Dem Bones, Dem Bones
Or, what would you do with a chip off the old saint’s vertebra?
Part III of "The Deborah Trilogy."
By Mary Beth Crain
In the last episode of "The Deborah Trilogy," Mary Beth Crain’s Catholic fanatic friend Deborah made a pilgrimage to Italy to visit holy sites, among them the church where St. Catherine of Siena’s head is on display. In Siena, Deborah developed a romantic attraction to St. Catherine (or rather, her head); got a bee sting on her palm that she hoped was a precursor to the stigmata; and saw the Virgin Mary in a coffee spill on her napkin in a café. Now, in the final installment of the trilogy, Deborah embarks upon a fervent quest for holy relics, convinced they will bring her, if not redemption, at least a little bit of luck, which we all know she can use.
I had hoped that a good old-fashioned dose of Catholicism, ancient Italian style, would have a cleansing effect on Deborah, purging her of her compulsive obsessive religious disorder once and for all. But oh, no. She came back from Italy worse than ever. Whereas before she had merely talked incessantly about the saints, she now became obsessed with having tangible, physical proof of their presence. And so, Deborah began sending away for holy relics from various sites selling bits and pieces of the saints, from the hairs on their heads to the threads of their underwear.
Of course, this sort of snake oil salesmanship has had a long and noble tradition in the church. How many Catholic school kids have seen with their very own eyes an actual piece of the cross on which their Savior was crucified? How many of the faithful have traveled thousands of miles to worship before the Holy Chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, despite the fact that quite a few of those chalices have popped up through the ages?
When I was nine, my six-year-old neighbor Betsy, one of a litter of red-headed, freckled Irish Catholic Skelleys, returned from her first day of school at St. Margaret Mary’s with the exciting announcement that her teacher had shown her class the actual cloth with which Mary Magdalene had wiped the face of the suffering Jesus on his way to Calvary.
“How do you know it was the real thing?” I asked.
“Because! It was stained with Jesus’ blood and sweat!”
I gotta say that even at nine, I sniffed the unmistakable scent of bullshit. But I didn’t dare confess this to Betsy, with whom I was already on shaky ground. That first day of school she had also learned about the Jews, and sadly informed me that she shouldn’t be playing with me because I, personally, had killed Jesus.
Anyway, back to Deborah, who called me not too long after her return from Italy, every bit as excited as little Betsy Skelley.
“It came! It came!”
“The holy relic I ordered! Do you know what I’m holding in my hand?”
I was afraid to ask.
“A piece of one of the vertebrae from the spine of St. John Viannay!”
“What the hell would you want with that?” I replied, horrified by her new and grisly pastime.
“It’s a holy relic! I paid $20 for it!”
“Deborah, how in God’s name do you know it’s authentic?” I, ever the unholy skeptic, challenged her. “For all you know it could be a chip from a soup bone!”
“It has the Vatican imprimatur!” she smugly replied. “That makes it an official relic!”
Fine. You’ve got a piece of St. John Viannay’s L-5. Now, what are you going to do with it? Wear it in your nose?
This dilemma had occurred to Deborah as well. As soon as she got the vertebra, she began to fret and fuss over its proper placement in her home. What if St. John, or worse, God, wasn’t pleased with the spot she chose?
“I can’t put it in a drawer,” she reasoned. “That would be totally disrespectful, like hiding God’s light under a bushel basket. And selfish, like I don’t want to share it. On the other hand, I don’t want to be too obvious about it. That would be like bragging, and I think God hates a show-off as much as a hoarder, don’t you? I was thinking about maybe making a little shrine in my bedroom and putting it up there. What do you think?”
Snorrrre…Huh? Oh, yeah, uh huh. Absolutely.
So, Deborah constructed her shrine and proudly put the bone fragment in the place of honor, in between a crucifix and a statue of the Holy Virgin, who seemed to be smiling with approval, pity or amusement, it was difficult to say which. Then she conducted visitations to her bedroom for anyone interested in viewing the sacred booty.
But Deborah’s relic quest didn’t stop there. On the contrary, she was just warming up. Her next step was to acquire something that had belonged to her favorite saint, Padre Pio, whose stigmata she had so coveted. Sure enough, the Vatican obliged, and one day I received another exultant phone call.
