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On Tolkien’s desk, Lewis’ wardrobe and relics we cherish

Marianna Bartholomew

Relics of St Therese / Photo Credit: Mazur

Born in New Zealand on Halloween, Film Director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) is producing a prequel. The film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved story “The Hobbit” features an all-star cast, including a reappearance of Elijah Wood as Frodo. Icing that cake for lovers of fantasy, is the possible production of yet another Narnia movie, adapted from C.S. Lewis’ book, “The Magician’s Nephew.”

Neither movie is due to appear before 2012, but no one need wait to actually touch an artifact of Middle Earth or Narnia. Fans can visit J.R.R. Tolkien's desk on which he wrote “The Hobbit” and C.S. Lewis's elaborately-carved wardrobe, that inspired his imaginings of a passage into mythical Narnia. Both artifacts are displayed in an exhibit celebrating Christian authors (and the movies inspired by them), at Wheaton College's Wade Center in Illinois.

Visiting here with my children, I stood transfixed by Tolkien's little eight-drawer student desk. I imagined the aging Catholic author, who looked like a Hobbit himself, dipping his quill pen to create his epic personification of good versus evil. I gently swung the elaborately carved wardrobe door (we're allowed!) and knew C.S. Lewis had touched the same weathered panels. I felt goose-bumpy awe being in such close proximity to objects used daily by these visionaries.

Antiquities stir in many a deep curiosity and reverence. For example, in a cedar chest, I store a wedding shawl worn four generations ago by my great-great grandmother. Studying the rich paisley patterns, I imagine the young woman who draped her shoulders with the luxurious cloth for her nuptials.

Perhaps it's no surprise, in a world where we frame photos of loved ones, scrapbook memories, and pay memberships to historical museums, that the Church also cherishes its relics.

We have proof dating back to the 2nd Century, of Christians venerating relics of all shapes and sizes:

* Saint Helena found the True Cross, venerated today in Rome's Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

* Many say Veronica's veil is housed in a tiny Capuchin church in the Abruzzi Mountains, three hours' drive from Rome. This "Shroud of Manoppello" is made of byssus, or "sea silk," an ancient cobwebby material on which no image could be painted -- and yet, Christ's face is clearly discernible.

* Thought to be the burial cloth of Jesus, the Shroud of Turin, has been held since the 16th Century in St. John the Baptist Chapel in Turin, Italy. Scientists studying the cloth have converted to faith. Its next public viewing is scheduled for the year 2025.

In an era that disparages "clutter," that proliferates reality television shows like "Clean House" (in which families sweep into garage sales and garbage bins sentimental knickknacks to obtain sleek, fashionable living spaces), what role can relics play?

We're tactile people and some things are worth saving. In Assisi, Italy, I saw visitors cluster before the silver-threaded gown St. Clare wore when she forsook her noblewoman's life for the Church. Her lavish golden curls still shone nearly 800 years after they were shorn. Through these and other artifacts, the impetuous young woman who clung with supernatural strength to an altar railing when her father tried to drag her away from her vocation, leapt into life for me. Like a family preserving a prized baptismal or wedding gown, is the Church cherishing its saints' relics.

I know many people who have been deeply touched by relics. A friend wrote from Arizona telling how she saw two thorns from Jesus' Crown of Thorns in Rome at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. "When in Rome, go there!" she urged. On March 24, 2011, the Daily Mail Reporter released news that another thorn from Jesus' Crown, once kept by Mary Queen of Scots, was going on display at the British Museum in London in an exhibit called "Treasures of Heaven." 

Contemporary people need relics! My own brushes with these blessed objects leave me more convicted about my faith every time. For example, St. Therese of Liseux artifacts housed in The National Shrine of St. Therese in Darien, Illinois, have drawn me to a deeper feeling of connection with this saint. I helped run a Catholic Little Flowers Girls Club for nine years, and learned to love St. Therese, patroness of the club. My children and I enjoyed repeat visits to the Darien shrine, since it includes St. Therese's chair and playthings, plus her hand-drawn maps, and scores of other items from her daily life. This largest collection of St. Therese’s relics outside of Lisieux, hosted visiting artifacts from France through October this year -- a rare oil painting of Therese, sacred vessels and a velvet tablecloth this saint handled as sacristan.

