The queue to see the relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux formed, appropriately enough, between the Catholic Truth Society Bookstore and the portable fish and chips stand. I say “appropriately,” because the experience of seeing Therese’s reliquary last Tuesday night at London’s Westminster Cathedral was something of a dialectic between the sacred and the profane. That is as it should be. Human beings, after all, are by nature sacramental, because we are naturally imaginative, sensing beings. In other words, we need signs, things we see, touch, hear or taste, that provide a window through which the finite might glimpse the infinite.
For most of the pilgrims who came to the capital this week, all of that is more complicated than it needs to be. For the critics, it is incoherent. Throughout the week, those who knew better and those who thought they knew better, were suggesting that this whole business of veneration was something from the Dark Ages, an old-fashioned piety that would be quaint if it weren’t so destructive. And it wasn’t just Richard Dawkins and his ilk who were saying such things. For every militant atheist horrified by the sight of these ‘irrational mobs’, there was an embarrassed Christian who feared that this ‘superstitious stuff’ was giving the faith a bad name.
Yet amid the din of a very this-worldly West End, the good people of God came by the thousands. Seemingly indifferent to the Gordian debates of the theologians, or the crude rantings of England’s “new” atheists, their simple, undogmatic act of faith sent a powerful, if implicit, message to this de jure Anglican and de facto agnostic country: “God is alive. Long live God.” You could see it in their smiles, not something one immediately associates with the Dark Ages. There was little beating of breasts or uncomfortably pious grovelling. What the people in the queues were expressing was, in a word, joy; their joyful faith that what they were seeing was not merely a relic of the past, but a sign pointing to the present and future reality of God’s infinite love and mercy.
I went to Westminster Cathedral on Tuesday, I must confess, out of a sense of obligation. I stayed out of a sense of wonder. If I was tempted to be embarrassed by all of it, or, worse yet, to simply dismiss it, I found both impossible. Nothing we were doing seemed any stranger to me than anything else we do as Catholic Christians, simply less common. Therese’s old bones had done their job, I thought, orienting me to God, opening my heart to my fellow man, and allowing me to rediscover my sacramental faith.
As I exited the Cathedral, I thought of a conversation from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, one that takes place between Sebastian, a Catholic, and Charles, an agnostic:
Charles: “But, my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all."
Sebastian: "Can't I?"
Charles: "I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass."
Sebastian: "Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."
Charles: "But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea."
Sebastian: "But I do. That's how I believe."
Matt Malone, S.J.