In the mystics summit (https://mysticssummit.com) this week, Fr. Richard Rohr got quite excited about his relic of St. Therese of Lisieux. With apologies to his friends of other traditions, he explained that Catholics revere sacred objects because the incarnation made everything holy. Or, there’s nowhere that the divine is not. So we hold up that presence in things that have taken on meaning and become dear. In this case, it was a small piece of Therese’s bone, to him as precious as a wife’s favorite earrings to a widower.
This “God amidst the pots and pans” offsets the patriarchal strain of abstraction, dualism and perfectionism. No, spirit isn’t better than body. We are one whole human. In that vein, I thought about sacramentals in my recent experience.
One was a battered, faded green cap used on almost every hike since lockdown began, when walks became one of our few legitimate forms of exercise. I’d gotten it at Trinity College, Dublin, where I admire the Book of Kells every 20 years or so. During a hike along Willow View Trail, an enormous cracking sound rent the air. At first I thought, “wild animal?,” covered my head, and ran forward to escape whatever it was. Turned out to be a huge tree limb, crashing over the path. I was lucky to escape with minor small bumps. Discovering, after many yards, a missing cap, I returned to retrieve it. I was dubious at first, seeing a long cliff where it could’ve easily fallen. But there it was, smack on the trail, symbol that I too had survived and wasn’t tumbling down the canyon. Cap overlaid with gratitude!
Another is a receipt for a take-out dinner, a scrap of paper I’ve found difficult to discard. It calls up a wonderful New Year’s celebration at Lake Tahoe with my son’s family. Holiday celebrations have been precious few this year, so we went all out for this one. The children dressed up to surprise their mom, who wore her dangliest earrings. She provided us all with headbands, noisemakers, bubbly, wish papers. We ordered a fine feast, enjoyed as we watched a spectacular sunset overlooking the lake. We were filled with hope—for the inauguration, the vaccine, the end of lockdown. One paper slip contained all that, so it has a secure place wedged in my journal for 1/1/21.
Therese and the medieval women mystics were remarkably concrete and fresh compared to their male peers. They wrote in the vernacular; the men in Latin. Their language is juicy, fluent and vibrant—vs. stodgy, academic, male abstractions. Their metaphors, like Jesus’, are drawn from daily experience. And so the question for us all: what dear, familiar objects would you place on your small sacred altar?