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Posts Tagged ‘relics’

It was good to visit the relics of St John Bosco at Westminster Cathedral at the weekend. You may have seen the photos: it wasn’t just a relic-sized casket, but a life-sized effigy of the great man himself, in his priestly vestments, looking very serene.

Don Bosco Relics Pilgrimages to Westminster Cathedral  by © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

I had a classic pilgrimage moment. I got in the queue, waited patiently for three minutes, started analysing why the queue wasn’t moving quicker (it was incredibly slow), began to lose my patience; then a moment of self-knowledge – realising that I was in ‘Tesco-queue’ mode, like a Pavlovian response, dashing to get out the door; then a grace-filled letting go, just being in the queue with my fellow pilgrims, remembering that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, praying, thinking, interceding; then a moment of shame and interior humiliation, as I got near the destination and realised that the reason the line was moving so slowly was not because of some inefficiency in the logistics of the operation, but because people at the casket were actually (wait for it…) praying – devoutly, humbly, reverently, silently, patiently, taking their time, showing their heartfelt love for Don Bosco; and then, when it was my turn, I tried to do the same.

I’m not proud of this – I’m just sharing the interior craziness that often goes on in my soul when I step from the rush and distractions of Victoria Street and my own worldliness into the sanctuary of the Cathedral and in this case to St John Bosco’s shrine. Maybe (I say this to console myself) this is not too uncommon – the fact that the transition takes a few minutes, and that being in a place of sanctuary is what creates the possibility of seeing the habits of mind (healthy and unhealthy) that have unconsciously been shaping one’s life in the ordinariness of everyday living.

I have a great devotion to St John Bosco. For about ten years, I spent two or three weeks each summer as a helper (a ‘brother’) on the St John Bosco Boys’ Camp in Colchester. It’s run by the Society of St Vincent de Paul, but the whole philosophy of the camp is very Salesian, modelled on the educational vision of Don Bosco. It was great fun; and I learnt a huge amount; and I’m not sure I would be here today as a priest (or at least my vocation would have taken a very different path) if I hadn’t been touched by the priests, religious and laypeople on the camp – and the boys.

I don’t want to pretend to understand the whole Salesian pedagogy, but there were some simple principles about working with children that lay at the heart of the work there, and I think they go back to Don Bosco himself: keep them busy; lots of fun, lots of physical activity; always be kind; be a good example, a good role model; slip in some prayer and mini-catechesis during the day, but not too heavy and not too long; use stories and examples to bring the beauty and heroism of faith alive; and always be kind. Now I think about it, I’m sure there was some Salesian motto that was on the wall of the office somewhere, something like: ‘Reason, Religion, Kindness’. You can remind me in the comment box. And that wonderful photo of Don Bosco smiling benevolently.

When I went to Rome in 1992 to start seminary formation at the English College, I took the train from London (via boat – this was before the Chunnel) and stopped off at Turin to say hello to Don Bosco in thanksgiving and to ask for his prayers. His main shrine is there, in the church he built, next to school he founded. What an amazing priest he was. It’s good to meet him again here in London, and give him some more intentions!

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I had a magical moment yesterday. I was at the British Museum with some friends. They were there to see the Egyptian mummies, but I was keen to visit the stone tools that have been selected as the first exhibits in a new Radio 4 series: “A history of the world in 100 objects”. [You can listen here].

I walked into the room, and a member of staff had some objects out on the table in front of her: A chopping tool, that would have been used to cut meat and smash bones to extract the marrow, and two handaxes. I assumed they were modern copies. But they were authentic — and we could touch them!

I need to stop myself using too many exclamation marks here. I held in my hand, the same hand that is typing this post, a chopping tool that was about 1.8 million years old, and a handaxe from about 1.2 million years ago — both found in the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania. What a staggering thought, that this object in my hand was crafted and used by some early hominid nearly two million years ago.

The shape of the chopping tool was almost identical to that of a computer mouse. It was long, curved and smooth on the top, to fit the palm of the hand; the bottom was rugged for smashing, but more or less flat; and there were even slight indentations on the two long edges where the the curve met the base (just like a mouse) so the thumb and fingers could get a grip.

Stonehenge HDR Panorama by V for Photography.

I’ve held a Roman coin before, and many years ago as a child (when the site was completely open to the public) I ran my hands along the side of one of the stones at Stonehenge — making that connection, taking me back a few thousand years. But this connection over so many hundreds of thousands of years was something of quite a different order, and I catch my breath just thinking about it.

