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What are relics worth?

Grandma's wedding pearls or letters from a loved one may not cause the same bidding frenzy as Jackie O's jewelry, but the real value of personal keepsakes far outweighs a $6,000 washbasin.

Last April, just over 35 years after first striding onto center stage, Camelot went on the auction block at Sotheby's. But it certainly didn't go out with a whimper. You would have had to have been on Mars to have missed the bang. In the media-hyped event of the season, the sale of 4,000 props from the set of America's longest running melodrama--our on-again, off-again love affair with all things Kennedyesque--generated a major buzz and sent Sotheby's normally staid patrons into a veritable feeding frenzy. When the auctioneer's gavel dropped for the last time, Jackie O's children had made a whopping $34.5 million.

And why, everyone asked in the days following the auction, did this upper-class garage sale get so much press and earn such staggering sums? The thing that time and again drove the bidding to 30 and 60 times the appraised value of these items was the simple fact that they had been owned and touched by Jackie or J.F.K.

If that seems strange, consider Kathryn Harrison's essay "What Remains: The Lure of Relics in a Faithless Age," which appeared in last December's Harper's. Harrison describes another auction, this one of rock-and-roll memorabilia, held last year at Guernsey's in New York, which included some 4,000 items in that sale's catalog. But what brought Harrison and the camera crews of the local TV stations flocking to the auction house was the report of three extraordinarily personal objects: a washbasin that had belonged to John Lennon, Elvis Presley's used Remington Razor, and a bloodstained Stratocaster guitar owned by Kurt Cobain. They actually contained microscopic fragments of three of rock and roll's most celebrated martyrs: flecks of their skin, hair, or blood. In other words, they were reliquaries. The bidding for Lennon's washbasin started at $6,000, rather more than what one would hope to pay for a new unit at True Value.

My first reaction to the Kennedy auction and Presley's razor wavered someplace between chagrin and mild disgust, saddened by the obscene amounts of money and attention being dished out for what amounted to celebrity hand-me-downs and marveling once again at a culture capable of worshiping the silliest of saints.

Still, I do understand the hunger for relics, both personal and public. A colleague of mine has a book that was on John XXIII's nightstand when the peasant pontiff died, and I envy him this connection with the father of Vatican II. Another friend has decorated her living room with her mother's furniture and feels an easy kind of comfort from these familiar pieces. In the back of my own bedroom closet there is a well-worn Hudson Bay blanket my young parents bought in 1954 for $15, using it over the years to wrap, dry, or comfort a succession of eight cold, sleeping, or sick children.

Part of my sympathy for relics flows, no doubt, from being Catholic. After nearly two millennia of venerating saints, holding on to snippets of their hair or pieces of their clothing, the Catholic imagination has developed a special sensitivity to the tug of sacred objects, particularly those objects made holy by the blood, sweat, and tears of those we've held dear. As early as the second century, Christians were honoring the memories of fallen martyrs by celebrating the Eucharist over their tombs. By the end of the eighth century, the Second Council of Nicea mandated that no church be consecrated without a saint's relic.

Throughout Christendom, cathedrals and basilicas were built over the bones of their patron saints or provided a final resting place for a newly canonized saint's remains, and the burial places of great saints often became shrines drawing pilgrims from all over Europe.

Unfortunately, medieval excesses and abuses regarding the traffic in or supposed healing powers of relics led Protestant reformers and Enlightenment thinkers to ridicule such practices and beliefs as idolatrous and superstitious, and even today, in spite of reforms instituted at the Council of Trent, the veneration of relics strikes many as a quaint medieval form of piety, or an archaic sacramental of a more primitive and naive faith. The rational, modern mind, it seems, does not require such talismans from an earlier age.

Still, I wonder if this is really true, and it's not just the clamor for Jackie's fake pearls or Lennon's washbasin that gives me pause. As Harrison notes, every year hundreds of thousands of us thoroughly modern types make pilgrimages to Elvis' tomb at Graceland or stand in line at Cooperstown to catch a glimpse of Babe Ruth's glove or Mickey Mantle's bat. And it's really not that surprising when you think about it. We are, after all, embodied spirits, and though our Catholic heritage includes lots of vulgar excesses, it's always a mistake to imagine that faith or even spirituality is just a matter of the mind or soul. For the truth is that we believe, love, and sanctify with our bodies as well, and as Harrison implies, "a faith that is founded upon the idea of the resurrection of the body as well as the soul" ought to revere and cherish those bodies and the things that call them to mind.

