Look; Don’t Touch!
Karl Popper once asked: “And who shows greater reverence for mystery – the scientist who devotes himself to discovering it step by step, always ready to submit to facts, and always aware that even his boldest achievement will never be more than a stepping-stone for those who come after him, or the mystic who is free to maintain anything because he need not fear any test?” In the world’s reliquaries, we find the answer is….both.
A reliquary is an object designed to house those things deemed sacred. Much like a young girl’s jewelry box which houses movie tickets from her first date or an out-of-date dictionary used to press a rose from a first corsage, reliquaries are the holding place for the holiest of material holies. From a beautiful Madonna and child in the Gothic Reliquary at The Cloisters in New York City to the telling of the story of Saint Ursula on a wooden house structure replete with oil paintings as siding, reliquaries provide physical connections to our spiritual beliefs.
Albert Schweitzer once said “Just as white light consists of colored rays, so reverence for life contains all the components of ethics: love, kindliness, sympathy, empathy, peacefulness and power to forgive.” Reliquaries not only represent the stories upon which faith is based, they also give evidence of the faithful in their lives and in their deaths. The Topkapi Palace in Turkey contains revered relics of the Prophet Mohammed. His sword and bow as well as soil from his grave, hair from his beard are housed with a cast of his footprint in stone. The Koran is recited continuously next to these artifacts. Dubrovnik, Croatia is home to an Armenian bishop thought to have saved the city from a Venetian attack. The skull of Dubrovnik’s patron saint, Saint Blaise, is encased in a silver and gold filigreed crown, part of the town’s celebration on his birthday, February 3rd.
Not all reliquaries are ornate or man-made. In Myanmar there sits a precariously balanced rock, situated on a cliff over a gorge. It is said that a single hair of Buddha’s hair has kept the Golden Rock from falling. The destination of many pilgrims, who bring gold leaf to rub on the rock which now has a gilded appearance, the golden boulder and the rock table on which it rests are actually independent of one another. Atop the boulder is the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda. Really more a complex than just one structure, there are viewing platforms, pagodas, and Buddha shrines which are reached via a staircase. A circle of gongs are located nearby with statues of nats, mischievous Burmese spirits, and angels in the center of the circle. On Full Moon Day, which is in March, the platform of the pagoda is awash in the light of ninety thousand candles, an offering of reverence to Buddha.
We also are reliquaries. Our bodies were gifts to us, whether you believe they are from a Creator or Great Spirit or through evolution. Our very lives are living proof and our daily living should be testament to the gift of life we have received. Reliquaries are not just museums. Museums exist to hold antiquities. Reliquaries hold artifacts but the very holding gives life to our spirituality and our faith. The objects of a museum are appreciated for their having been. The objects within a reliquary lead one into the future and connect with the past. They are evidence and proof of what has been but also provide hope for what might be.
Thomas Jefferson, considered the author of the United States Constitution, defended the document’s amendments saying: “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched… Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind… We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
We should not use the objects within our reliquaries as an excuse to become stagnant. Neither should religion be used as an excuse to deny mankind – any part of mankind – the basic rights of human dignity, education, health, and freedom. Our very existence on this planet is sacred and our actions should reflect that. Earth is our reliquary and each person’s life on it is a sacred object.
Humanitarian, actor, celebrity, and educator Oprah Winfrey once stated: “Living in the moment brings you a sense of reverence for all of life’s blessings.” How we live is a sign of our spirituality and what we worship. “Finding the sacred” in the everyday means looking inward and then living that sacred outwardly. The best way to find the sacred is to realize the reverence of life. “If”, spoke Albert Schweitzer, “a man loses his reverence for any part of life, he will lose his reverence for all of life.” The greatest reliquary is our planet and we are, truly, sacred objects.