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Eryk Hanut

On Relics and Keepsakes
by Eryk Hanut

A few weeks ago, while browsing Ebay, I discovered that one could actually buy relics–or bid on them, anyway. Sign of the times, cyber devotion, pure greed, quintessential sacrilege, or perhaps a bit of each. I wasn’t appalled enough not to bid–and did so twice! Once on a piece of garment of the Saint Cure of Ars, John-Mary Vianney. The other on a sealed theca, containing dust of the DNA of my favorite Normandy girl, St Therese of Lisieux. ("The theca is very beautiful," wrote the nice man who was selling it. "The red wax seal from the Vatican is intact–and there is a little hook at the top–you can hang it in your car.")

Blessings of Guadalupe by Eryk Hanut

The Catholic Church has popularized the veneration of relics (from the Latin reliquiae, meaning remains) in the West, but it is in no way restricted to the Christian beliefs. In fact, keeping and worshipping bits and pieces of holy beings is a primitive instinct that predates Christianity. It is known that many relics of the Buddha were distributed soon after his death (and according to the amount of his teeth venerated in gold-leafed stupas all around the eastern world, the Enlightened One must have had the jaw of an alligator). Bones, hair and clothes supposedly worn by Confucius are venerated in China and the relics of Mohammed (who cut off the sleeve of his coat so as not to disturb the cat who was sleeping on it) are spread out from Kabul to Jerusalem, all over the Muslim world. Kabbir’s worn-out sandals have their own shrine in Benares. And Rumi’s robe (which, when I saw it, violently reminded me of the undergarment of the Poverello, identically displayed in Assisi), draws in its glass coffin in Konya, Turkey, a nearly as- high daily rate of devotion as his nearby tomb.

The Bible mentions the sacred importance of relics. The Old Testament (2 Kings 13: 20-21) evokes those of the prophet Elisha, and the New Testament notes the remains of the apostle Paul, and the wonders the Lord works through them (Acts 19:11-12).

Let’s get real, Ebay didn’t invent relic pushers: In fact, it was one of the most flourishing businesses during the time of the Crusades. Pieces of the "True Cross" (which, put together would rival all the trees of Muir woods) were brought back from the Holy Land and sold, sometimes given, to monasteries and prelates. King Louis IX had the genius to commission the "Sainte Chapelle"–that extraordinary kingfisher blue vessel in the heart of Paris–to enclose the crown of thorns in it. (The chapel still stands, miraculously blue–the crown was burned during the French revolution-and surviving pieces are kept in Notre Dame. The bush that originated them is called Sisyphus Spine Christi. And, yes, it grows only in Palestine).

The Road to Guadalupe by Eryk Hanut

Rome, naturally, claims ownership of many relics of the Passion. The "Scala Sancta," or holy stairs, an impressive 28 steps of white marble, taken from Pilate’s palace and brought back to Italy–don’t ask me how–by St Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, can still be seen in the Lateran District, inside the aptly named Sancta Sanctorum. During the Avignon papacy, in the 1300’s, the holy staircase–the one climbed by the Savior himself–became the subject of a less-than- holy war–and many plots to steal it from Rome were elaborated and aborted, but then, how actually do you steal 28 white marble steps? Not too far away from the staircase, in Santa Prassede, the pillar on which Jesus was scourged, is the center of devotion for many–who circle it on their knees mumbling strange laments. What else biblical enough to be mentioned? Enough Holy nails-from-the-True-Cross to fix up the Golden Gate bridge for the next two years. (The ever prudent St Charles Borromeo confessed that ‘the nails were so many that they probably were copies distributed after touching the original.) One of the the veils of the Blessed Mother (which alas was proven by modern science not to be 2000 years old); the sponge of the crucifixion; the holy lance; the unavoidable Shroud kept in Torino, which no one has able to call authentic; and the Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico City, which no one has been able to call inauthentic, etc…. Latter day holy men and women didn’t escape the fate of becoming ‘objets de vitrine.’ The most horrendous destiny of all was that of St Theresa of Avila whose incorruptible body was progressively cut-up from its hands, heart, eyes, hair, each time the Vatican would order a further exhumation. The Dictator ‘Caudillo" Franco kept her hand by his bedside all his bloody life.

I remember reading in a catalog that a "piece of the Holy Cross" was going to be auctioned at the Hotel Drouot, in Paris. French Clergy turned green and the auction was cancelled at the last minute–The same week, Mariah Carey bought for a ransom the white grand piano that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe.

Now, do we need relics to make our faith stronger? Are they carriers of Divine inspiration and protection? Or just ghoulish pieces of dead people we like to have around to protect us from tidal waves, thunderstorm or Saxon pirates? And what can we believe about their authenticity?

But then, what is authenticity, in this case? The Arabs have a proverb, "It doesn’t really matter what you worship; what matters is the intensity of your devotion." This reminds me of the Indian tale of the poor old woman who saved all her life to buy a relic of the Buddha. Hearing that one was going to be sold in a town near hers, she gave all the money to her no-good-drunk of a son and told him to go and buy the relic for her.

The Card and Rumi Book Pack by Eryk Hanut

He spent all the cash on wood alcohol and girls, found a dog’s tooth lying in the gutter, wrapped it in a piece of golden cloth and brought it back to his mother, deriding her for her superstitious faith as he presented her with it. A week later, he passed her room and saw her kneeling before her little altar. The old dog’s tooth was ablaze with Divine light.

I bought (well, I won!) the relics of the Cure of Ars and of St Therese of Lisieux that were being auctioned on Ebay. We received them, surprising ourselves with a devotion and a sense of protection that no prayer had brought before. They now lie on the little altar of our meditation room, next to a bottle of water from Guadalupe, a few rocks from Stinson Beach, a small plastic statue of the Infant of Prague–the only thing surviving from a grand mother I never knew, and a mother-of-pearl box containing a lock of hair of my beloved cat Purrball, baby pictures, the framed dried gardenia that was pinned on my jacket when I got married. All of these items are there to remind me, not only of how great God is, but also of what once was–and of what will be. I don’t have any problem keeping lung tissue of St Therese of Lisieux next to a box containing my cat’s ashes–and I am sure Therese doesn’t either

If we were to define love (and if we were to count the waves in the ocean), the only word big enough would probably be LIFE. We all keep relics–from French saints, from Holy places–or from places we made holy by the memories we created there. It is paradoxical if it comes sometimes from a dead body–what a wonderful way to transcend Death and celebrate our own unique immortality. Very relevant at this time of Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Love then is Life. So, don’t miss love.

© Copyright  2002 Eryk Hanut.  All Rights Reserved. 

Eryk Hanut
Eryk Hanut is a writer and photographer. His latest books are "The Road to Guadalupe" (Tarcher-Putnam 2001) and the very recently published "The Blessings of Guadalupe" ( Council Oak books- 2002). He is currently working on a memoir. He lives in Nevada with his husband Andrew Harvey and his two cats Puli and Princey. You can visit him at www.erykhanut.com and contact him through visibleinkstudio@aol.com.


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