Tim O'Brien knows a thing or two about relics. In The Things They Carried (Houghton Mifflin, 1990), his prize-winning short story about an infantry platoon in Vietnam, O'Brien describes the things the men carried through Southeast Asia. Going beyond a mere catalog of their armor, rations, and gear, O'Brien reveals the personality quirks and fears of the individual soldiers by listing the particular items they each carried, things that made them different from their buddies, that filled out their packs and shaped their souls. Some of the things--such as First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's letters from a girl back home, which he kept in a plastic envelope and read every night in his foxhole, or Kiowa's family Bible, which he sometimes used as a pillow--offered a frail connection to faraway friends and families.

In O'Brien's story we get a vivid sense of frightened soldiers trying to hold on to their humanity and dignity and of the way the things they carried became small sacraments of that struggle--symbols of the love, comfort, and grace just beyond their reach, or the courage they always needed, sometimes had, but rarely felt.

The Things They Carried reflects a particularly Catholic imagination. While Protestant Christians have rightly stressed the sacramentality of the Word and Orthodox Christians treasure the sacred images on icons, there has always been something tangible about Catholicism. The Catholic imagination has continued to embrace the embodied and incarnate grace of the sacramental, finding the holy not just in sacred words and pictures, but in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup, in baptismal waters and the oils used for anointing the sick, and in the flesh and bones of our daily lives. Perhaps that is why relics appeal to us and why we understand the appeal they have for others.

In his Pulitzer prize-winning play The Piano Lesson, August Wilson dramatizes how in honoring such artifacts we are paying homage to the men and women whose lives have formed and shaped the story of our own. With a scheme to buy the land his grandparents and great-grandparents had worked as slaves and share-croppers, Boy Willie Charles wants to sell the family piano, but his sister Bernice will have none of it. This ancient upright and its ornately carved surface--a mahogany tapestry of African figures etched by their great-grandfather--bears the story of their ancestors' journey in and out of slavery. Selling it would be a sacrilege.

The lesson this piano and its ghosts teach Boy Willie is that he is shaped by the lives and stories of the people who came before him, cut a path through slavery and suffering, and forged a story into which he was born. He has a legacy, and whatever he does with this piano, he cannot cut himself off from that heritage.

Although Wilson's language is different, it is clear that the piano functions as a relic in this play, reminding us of our connectedness to what Christians have called the communion of saints. For just as Bernice's aging upright haunts her home and family with ghosts of all those whose lives and stories are carved into its panels, so Christians down through the ages have celebrated the Eucharist and built cathedrals over the bones of martyrs and other saints to remind themselves that they were not breaking this bread alone, that the Christian community is always being watched over by a constellation of saints.

It may well be, however, that my favorite reliquary in all of American fiction belonged to an 8-year-old girl named Jean Louise (Scout) Finch. In the opening credits of David Mulligan's film version of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the camera lovingly pans Scout's collection of childhood memorabilia, an assortment of marbles, jacks, strings, tiny carved toys, and little dolls. Each of the items in her box has a story that recalls the people and events who shaped and enriched those early years of her life.

More than anything, Scout's collection of mementos is the souvenir of a childhood protected and nurtured by those who loved her. There are remembrances of her friend Dill, her brother Jem, her father Atticus, and also of her strange and silent neighbor, Boo Radley. Many of the things that make it into Scout's menagerie are baubles and trinkets Boo has left for her and Jem. In time they become relics kept in honor of a friend, expressions of gratitude for a timid soul who has saved her and Jem's lives. In some small fashion Scout's holding on to the odd gifts left in a tree is her way of venerating the memory of a surprisingly gracious man and of expressing her thanks. That is not a bad explanation for why Christians have, from time to time, collected and treasured small remnants of the lives that have cast particularly gracious shadows across our paths.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:personal keepsakes
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Aug 1, 1996
Words:1709
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