Daughter #3 and I went into town this morning to see the relics of St Therese of Lisieux which are in the Minster before making their way (not under their own steam, obviously) to Leeds' and then Middlesbrough's cathedrals. Despite being allegedly incorrupt (and apparently emitting the odour of roses on inspection), the remains themselves were not on open display, being enclosed in a tiny casket within a glass case. The faithful and the curious filed by respectfully touching the glass with their prayer cards to absorb some of the sanctity of the saint who died at the age of 24 never having left her convent. Her 'little way', is seento be achievable by absolutely anyone - to do any task or service, however menial, with complete love. Relics are indeed curious things, dividing even the faithful in their reactions to them. Some, like my Pa-in-Law, shudder at the thought of them (squeamishness? horror mortis?), others reverence them deeply. I'm most certainly not in the former camp, nor yet really in the latter: I am curiously drawn to them, and will seek them out if given half the chance. The continent is particularly rich in relics and any self -respecting cathedral has a number of mummified body parts, splinters of the true cross, phials of saints' blood, and bones mounted in crystal reliquaries, usually badly top-lit by buzzing neon tubes. The family is either quite resigned to, or heartily sick of, what they see as my almost prurient interest them. But do I love to visit them. I can't quite describe the feeling that I get in the presence of relics. I tried to describe it the Husband (I'm not sure he really understood) as a feeling of mildew: of timelessness, like you get from the smell of incense or hot candle-wax, damp wood or cement; from the sound of distant dripping water, or the feel of your hand on marble; the sight, on dull drizzly days, of gloomy thickly carpeted altars in dim side-chapels, covered in faded silk flowers or dead roses; those flickering votive candle-bulbs that light up at the drop of a coin. A feeling of unity with all those who have prayed there before, lives lived and gone, young girls who became mothers who became old women. Red velvet covered by heavy white lace. Whispering. Candles. Holiness.
I can't quite remember which was the first relic I ever saw. I think it was the tongue of St Antony of Padua (he was a renowned orator). I remember thinking, full of atheistic eleven year-old scorn, that it looked like a raspberry. Not long after we were taken to the relic-filled treasury of St Mark's in Venice by some devout Italian family friends. I revisited these when we went back there this spring and was not disappointed. Rome was well-endowed too, and we visited the Capuchin crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione on the via Veneto to see the ossuary where the dead monks' bones and remains decorate the dank subterranean walls. In St Peter's we visited the undercroft where Pope John-Paul II is buried in a flower strewn tomb amongst his papal predecessors. Even my daughter's school has the mummified hand of St Margaret Clitheroe in its chapel (she says that it looks like a rice crispie). I would like to sit in their presence and try to fathom out what it is that I feel, but the children are too antsy and the Husband, although kindly tolerant and nominally Catholic, would rather not. One day I will take myself off to Rome and find a quiet church (St Ignazio has a wonderful altar with a crimson-robed saint in tiny slippers and a silver death-mask) and sit there and think, and work out what exactly it is that I get from the dead. (below: the relics of St Robert Bellarmine, St Ignazio, Rome)