“I have a relic from Padre Pio!”
Oy. Another spinal fragment?
“No, a piece of his robe! I’ve got goose bumps just holding it!”
Well, why not? I imagined St. John’s vertebra must be getting lonely all by itself. It would be nice to have a chunk of Padre Pio for company.
When I saw the latest relic, however, I was not impressed. It was a teensy, tiny snippet of black cloth that required a magnifying glass for full appreciation.
“You’re sure this belonged to Padre Pio and not some scurrilous priest out to make a buck?” I asked.
“It came with the Vatican Seal!” Deborah waved the Certificate of Authenticity at me.
OK, OK. On the other hand, if I told Deborah that one of the bones from an order of Applebee’s baby backs was the very rib they took out of Adam to make Eve, she’d probably believe that too.
Deborah’s third relic was a thread from the hem of St. Therese of Lisieux—the very saint whose novena card she had angrily flushed down the toilet (see Part I of the trilogy). You needed a microscope for this one.
“Deborah, I thought you were pissed off at St. Therese,” I said.
“Oh, I guess maybe I overreacted a little,” she admitted sheepishly. “Anyway, she was so totally holy that even a single thread from her habit has enormous power.”
Power to do what, exactly?
“Perform miracles, of course!”
“So you think all these things—a bone chip, a swatch of cloth, a thread—are lucky charms?”
“That’s what a relic is!” Deborah explained impatiently. “Only it’s not a question of luck. A relic is imbued with what’s called ‘holy virtue.’ That’s a kind of mystic power that issues from a sacred object.”
Just what I said. A lucky charm. Now, in case you think Deborah is unique, well, let’s just say we wish she was. But the sad fact of the matter is that the sale of relics, or simony, is doing a bang-up business on the Web, where scores of gullibles are paying top dollar for everything from the actual nails used to crucify Jesus to lockets purported to contain the air he breathed. In fact, an enterprising Puerto Rican recently pocketed $1100 for “an old relic of the True Cross,” ha ha. But don’t blame these shysters. When it comes to human stupidity, the sky’s the limit. Just one hour of Benny Hinn proves that beyond a reasonable doubt.
Deborah was faced with yet another dilemma, however: she had two different classes of relics. You see, holy relics come in three categories: 1) First Class Relics, which include “items directly associated with the events of Christ’s life or the physical remains such as bone, hair, limbs, etc., or body parts of the saints”; 2) Second Class Relics, i.e. an item that that saint wore or that was important to him or her, such as a book, crucifix, rosary, etc.; and 3) Third Class Relics, which include things that touched the saint, like a hankie or a piece of toilet paper or whatever.
The piece of St. John Viannay’s vertebra was definitely a First Class relic. But Padre Pio’s robe snippet and St. Therese’s hem thread were coach class at best. The question was, should they all be displayed in the same place? Or should the vertebra have special privileges given its superior status?
Deborah agonized over this issue for days, until finally I put an end to the foolishness.
“I know the perfect place for all the relics,” I said.
“Where?” she asked excitedly.
“The same place you put St. Therese’s novena card! In the toilet! That’s where all of this crap belongs!”
I know this suggestion was neither tactful nor respectful but, well, I’m sorry. I had had it! Saints’ bones, rabbit’s feet, four leaf clovers, what the hell. It’s magic, period, and an awfully good way to distract yourself from taking charge of your own destiny and responsibility for your own life.
Anyway, Deborah shut up and never talked about relics to me again. Which is a good thing because I later discovered the ultimate in relicmania: the Holy Foreskin. Yes, through the centuries a whole bunch of Italian churches have claimed simultaneously to possess this tasteful body part of Jesus, which somehow ended up in, of all places, a parish priest’s shoebox. If you want to run and view it, though, good luck. In 1983 it mysteriously disappeared from the shoebox and hasn’t been seen since.
If you read Part I of "The Deborah Trilogy," you know that Deborah would have drawn the line at this one because she was gay and absolutely hated penises. “They’re so ugly,” she would complain. “And that thing that hangs down…” I’m sure not even the Holy Foreskin would have changed her mind. But then, we all have our limits.
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