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Tuesday, August 17 2004 19:00
A society page newspaper story last month told of a bride who, 11 months before her wedding, suffered almost fatal injuries from being hit by a passing van. During that agonizing time, she had to recover from two fractures of her skull and multiple complications in her internal organs. It often seemed that she would not wake from a coma induced by doctors to relieve pressure on her brain.

During this crisis, her family members, themselves Jewish, welcomed prayers from members of their own tradition and from other religions. The woman’s mother reached out to Muslims and Buddhists, among others. And, according to the newspaper account, “she even got a strand of Mother Teresa’s hair.”

This detail struck me for what it says about the human impulse to seek contact with people recognized as holy. This impulse transcends the divisions that separate us into different religions and spiritualities. In the hour of her daughter’s need, this woman reached out to a person famous for her personal holiness.

Did the bride’s mother believe that contact with Mother Teresa’s hair would make her daughter recover? This is probably the wrong question. Rather, in her love for her adult child, this woman reached out in all directions, hoping that some combination of medical science and spiritual power would lead to the happy outcome that actually took place.

I remember early in my religious life when the arm of the 16th century Jesuit Saint Francis Xavier was brought to our community for veneration. It struck me as bizarre in some ways that a human limb, preserved for hundreds of years after the saint’s death, would be displayed for public view. Nonetheless, it clearly stirred deeply spiritual feelings among those to whom it was presented.

Members of the religious community were invited to kiss the glass case in which the arm was preserved. Despite a certain reluctance, I joined others in this act of veneration for a saint who was held up as a model for us by reason of his missionary activities and his personal holiness.

My religious tradition, like that of some others, tends to be realistic about the human body. This tradition distrusts exclusive focus on the spirit to the neglect of the body to which it is intimately joined.

It recognizes the material part of being human and does not shrink from facing our pattern of flesh and blood. The longstanding custom among us of cherishing the relics of people recognized as close to God testifies to a faith that accepts body as well as soul.

Belief in the power of objects associated with saints can be abused. It is possible to substitute such relics for God, to worship mere things rather than the source of all creation. However, there is something profoundly moving in the instinct to associate ourselves and our loved ones with those we admire for their whole-hearted devotion to God.

Hidden in this impulse lies the recognition that we ourselves are not saints. We look up to fellow human beings who have resisted the many temptations to turn away from loving God and neighbor. They are people who have risen to the occasion, when engulfed in crisis, as we ourselves perhaps did not.

However, I believe that there are many saints among us who will never be recognized as such. No church will ever canonize them, nor will anyone call them blessed. Still, contact with them can benefit us, can have a healing influence on our lives. Whatever rubs off from people like this is all to our advantage.

That helps explain why we often treasure possessions left behind by friends who have died. Right now, I look forward to receiving a book or something else from the estate of a friend who recently passed on. He was holy, in my judgment, and I believe that being gifted by something he left behind will inspire my spiritual life.

This week some of his other friends and I will gather to share appreciations of him. Looking back over his life, we will recall how he served several different communities extraordinarily well. We will be meeting in his house, so relics of him will surround us, reminding us of our continued love for him.

Richard Griffin