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The Power of Relics


RAG AND BONE: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead
THE NAKED NOW: Learning to See as the Mystics See
Mary in Tradition and Today

RAG AND BONE: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead, by Peter Manseau. Henry Holt and Company. 243 pp. $25.

Reviewed by the REV. MICHAEL P. ORSI, research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida.

MY MOTHER'S FAMILY comes from a small town in Italy called Bitetto, which is located in the southern province of Bari. Since I was a boy, I can remember talk of the local patron, Beato (Blessed) Giaccomo.

His skeleton, on display in a Franciscan monastery there, continues to be an object of veneration, for both current residents and former townsfolk who have joined the Italian diaspora. Over the years, the relics have served as a unifier for the "Bitetese."

In fact, since many of Giaccomo's devotees live abroad, a finger has been removed and sent on a worldwide tour.

Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead focuses on some of the most renowned relics and the psychological power which these various bones, teeth, hairs and tongues have exerted over time and culture.

Author Peter Manseau is a writing instructor and student of religion at Georgetown University. He examines the religious and secular purposes which relics serve for the living, teasing out their political and even historic implications.

Manseau observes that the bodies, or the dismembered parts, of the holy dead have a metaphysical aspect that can affect someone who views them, whether or not a person is religious in the traditional sense.

"A relic concentrates the beliefs surrounding it until they can be seen," he writes. "It is a faith so intense it has, at times, set the world on fire."

The authenticity of a relic often has little bearing on its worth, according to Manseau. Rather, it is the human significance given to it that makes it a viable conduit of power.

He cites several relics of dubious provenance to support his point: a whisker allegedly from the beard of Mohammad, held in Kashmir, India; the questionable tooth of Buddha, now in Kandy, Sri Lanka; and the foreskin of the Christ Child (of which there seems to be more than one).

Such items serve as symbols that reinforce religious sentiment, boost ethnic pride, confer political power and provide a boon to local economies. (Of course, so much the better when a venerated object is authentic, such as the remains of St. Francis Xavier, which reside in Goa, India.)

Manseau writes that the cult of relics among Christians began "as a fringe movement of a fringe faith," gaining general acceptance by the fourth century. Veneration of sacred objects served to promote a sense that revered individuals are somehow still present.

There are three classes of relics acknowledged in Catholicism, but Manseau explains these incorrectly. Actually, first-class relics are the items associated with the life of Christ or a saint's actual body or parts of it. Second-class relics are articles of clothing worn by a saint or something else used by a saint. A third-class relic is anything that has come into contact with a first- or second-class relic.

Manseau cites guidelines for authenticating relics. He shows how the contemporary science of paleopathology (the study of human remains) can help determine the probability of the relic's alleged relationship to the holy figure who gives it its significance. (His account of the scientific investigation into relics associated with Joan of Arc is fascinating).

And he notes that a relic may not be bought or sold, though a gratuity given to procure one is appropriate.

Two comments included in the book help to clarify Christian practices pertaining to the use of relics as devotional objects. The first is from Mother Catherine, a Russian Orthodox nun living in Jerusalem, who observes: "When you venerate or kiss or show reverence to an object or the body of a saint, you give that veneration not to the body itself, but to what the body represents....We don't pray to St. Elizabeth's bones; we pray to live the kind of life those bones lived, and to die their kind of death."

The second is from Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England. Speaking about the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, which had been on a monthlong loan from France to England and Wales, he said: "The real meaning of relics is, of course, that they are but a sign, a token of the holy life of this much-loved saint. They are God's way of opening our hearts to His unwavering love. We do well to draw all the encouragement we can from this time of grace."

Relics are a cultural phenomenon—transgenerational, transnational and sometimes transcendental objects that have the power to unite (and sometimes divide) us, as they inspire the living with the heroic virtues of those who have gone before.

Their potency is not limited to the confines of churches. Witness the recent attempt by the prime minister of Albania to obtain the remains of Mother Teresa (turned down by the government of India) and his negotiations with France for the bones of Albania's only post-independence monarch, King Ahmet Zog.

