ideally, we're recalling to mind the patron saint(s) of the church and venerating them with the honor that is due to a Christian servant who stands in full communion with God. Of course, as with any ritual, there's a chance the act loses its meaning; just as there's a chance I frequently see my own souvenirs without pausing to contemplate them. But that's no reason to throw away my souvenirs, and no reason to belittle the value of relics.

One last note I should make before I sign off for the day.

In addition to bowing towards the altar, Catholics genuflect and make the Sign of the Cross to the tabernacle. It's a different motion with a different intention and it stems from understanding the different honor that is due to a Saint than is due to God Himself. When you are in a Catholic church, you will see a candle next to His tabernacle. If the candle is lit, it contains the Blessed Sacrament - Christ Himself. In this case, it's appropriate to forgo a bow to offer the deeper honor due to Christ. The saints themselves intend this - their lives serve to introduce, reveal, guide towards, and defer to, Christ. This is how they're blessed with sainthood, and how they're personal artifacts are meant to inspire and affect us.

Their relics are entwined with the meaning of their lives - mirrors reflecting the light, life, and love of God. So it seems kinda cool to keep them around.


Saint said...

There is a long history on how many relics are real and whatnot. During the medieval ages, all kinds of frauds were created and made. To me it's not so important that it's a genuine bone fragment of the actual saint, rather than what the symbol implies. Granted, it's way cooler if it is genuine. And I think the Church actually has a commission that researches relics, but I can't remember what it's called. But wouldn't that be a sweet job?

Liz said...

People keep all kinds of relics. Baby books, locks of hair, birth announcements, photos, letters, etc.

I used to keep everything when I was a child. I had a big suitcase filled with diaries and projects from school and poems I had written and Christmas cards. All that kind of stuff. Then when I was 18, I had a sudden urge to throw it all out because 'I was an adult now and didn't need it.' I have regretted it ever since.

I think relics are important, both in faith and in life.