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When I was thinking about starting this blog, I wanted to call it Borderlands and Bridges. I’d just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s Borderlands trilogy – which had blown me away. I liked the image of the threshold – a place between other places. Not just somewhere you pass through, or pass over, but a place where unexpected things happen; where you get lost or even trapped; where worlds collide; where your identity is in question. In the end, the blog title was simply too long for a manageable web-address, so I went off at a tangent instead…

There was an experience of the ‘borderland’ this week in central London. The relics of St Thérèse were in Westminster Cathedral for four days. It was an extraordinary experience for all those who came – many with a deep faith hoping that it would be renewed, some hardly knowing why they were there. But what made it so interesting was the threshold between the religious space of the Cathedral and the secular space of the city.

Westminster Cathedral by Reigh LeBlanc.

The queuing took place in the piazza in front of the Cathedral. Thousands of people winding their way patiently through the labyrinth of metal barriers. A huge screen broadcasting the services from inside. A fish and chips kiosk set up on the street by the Cathedral authorities. McDonalds on one corner. Clarke’s shoe shop on the other. And many more thousands of people passing along Victoria Street – shopping, working, drifting – wondering what it was all about.

It wasn’t just the carnival atmosphere (which is felt at any street party or sporting event). It was the fact that this witness of faith flowed out from the confines of the religious building into the streets, and this allowed people to wonder, to show a natural human interest, and even to ask deeper questions about life that might not come to the surface otherwise. The public expression of faith in the piazza gave people permission to reflect on the place of faith in their lives – not just the committed and the devout, but those who were full of doubts or simply passing by.

Not everyone wants to visit relics or stand around in Victoria Street for two hours. But there is a public aspect to Christian faith that was expressed here in a particularly powerful way. Catholics were happy to show that they were Catholics, to talk about what was important to them. Not in a showy or arrogant way, but in a way that was simple, natural, honest, uninhibited.

It doesn’t mean that Christianity wants to impose itself on a pluralistic culture. But it hopes to have a place in that culture. Why? Above all, so that the culture is set free to discover human and spiritual depths that might otherwise be forgotten.

[To get a glimpse of what has been happening with the tour of the relics over the last five weeks see the excellent official blog of the visit.]

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Guardian by goodonpaper.I had a bit of a media day yesterday, so to save me blogging, here are some links, just in case you are interested.

You are probably sick of discussions about the relics of St Thérèse by now. Simon Jenkins wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago that was very dismissive of the custom of venerating relics, and even more dismissive of the rationality of Christian belief. You can read my response here.

And at lunchtime I was involved in a debate on Radio 4 (You and Yours) about the apparent decline of religious practice in the UK, and particularly about the place of institutional religion in peoples lives. It was a live phone-in, with input from panelists representing various religions, and an atheist who edits a popular philosophy magazine. It’s long – an hour. If you have the time you can listen here. [But the link will die after a week - I presume on Tuesday 6th October.]

telephone dial by Leo Reynolds.

When it is well chaired and well sieved, I like the phone-in format for this kind of discussion. You get a real feel for the cross-section of opinions out there. It wasn’t just people giving out about their beliefs; they were talking about how their religious practice or non-practice had influenced their lives, what it meant to them, how they had come to faith, or why they had left it. And especially about this question of whether faith can just be a personal, private conviction, or whether it needs expression and support in a community, in an institution.

There wasn’t much conversation about the content of what people believe – more about the human satisfactions or not of belonging to a religious community. But it was worthwhile nevertheless. See what you think.

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people in the queue by Kewei SHANG.The two longest queues in Britain last week were outside Liverpool Catholic Cathedral, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Both sets of people were waiting to see relics: in one case, the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux; in the other, the priceless collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and jewellery just found in a Staffordshire field. It shows that the urge to connect with the past in tangible ways is not just confined to religious devotees.

The breathtaking scale of the discovery has stunned archaeologists and historians – almost 1500 gold and silver items thought to date from the 7th or 8th century. We know so little about ‘the Dark Ages’, and this find promises to open up and transform the way we understand a civilisation that is still largely unknown. You can read more here and here.

The real story for me, however, is Terry Herbert.