Pious devotion to relics fulfills a mysterious and timeless need deep in the human heart. The bones of Beato Giaccomo have been a rich source of blessing for my kin and me, and Manseau's book helps to explain why.

You can order RAG AND BONE: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead from St. Francis Bookstore.


THE NAKED NOW: Learning to See as the Mystics See, by Richard Rohr. The Crossroad Publishing Company. 162 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE, D.Min., a Catholic priest for 33 years. Among other ministries in his special assignment for the Archdiocese of Detroit, he's chaplain at Selfridge Air National Guard and presides at Mass in the Macomb County Jail.

A SUMMONS TO LEADERS: That's what Franciscan friar Richard Rohr advocates in a time of endless terror from the Middle East, to New York, to Detroit where a passenger attempted to blow up an airplane last Christmas.

Yet it's toward the end of the book that the author includes tips for governments, politicians, parishioners and estranged alike. This sane voice needs a hearing.

Rohr's tome praises Jesus, Buddhists, Hindus and others who practice a path of a holistic being by viewing one world without walling others in or out. Rohr says Jesus was the first non-dualistic religious teacher of the West.

In this, perhaps Rohr's best treatment of contemplative prayer, he wants us to end fragmented black-and-white, us-versus-them thinking. He wants people to accept and surrender to paradox, contradiction and mystery amid the misery and joy of life's treks. The revered retreat master and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, helps believers along this road of ancient thought.

Rohr says: "If you surrender to the fear of uncertainty, life can become a set of insurance policies. Your short time on this earth becomes small and self-protective, a kind of circling of the wagons around what you can be sure of and what you think you can control—even God."

Rohr reminds me of the marks of the Church that we were taught: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Here, for our purposes, "one" seems to be what Rohr, and those before him, emulate in moving from dualistic, harmful thinking.

"The Principle of Likeness" is how the author entitles a final chapter. He writes: "The enormous breakthrough is that when you honor and accept the divine image within yourself, you cannot help but see it in everybody else, too, and you know it is just as undeserved and unmerited as it is in you. That is why you stop judging, and that is how you start loving unconditionally and without asking whether someone is worthy or not. The breakthrough occurs at once, although the realization deepens and takes on greater conviction over time."

When at home with one's self, it seems, a person can be one with neighbors and even enemies. Accepting life's unfolding each moment finds this mind-set adjusting and aligning with what is dealt.

Couple that with mystical traditions that have persevered through the ages as routes of living with paradox by non-dualistic thinking. "If we are honest, everything is a clash of contradictions, and there is nothing on this created earth that is not a mixture at the same time of good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, endearing and maddening, living and dying."

In three parts, with large and practical appendices and notes for the 22 chapters, this is well worth the effort. Having reread it for clarity and understanding, savoring and relishing the images integrated with Rohr's own acceptance of ambiguity and contradiction, I found myself nodding in oneness with succeeding paragraphs and pages.

The author is not concerned with being right: "God does not exist so that we can think correctly about Him—or Her. God instead desires the flourishing of what God created and loves—us ourselves. And it's ironic, but we flourish more by learning from our mistakes and changing than by a straight course that teaches us nothing."

Perhaps it is time for world and civic leaders with clergy and parishioners alike to exalt "a renaissance of the contemplative mind, the one truly unique alternative that religion has to offer the world."

Don't save your money for another book—spend it on this one. The world needs it.

You can order THE NAKED NOW: Learning to See as the Mystics See from St. Francis Bookstore.


A PARABLE OF WOMEN: Poems, by Philip C. Kolin. Yazoo River Press (14000 Hwy. 82 W. #7142, Itta Bene, MS 38941-1400). 31 pp. $12.95.

Reviewed by KATHY COFFEY, author of Hidden Women of the Gospels, Women of Mercy and several articles for this publication. She gives retreats and workshops about women's spirituality, and has won awards for poetry from the Catholic Press Association.

THIS SLENDER BOOK is a collection of women's voices from Hagar to Herodias, then to contemporary women: living under a viaduct, attending a singles party or doing the waltz of widowhood.