At times, the gloves of Padre Pio have circulated through area churches attended by mysterious heavenly scents and miraculous healings. I experienced a profound prayer experience when the gloves of this Italian mystic visited Assumption Church in Ashkum, south of Kankakee, about a dozen years ago.

On a 3,000-mile round-trip pilgrimage, my husband and I, and our three children (aged four through 12), drove up along the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the remote shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupre north of Quebec City. My family marveled at the immensity of the shrine and its three major relics of the Blessed Virgin's mother, St. Anne. These gifts were presented from 1670 A.D. through 1960 A.D., from two bishops and a Pope: a portion of a finger bone, a four-inch portion of the saint's forearm, and another segment of arm bone.

My family attended St. John Cantius Church in Chicago for five years, and it’s one of the best samples of sacred architecture in the city, chock full of art and relics. The church offers impressive collections of "first-class" relics from saints such as John Cantius and John Vianney, the Curie d'Ars. Fragments of these saints' bones, plus a small particle of the True Cross and many other relics, were exhibited in a special room off the main church until the room recently closed for renovations. Scheduled re-opening is in about two years. Still on display by the elevator near the sacristy of this baroque-style church is a glass case with relics, and two large plaque reliquaries featuring 500 male and 500 female saints, including Doctors of the Church and early martyrs.

Father William de Salvo, pastor of Saint Isaac Jogues Church  in Hinsdale, Illinois, once associate pastor of my current parish, is known for bringing his vast relics collection with him to his various parish assignments. They make appearances on feast days, adding to the solemnity of the occasion.

I've even found saints' relics hidden amongst collections at Chicago's Art Insitute. I offer up a quick prayer when I come upon a reliquary in such an unlikely location.

Finally, when covering a story about Catholic Extension Society's 1991 Lumen Christi Winner Agnes Ryan, the inspiring friend to missionaries and Milwaukee resident gave me a first-class relic of one of the Seven Blessed Martyrs of Thailand. The bone shard of 23-year-old Sister Lucia Khambang, killed by police December of 1940 for defending her faith, is mounted under a gold seal and signed by Archbishop Lawrence Khai of the Thare-Nongseng Archdiocese. The story of the Martyrs of Thailand is depicted in stone panels housed at Our Lady of the Martyrs of Thailand Shrine in Mukdahan Province in Thailand. Pope John Paul II named the seven martyrs "Blessed" the same month and year my husband and I married -- October of 1989.

As we approach October 31, fake skeletons hang as decorations on doors. Many would view the practice of venerating a bone chip with cynical amazement. What makes the bones and other artifacts of saints worthy of special attention? Veneration of relics is "encouraged by the Church out of honor for the bodies of the saints...and to satisfy the universal instinct of mankind to treat with affection and reverence the material souvenirs of those whom we love," states “A Catholic Dictionary,” edited by Donald Attwater.

So, while literary artifacts generate admiration from fans, and antiquities encourage reflection on the past and its peoples, religious relics touch even more deeply. They stir our imaginations and prompt us to explore stories of saints and events from our Catholic heritage.  They generate awe and spur us to deeper prayer. As blessed objects, they offer us heaven’s touch on earth.

© 2011 Marianna Bartholomew

Topics: Faith

Marianna Bartholomew is winner of six national Catholic Press Association Journalism Awards and Chicago’s 1993 Cardinal’s Communications Award for Professional Excellence. Her articles have appeared in EXTENSION Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic Digest and in Chicago’s Catholic New World and other diocesan newspapers across the nation. Former Managing Editor of Catholic home mission EXTENSION Magazine, Bartholomew has traveled to and reported on conditions in the poorest, most isolated pockets of our nation, from Louisiana’s Cajun communities and Appalachia’s hollows to Montana’s remote Indian missions. Blessed to be a wife and homeschooling mother of three, she now teaches in a homeschool cooperative, freelance writes from her Chicago area home, and is completing her first novel for young adults. She blogs at finerfields.blogspot.com.

View all articles by Marianna Bartholomew

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