The Catholic Book Club is back
The last time I venerated a relic was at the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown. In game six of the American League Championship Series, Curt Schilling pitched against the Yankees after undergoing a surgery intended to staple his injured ankle together. Schilling pitched masterfully, and the Red Sox won the game and the series the next day. Schilling’s performance seems that much more heroic because he pitched through pain and injury clearly manifest in the blood that soaked through his sock. When I saw the sock in a glass case at Cooperstown, I almost wept. The sock reminded me of the Red Sox victory. It was a visceral reminder of the joy that filled me after decades of embarrassing defeat on the part of the Red Sox franchise. This relic had great power. In fact, Schilling later sold a second bloody sock—from his performance in game two of the World Series—at auction for over $92,000. Like the relics of the church, modern relics retain tremendous power and value.
At the beginning of his most recent novel, Christopher Buckley offers a wonderful epigraph from Iris Murdoch. It reads: “Even if a dog’s tooth is truly worshipped it glows with light. The venerated object is endowed with power.” In the early decades of the 16th century, Catholic elites—ecclesial and otherwise—endowed relics not only with power but great value. Relics were and are precious traces of holy men and women, but they also held extraordinary monetary value. The most precious and powerful of relics attracted scores of pilgrims. Pilgrims sought the indulgences accrued by venerating relics, and those pilgrims with means paid for special access to relics and the spiritual assurance of indulgences. Atonement for sin was bought and sold. The money from the sale of indulgences helped consolidate ecclesial power and wealth. The system rested on the extraordinary value attached to relics and their power to draw the faithful in hope of atonement and healing.
Buckley’s novel is set in the turbulent years of 1517-19. It is a wonderful legend replete with historical figures and historical echoes to current realities in our own time 500 years later. Martin Luther’s protest against Rome and the relic-indulgence system provides the backdrop for a quest, a thrilling pursuit of a particular shroud of Jesus. There are many bad guys, a few good guys, a man trying to redeem himself and a woman whose courage, wisdom, and beauty harken back to an old Hollywood movie. Albrecht Durer, the great German painter, schemes with the novel’s main character, Dismas, a relic master serving a thoughtful German noble and a corrupt German cardinal on the rise and in debt to creditors, to dupe the German cardinal into purchasing a counterfeit relic for an extravagant sum. Dismas, named after the good thief in Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion, is eventually caught. Though Dismas escapes gruesome execution, he must fulfill a penance that should kill him. He is charged with translating a most holy relic from the possession of the Duke of Savoy to the ecclesial court of the German cardinal.
On one level, the novel entertains with a thrilling cast of characters, violence, vulgarity and a great deal of comedy—comic repartee and insult. An astonishing array of relics appear as well: St. Jerome’s mandible, a leaf from the burning bush, many thorns from Jesus’ crown at the court of Pilate, the mummified camels of three wise men, a boat once belonging to St. Peter and St. Afra’s patella. Relics come in many forms: blood, breast milk, bone, skin, hair, teeth, a foot, arrows, thorns and chains. The fascination with these concrete traces of holy men and women is at once reaffirming of the incarnate reality of church and human longing to be close to the divine. Dismas describes the effect of Frederick the Elector’s collection of relics of Christ’s passion thus: “It was difficult to stand in Gallery Eight without becoming overcome with emotion. Few among those who came to venerate here remained standing or dry-eyed” (44).
On another level, the novel is a wonderful satire of our current politics, economic system, our greed for things once possessed by celebrity and the way in which we value art. “Pricing indulgences was, to be sure, a technical business. But, in its way, it was equitable. Everyone had to pay to have his sins remitted, even kings and queens” (32). Dismas tries to retain a professional integrity in the midst of this rather ethereal and volatile field of assessing the authenticity of relics and their subsequent value. Dismas cultivated expertise in his field and enriched the reliquaries of his patrons. He is shrewd and discerning, but he loses that by which he elevated himself above the greed and pettiness of his clients and his rival relic dealers when he knowingly sells an elaborate counterfeit piece. His integrity is destroyed, and a new humility and authenticity arise in him where his expertise and discerning taste once had been. As the good thief works toward his redemption, he navigates a world of warring elites, ecclesial greed and brutal violence.
Buckley’s novel reminds me of a wonderful short story entitled “Relic” by Robert Olen Butler. It is John Lennon’s shoe—the shoe he purportedly wore when he was killed—that is the priceless relic in this story. A Vietnamese refugee, a Catholic who lost his family but found wealth in business in the United States, finds great solace in possessing this shoe. He wants to buy the other shoe so he can wear the pair and feel a special intimacy with Lennon as well as the pride of possessing an object so valued by western society. Just like the Catholic world of the early 16th century, we tend to invest things with meaning and value, especially things that were once possessed by the famous or the heroic. We invest them with the power to transform us from insignificance to dignity, from meaninglessness to a life of meaning.
I recommend that you pick up Buckley’s novel. It is neither overly spiritual nor theological. Relic Master entertains. It makes the reader laugh while also sparking consideration of themes such as greed and authenticity.
When you read the novel please consider the following questions:
- How are relics incorporated into Catholic worship and spirituality today—if at all?
- What elements of present-day American culture and faith might Christopher Buckley be satirizing in this novel of the early 16th century?
Some further notes. You can find The New York Times review of The Relic Master here.
Here are two other recent novels that I considered for January:
- Submission is a novel by the French author Michel Houellebecq. It imagines the secular world of French academia suddenly saturated with quite devout Muslim scholars. The protagonist is a middle-aged literature professor who wrote his dissertation on the Catholic (convert) novelist J.K. Huysmans. It is a timely novel that considers the power of fundamentalism in the context of indifferent secularism. You can find The New York Times review of Submission here.
- John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries is a wonderful, though somewhat scandalous read. It is filled with Marian apparitions, portraits of religious zeal, fervent religious petition, questions of memory, and human suffering. The main character, Juan Diego, indicates the novel’s deep religious themes right off the bat. Juan Diego was the indigenous Mexican peasant to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared. The novel also betrays Irving’s knowledge of things Jesuit as well. I intend to interview Irving about the book in the coming weeks. Here is The New York Times review of Avenue of Mysteries. The book is better than Dwight Garner’s review indicates. Give it a shot.
Lastly, in the next few weeks, I will look at two books: Helen Castor’s Joan of Arc: A History and a book of short stories, Tales of Accidental Genius, by Simon van Booy. Castor’s book was reviewed by the Times in July of last year. Booy recently spoke about his writing with Diane Rehm. Both works look quite interesting.
After a few months of hiatus, the Catholic Book Club is, as you can see, committing itself to examine recent works of literature, history and theology that might deepen our faith and our knowledge of it. We will be reading books published within the last 12 months that are reviewed by The New York Times, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books or other publications. I look forward to this reinvigorated project.