On Relics

The Field of Cormallen



Relics of the Catholic tradition (Source)

In the overwhelming joy of Easter, what we experienced over the last few nights (and many weeks) can seem like a dream from which we are waking. Like Sam, we may forget all the steps (of our pilgrimage) we have trod, the long hours (of the Easter Vigil) we have experienced, the many burdens (of our sins) we have carried. The victory has been won, and great is our joy, but our joy sublimely combines the laughter of our happiness with the tears of our sorrow. For Frodo’s hand is still missing one digit: there are costs and losses even in the final victory. The hobbits tattered clothes from the journey may seem insignificant now, but Gondor will remembered them.

For, in the appropriate manner of Middle earth, these garments have become like relics. A relic (from the Latin relinquere, “to leave behind”) is a material object left behind by someone, usually a holy person or saint as in the Christian tradition. Because of the known holiness of the person associated with the material, relics became sources of strength and symbol of faith-like inspiration, even at times bringing about miracles for the prayerfully pious. These relics could range from clothing that the holy person wore (like the cloaks of Frodo and Sam) to objects from a major event (like the Last Supper or the Passion) to, most normally, a piece of the body of the person. For some of us, such a devotion to a piece of bone or hair might seem ghastly, but there is little question that, had Frodo’s finger not gone into the fire with Gollum, it would have been honored for long-years in the city of kings.

Why fret so openly and with such energy over the proper care of old garments, the preserving of material from these times? In part it is because they are necessary for memory. Like the proclaiming of song or the writing of words, the maintenance of relics provides a tangible symbol and meaningful recollection of the great deeds of the past, of the men and women who did or live in such a way as to make the present time possible. Knowledge of the past is fleeting: we know that only the wise remembered the history of the Ring at the Council of Elrond (and who among us today has much recollection of the great wisdom of our ancestors?).

Yet also, relics serve as inspiration. They are materials of memory but also sources of encouragement. The the halflings could have taken the Ring into Mordor and completed their quest impresses on us that the course of the future can be changed by even the smallest of persons. The tears and stairs of the garments humble us in seeing with our waking eyes the bitter pains and sacrifices that such a journey of good may recall.

There are many relics in the Christian tradition, and if you have the chance to visit or venerate some, it is a worthwhile experience. And though they may lack the saintly holiness (and paperwork) that true relics possess, if each of us pauses in reflection, there may be some things like relics in our own lives from our own journeys: materials at the core of our pilgrimage, symbols of both memory and inspiration. Let us hold onto such things, however small they might be, and so encourage both ourselves and others not to forget the Lenten road now complete, and the great deeds that were accomplished, and the victory that has been won for us.

2016’s Reflection: “On Hearing the Story Told
2015’s Reflection: “On Glory


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