In the final poem, Mary speaks with rich mystery and little of the sentimentality that often characterizes poetry about the Blessed Mother. Juxtaposing biblical women with the ones we might meet for lunch shows the continuity of the female line and the commonality of women's experience.

Kolin captures the poignancy of unique lives in nuggets such as this one about a waitress: "The 13th Amendment means/No more to her than/A wink to a hearse rider." Her only dream: to get a job at Wal-Mart next year.

Herodias leads a similarly empty life of vicarious thrills through her daughter Salome. Her cameo for the beheading of John the Baptist: "The first platter is coming in./It's a delicacy to kill for/ I am so discomforted by waiting."

While most of the women's lives depicted here seem grim or melancholy, a few are more uplifting: A mellow woman at midlife is described by the oxymoron "a steady surprise," and a nun at prayer counsels an observer to relax and remove the starch from his petitions.

Kolin, a professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi, has a knack for compression, succinctly describing a character in a few words. He is at his best with the brief, direct line, often ironic or unexpected.

You can order A PARABLE OF WOMEN: Poems from St. Francis Bookstore.


THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING: A Spirituality for Real Life, by James Martin, S.J. HarperOne. 416 pages. $26.99.

Reviewed by MARION AMBERG, an award-winning freelance journalist currently writing a book on location in northern New Mexico.

IF YOU'RE LOOKING for a short course in "life" à la Jesuit, then this book is for you. Billed as a practical spiritual guide for the devout believer to doubtful skeptic, author and Jesuit priest James Martin helps readers tackle real-life problems. These can range from discerning a career path or even the right spouse to managing money to finding God (or letting God find you). To all of these, he brings the 450-year-old spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola, a 16th-century soldier-turned-mystic and founder of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits for short.

If you've heard the Jesuits are an intellectual and not-so-humble lot, fear not. This book is reader-friendly and loaded with Jesuit humor and asides. Did you know that the Jesuits invented the theatrical trapdoor or that 35 craters on the moon are named for Jesuit scientists? Or that the Vatican disbanded the Jesuits from 1773 to 1814?

Martin, who is associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of the best-selling book My Life With the Saints, bares his soul to illustrate the way of St. Ignatius. Before entering the Jesuit novitiate at age 27, Martin confesses he knew little about prayer—let alone a personal relationship with God. Martin surmises that, if Jesuit spirituality could help him find his way to God, it can help anyone.

Martin also draws heavily from the writings of living and deceased Jesuits, such as Father Walter Ciszek, the American Jesuit held captive for decades in Soviet prisons and Siberian labor camps.

The book's 14 chapters cover the basics of Jesuit spirituality (finding God in all things, becoming a contemplative in action, looking at the world in an incarnational way and seeking freedom and detachment); the six paths to God; the spiritual exercises and traditions of prayer; naming and telling God one's desires in life (desires come from God and he wants to fulfill those desires); and the interior battle to do the right thing.

Martin ends the book with a section listing his favorite resources on the life of St. Ignatius Loyola and all things Jesuit.

If readers familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) find some insights familiar, it's because Jesuit Father Edward Dowling was spiritual director to Bill Wilson, a founder of A.A.

Because life is filled with change and decisions, many readers will appreciate the chapter on Ignatian discernment or decisionmaking. During one part of the discernment process, readers are asked to imagine making a decision. Did it give them a sense of peace? Or agitate their spirit?

Unlike many books on Ignatian discernment, Martin presents the process in an easy-to-follow, albeit structured manner. St. Ignatius was, after all, a swashbuckler before his conversion and very results-oriented.

While Martin deftly weaves together his journey and the Ignatian way, he makes no mention of the number of Jesuit priests and brothers worldwide today. Is the Order growing or decreasing in numbers?

And it's curious there isn't a Jesuit female counterpart—an order of Jesuit sisters or nuns—though Martin does report that two women in St. Ignatius' day took vows as Jesuits.