Britain also has the world’s most fanatical treasure hunters, who, immune to the ill-concealed scoffing of professional archaeologists, now account for almost all the worthwhile artefacts found around the country. Last week’s disclosure that Terry Herbert, a 55-year-old, unemployed metal-detecting enthusiast from Staffordshire, had discovered a priceless trove of Anglo-Saxon gold and jewellery put the treasure hunters in the national spotlight. But most of them, frankly, would prefer to be quietly tramping the fields.

“Hardly any of these characters are in it for money or glory,” says Julian Evan-Hart, one of Britain’s foremost treasure hunters and author of The Beginner’s Guide to Metal Detecting. “There’s something in their psyches, a sort of acquisitive impulse that make them go out and look for things. When you talk to them you’ll find a lot of them collected eggs or stamps when they were kids. They’ve never quite lost the urge.”

In the hierarchy of despised pastimes, metal detecting must come just a couple of notches below train spotting and stamp collecting. Yet this window onto a vast unknown world was opened not by an expert, not by a team of trained archeologists, not by an American funded research institute, but by a man who wandered around fields on his own looking for buried treasure.

Golden Ticket by Witheyes.It is the attraction of the lottery – that you are an ordinary person, that you have no more right to win than anyone else, but there is the slim possibility that in your ordinariness you can achieve greatness. It’s the lure of all forms of gambling. It’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – with the famished little boy tearing open the chocolate bar in the sweet shop and discovering that it contains the Last Golden Ticket. It’s Lucy falling into the wardrobe and finding a passage to the magical world of Narnia.

It’s also, by a strange coincidence, the spirituality of St Thérèse: Ordinary people doing ordinary things with great love and great care, in the full knowledge that this kind of love is what transforms the world and makes a new one possible. Without a trace of sentimentality. The same ruggedness, resilience, and sense of purpose that sent Terry Herbert across the fields each morning.

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The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux have arrived in Britain, as they begin a month long tour of the country. They are stopping at numerous churches, monasteries and Cathedrals (including York Minster), with time to take in a hospice for the dying and Wormwood Scrubs prison. They will spend the final week in London, ending with four days in Westminster Cathedral. There are so many articles you can read about the visit – here is a recent one from the Guardian, and from the Telegraph.

St Thérèse in England and Wales by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

Just to get the facts: These are some bones of a young nineteenth century French nun, carried around in an ornate casket for people to venerate. To any hardened secularists it must be baffling; and to many Protestants it will be a confirmation that the Catholic Church is stuck in an age of superstition and medieval heresy. But to Catholics it is the most natural thing in the world to pray to the saints, to visit a shrine, and by extension to go on pilgrimage to those places where the memory and the mortal remains of the saints are preserved. The tour of St Thérèse’s relics is a pilgrimage in reverse – she comes to us and saves us the bother of taking the ferry to Normandy.

I won’t give a big theological explanation of the meaning of relics. There is lots of information on the official website of the Catholic Church. I just want to point to the sound instincts that lie behind the desire to venerate relics and draw closer to the saints. There is a human instinct to honour the dead, to visit their graves, and to believe that their relationship with us is not just a memory but a continuing presence – one that is strengthened by our love and devotion. There is a Christian instinct to ask others to pray for us, especially those who seem close to God, and to believe that these bonds of prayer and love aren’t broken by death. Why would someone pray less or love less just because they had gone to Heaven?

And there is the instinct of all those in need to seek out help wherever they can find it. The overwhelming evidence from history and recent experience is that people’s lives are changed when they come to the relics of a saint with faith and an open heart. So it is no surprise that ‘the poor’ – whether their poverty is material or emotional or spiritual – are flocking to St Thérèse. It’s not desperation; it’s just an honest confession of weakness and need; and an acknowledgement that here is someone who understands, someone who can help. Not someone who takes us away from God, but someone who helps us draw closer to him. Not someone who distracts us from believing in Christ, but someone who helps us to see what that belief really involves, and gives us the spiritual support we need to live it.

The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux travelled through Eurotunnel and arrived in Kent today for an historic first visit to England and Wales by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

There are not many places in our culture outside the confessional or the therapist’s lounge where you can express your deepest human and spiritual needs, and believe that there might be a way of meeting them. How wonderful that for a few weeks now people can go to Thérèse, and in her company go to God, with honest and expectant hearts.

[I gave a retreat about the life and significance of Thérèse this summer. Click here if you want to listen to the talks.]

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