Converts to the Catholic faith (such as myself) sometimes have difficulty with aspects of Catholic piety known as sacramentals — the tactile, real-world things having to do with the faith. We don't grow up with things like saints and relics and Mary; for me, having been raised Baptist, the Christian life was all about knowing the Bible, being nice to people, and not using bad words. (Sex? "Um — well, no. Just don't… uh… On second thought, read this — um, science-type book, and then we'll talk, OK?")
Although all those things describe a believer's behavior, the Christian faith for me was more an intellectual thing than a true lifestyle, a true way of being. The experience described below is one of the doorways God provided for me to begin to understand how certain pieces of the Catholic way of life — spirit, soul, flesh, and the practice of good that results in holiness and peace — fit together.
In 1999, about 6 months after I became a Catholic, St. Therese of Lisieux's relics were touring the world. She made a stop at a church near me called St. Joseph's in Vancouver WA, and I went up there to — I don't know, really — see her? See what all the fuss was about, maybe. Receive a blessing in a new sort of way, I hoped.
I drove up there (about half an hour's ride from Portland on the freeway) and stood in line outside the church for over an hour. It was November; very cold and sprinking a little, but not raining hard, thank God. I was standing next to two old ladies, and we struck up a conversation. We talked for half an hour before we realized we were part of the same parish! They were sweet and wonderful; sisters, one was widowed, but they were obviously very close. They told me some about St. Therese, since I didn't know much of her story, and they gave me a pamphlet and a holy card with her picture.
We finally got inside the church, and it was a big, long procession, a line filing down the aisle to the front and past the reliquary (a dark-colored wooden trunk) which contained her bones, and then up the far aisle and out again. At various positions around the sanctuary, there were Knights of Columbus standing at attention and watching everything, guiding people around, and handing out single-stem roses. I had heard of these folks, but I had never seen them do anything besides serve pancakes in the church fellowship hall before. Here, they were all cleaned up and decked out in their full regalia — tailcoats, white shirts, colored sashes, ceremonial swords, and huge black Napoleon-shaped hats with colored plumes. It almost looked weird and costumey, but then I realized that in this little world, the spiritual reality created by this strange intersection of history, mourning, hope, the sacred space, and the imagination, these guys were providing security for a visiting dignitary. Ah. The impression that settled on me was like the one you get at a really great "Roadside America" homespun tourist attraction — all the art, all the stuff, all the spectacle just bursts forth so honestly from the love of human hearts, you can't help but respect it, even if it seems tacky or bizarre at first glance.
Anyway, I slowly made my way up toward her. As I approached, I saw people take things like medals, jewelry, papers, and pictures and press them up against the glass museum case that enclosed the reliquary. All I could think of was the flower I'd been given by one of the Knights, and though I didn't really know the protocol for this sort of thing, I supposed it'd be okay if I just touched that to the glass. (Looking back on it, I think anything I would have done would have been fine; it was people's personal expressions of devotion that they were enacting, after all.)
I arrived at the reliquary and stared at it for a moment, and then gingerly touched my flower to the glass. I wondered if I'd miraculously be able to see inside, or if I'd hear her speak to me (with the answers to all my problems) in the same sort of way that I hear Jesus' voice in my heart, or what. Nothing, except a small sense of excitement and warmth, like when you shake a celebrity's hand and say "I love your work", and you do sense a sincerity in their manner and response, but they're busy, after all, and there are so many other people…
If I could put the blessing I received into words, I think it came most from the way it led me to meditation on the Incarnation. Here were the bones of a person who suffered and was made holy by God, a true temple of the Holy Spirit. This didn't go away after her spirit left her body; she was somehow still there — a presence, a will, an intention. The holiness and integrity that Christ had given her somehow imprinted and soaked into those bones, leaving a spiritual aroma that attracted us all, that we sensed as we gathered in faith to honor her. If I heard words from her in my heart, I guess they were, "Thanks for coming. It's nice to meet you." She seems to be someone who's willing to travel with those who suffer and wants to make a difference in people's lives, even after she's been dead almost 80 years.
Sometimes I pity those who know Jesus but don't realize the wealth of friendship and support we have through the heart of Christ in the communion of saints. Then I realize, that never stopped the saints from loving us before. It doesn't stop them now. It can't; it never will.