While the book is a relatively easy "how-to" in Jesuit spirituality—and it does cover just about everything—it may appeal more to people with concrete, analytical temperaments. Intuitive or creative personality types who don't like routine may find the Jesuit way too regimented. But then, St. Ignatius did say that it's dangerous to make everyone take the same road.

You can order THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING: A Spirituality for Real Life from St. Francis Bookstore.


HEARING GOD'S VOICE, by Father Mark Burger. St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 9080 Cincinnati-Dayton Road, West Chester, OH 45069-3129. 337 pp. $13.95.

Reviewed by CAROL ANN MORROW, formerly on the staff of this publication and author of several books published by Abbey Press.

ONE REALLY SHOULDN'T read at one sitting a book with 365 entries. I didn't mean to. But I couldn't help myself!

It seemed fair to ponder the entries for the month the book came into my possession and then sample the rest. But the author engaged me, and I wanted very much to see what else he had to say. It's a very comfortable read for anyone on the journey of faith who wants to take just a few moments each day to reorient his or her spiritual compass.

Something I particularly liked about Father Mark Burger's approach was that it had little formula about it. The reader is guaranteed a story, but the source of that story often surprises. The author pays attention to his own life, prays over it and draws lessons from that reflection. (He has more than one entry about asking directions.)

But he also offers a generous sampling from his wide reading, which includes National Geographic, biographies, history, science and health. In a given week, he's as likely to quote Abraham Lincoln, C.S. Lewis, Anthony de Mello and Brother Lawrence as he is Jesus Christ. But Jesus might have used some of the same stories, had he possessed a library card of his own.

Some days, Father Mark concludes with a sentence of admonishment or encouragement. Other days he poses a question or teases out a moral. I like the variety.

Readers of this magazine will be glad to know that Father Mark prays to St. Anthony and includes stories from the life of Francis. The troubadour-based tale for July 21, however, was unfamiliar, and I question its authenticity, though that doesn't invalidate the spiritual question drawn from it.

Another lesson from the writings of Salman Rushdie reminded me of Francis of Assisi's respect for the written word. Rushdie wrote that it was customary in India to kiss the holy books or Scriptures before and after reading them. In his home, that custom extended to all books, which he felt was one reason he became an author—his reverence for words.

I believe that Father Mark Burger shares that reverence for words as well. It would not be inappropriate to kiss Hearing God's Voice before and after reading the entry of the day. Surely, it would indicate a willingness to hear, to reflect and to acknowledge the inspiration reflected in this volume.

You can order HEARING GOD'S VOICE from St. Francis Bookstore.



Mary in Tradition and Today

The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (August 15) is a fitting occasion to consider new books about the mother of Jesus.

MARIA: Pope Benedict XVI on the Mother of God, translated from German (Ignatius Press, 157 pp., $21.95), is a gorgeous gift book with dozens of photographs of famous depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in places where Pope Benedict XVI has prayed. These range from an icon at Ephesus to the Lourdes statue to the dramatic statue in the cemetery church at Regensburg, where the pope's parents and sister are buried. These images are paired with his words taken from his homilies and Angelus talks. Pope Benedict may not have yet visited as many countries as Pope John Paul II did, but the volume reveals his deep faith in the Mary who leads us to Jesus.

MARY 101: Tradition and Influence, by Mary Ann Zimmer, N.D., Ph.D. (Liguori Publications, 144 pp., $14.99), is a primer on Mary from a Marywood University assistant professor of religious studies. It starts with Mary in Scripture and explores the Church's teachings.

FULL OF GRACE: Miraculous Stories of Healing and Conversion Through Mary's Intercession, by Christine Watkins, foreword by Robert Faricy, S.J. (Ave Maria Press, 203 pp., $14.95), is the author's dramatic story of her own healing and conversion to Catholicism, and the stories of five others, including a homeless drug addict and a stripper. The apparitions at Medjugorje touched Watkins's heart.—B.B.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookstore, 135 W. 31st Street, New York, NY 10001, phone 212-736-8500, ext. 324, fax 212-594-6025.


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