This past week, I have been reflecting upon fond memories of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in light of her upcoming Canonization on September 4, 2016. Though I never met this future saint, there are moments in my priestly discernment which her writings and example played a profound role. In light of this spiritual connection, I eagerly looked forward to visiting the relics of Mother Teresa when they were on display at St. Paul’s Cathedral in St. Paul, Minnesota back in 2010.
To be upfront, after thirteen years of priesthood, I am far more skeptical about claims of sacred relics of the saints or the Cross of Christ than I was in my youth. Don’t get me wrong, I still affirm the importance of Sacramentals and objects of devotion. I have simply learned over time that I need to be cautious for reasons that are personal and pastoral, but share the same end: Protect myself and others who love God from having our faith exploited by a scam. In light of this skepticism, there is great relief when one can safely affirm that a relic is authentic.
Some struggle with this aspect of Catholicism and, truth be told, belief in an individual relic is not necessary for one’s salvation nor mandated by the Church. Rather, relics are a beautiful part of what I like to call the Church’s “attic spirituality,” displaying the pack-rat heart Catholic’s intuitively have from being part of a tradition that values our history and seeks to be inspired by those who have gone before us. Relics and holy objects are a part of our spirituality that allow for rare moment of a physical, tactile encounter with faith that isn’t always present when we seek to be in intimate union with God. (For those of you who might not know what relics are, here is a nice article from the Catholic Education Resource Center entitled, “Church Teaching on Relics” to give you some background.)
As I mentioned earlier, viewing the relics of Mother Teresa was a most memorable experience. Two reasons I am drawn to Mother Teresa was her service to the poorest of the poor and her deep spiritual conflict at the end of her life. Poverty and spiritual darkness are things priests face quite often in our parish ministry. In light of this connection, there was little hesitation to say “Yes” when my mother called one morning, asking if I would take her to St. Paul to visit these relics.
As we arrived, a steady flow of people came to look, venerate, and wonder at these authentic relics. The relics that got the most attention, interestingly, were her shoes. These tattered pieces of leather containing a tired appearance in themselves, looking like they could fall apart at any moment. It was almost as if you could see her life in the imprints of the soles of these sandals.
I admit that I was quite taken with these shoes. During the Mass of thanksgiving, they placed the sandals right next to the priests that were present. My chair happened to be right next to her shoes, creating a constant, holy distraction as I wanted to look down at the shoes instead of paying attention to the homily (yes, even priests get distracted sometimes during Mass). I found it interesting that sitting next to these sandals evoked a number of reflections. In particular, I recall one point of the Mass when I gazed up to behold the stunning architecture of St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I looked back at Blessed Teresa’s shoes, I couldn’t help but make the connection that these shoes carried the weight of a glorious “cathedral” in the person of Mother Teresa whose spiritual beauty would have dwarfed the magnificence of the structure I sat under. It was an experience that did what venerating relics is supposed to do: It inspired me to live my life of faith by wanting to imitate Christ by imitating Mother Teresa’s humility.
Humility of heart, sacred relics of sacred people, and awe and wonder. Identifying these three themes as the fruit of my experience of visiting Mother Teresa’s shoes also makes me think of why I so love astronomy. Looking into the night sky is like beholding sacred “relics” of God’s creation. Since gazing into the night sky shows us the universe as it was, not as it is, astronomy reminds me that many objects I view may have come to their end, but the remnant of their glorious past is still present to us in the light that displays their glory – kind of like a “celestial relic.”
Similar to Mother Teresa’s shoes, objects like nebulae display the end of a glorious existence, but this “relic” also points to new beginnings as the elements from these celestial deaths “seed” new life in other parts of our universe. Now, the recognition of Mother Teresa as a Saint points to a far more glorious impact upon our world than the creation of heavy elements in a star explosion. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that even nature has a way of presenting its own form of relics that allow us a glimpse into our past, our present, and inspires us to wonder about our future.
As we approach the Canonization of Mother Teresa, let us thank God for the gift she was to the Church and continues to be through her ongoing intercession. Let us give thanks for the wisdom of the Church to value those sacred object, those relics that allow us a connection with the lives of the saints and inspire us to become the people that God calls us to be. And may we also look to the heavens for a different kind of “relic” in the night sky. These relics may not play a central role in our salvation. However, they remind us that without their existence, we would not exist. And for this reason, we can thank God for providing us these sacred reminders of our sacred beginnings, inspiring us to embrace a saintly life. A life like Mother Teresa of Calcutta.