One of the oddest experiences of my childhood—and I had a pretty odd childhood—came in my second or third year at Our Lady of Sorrows Grammar School, when it was announced that a famous relic—indeed, a sliver of the True Cross—would be ‘visiting’ our church. A special celebration and Mass was arranged around this visit, and we little students were instructed to line up and kneel along the communion rail, so that the priest could bring the relic to each of us to kiss. To kiss. My first experience with religious PDA. I do remember agonizing a bit over how to kiss it properly and respectfully: lips closed? Maybe drawn in a little? Certainly no tongue! I needn’t have worried, because when the priest, dressed in the most ornate, golden vestments in the sacristy closet, came to me, he simply pressed the glass covered box abruptly against my mouth, wiped it quickly with a white cloth, and moved on. I did manage to get a brief glance at it: It was like something between a powder compact and pot of eye shadow, a golden round box containing what seemed the tiniest, most insignificant splinter in the world—something my mom might have fished out of my index finger after a day in the back yard. But there we have it: My lips have touched (well, not quite but almost) the cross our Savior redeemed us all on. Or, a splinter some medieval trickster decided to foist off as coming from the True Cross allegedly found by Saint Helena– according to a recent CNN special, probably not the actual cross at all. Who can know?
I don’t mean to make fun of this weird old Catholic rite. As I grow older, I understand what these things really meant, and how powerful and important they must have been in an age before photography or even type-set books. We need something to remember people by, as memory—particularly when stretched over the course of decades, and centuries—fades or grows ragged. How meaningful then, to have an earthly bit of somebody who has gone over to the other side. It must have been a comfort to look on these things, touch them, even kiss them—just as we are comforted by faded photo albums, old home movies or ancient letters stored in a box. Whether the use of relics in church liturgy is relevant in these modern times is a debate for theologians. For me, the word has become a metaphor for anything personal we leave behind after death: Not just bits of bone or slivers of wood, but art, music, writing, film or photographs, or even the impressions we leave in the minds of others.
Merton collected relics, little bits of old-time saints mostly sent to him by a nun he corresponded with. He even admits a little sheepishness about liking them so much, but he needn’t have: They delighted him and gave him comfort. When he died, his own relics would be the books, the documents, the writing he left behind, to be studied and revered and prayed over—if not kissed. He had several relic-masters, even a relic-mistress, devotees who set about preserving what they could of this man, this writer, Merton, to share with others. And it’s one of those individuals I’ll be writing about in my new non-fiction venture. More to come on that.