Ten or twelve years ago, if you really needed to find me but I wasn’t answering my phone, you would have looked for me in the library. College was one of the happiest times in my life because it was my job as a student to amass knowledge. What’s funny is that sometimes I feel like I retained so little of it – adulthood does that to you – but there are still fragments that I recall. What I remember the most are the Middle Ages.
In my early 20’s I was in thrall to that period of history. It was real and mythological at the same time. I’d devour books about warfare and the art of courtly love in the same way that I would read novels. I’d save the densest passages of Le Morte D’Arthur for my weekend enjoyment, sitting under a tree in the park while yet another knight got his head lopped off.
Part of my fascination with the Middle Ages was that I viewed it as a time so unlike our own, a place where I could escape and muse at how lucky I was to live in modern times.
But I was mistaken. Our ancient relatives weren’t unlike us.
Take their veneration of religious relics. The tooth of Christ. A shard of bone from St. Peter. The hem of a garment worn by St. Paul. People would travel great distances at huge expense and peril just to view these (often phony) objects because having a physical interaction with them gave their faith – which itself was a huge component of their identities – a palpable component. These fragments helped the faithful make sense of their own place within the universe, and they give their personal spiritual narratives credence. Relics helped them fill in the gaps of their faith.
Relics made the faithful know they were part of something bigger. They had a history outside of the realm of what they could know.
Maybe I’m grasping at straws here, but when I think about relics, I am immediately reminded of the nature of my own first memories. They are shards themselves, and like a historian I have to look at them from my adult perspective and place them within the narrative of my life and figure out what they tell me about who I am. It’s not unlike archaeologists who, by examining one rogue fossil that was separated from the skeleton it belongs to, must determine what the rest of the skeleton would be like. On the modern study of medieval relics in Fragmentation and Redemption, medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum writes,
Historians, like the fishes of the sea, regurgitate fragments. Only supernatural power can reassemble fragments so completely that no particle is lost, or miraculously empower the part to be the whole.
The first thing I remember is my brother being born. I was about three and a half at the time, right at the age when your mind is truly capable of trapping and retaining events for the long haul. I don’t actually remember my brother as a newborn, even though I now anchor these memories in his birth. All I remember was getting a new Barbie doll and a bag of Skittles. The Barbie had on a white dress with a pink waistband and sleeves. My parents gave me those toys and told me they were from him. Sometimes I wonder if I remember the Barbie and the Skittles because my parents – whose memories were more concrete than mine at the time – always included the details of the Barbie and the Skittles in the story of Trevor’s birth, but I’m pretty sure they stuck in my own mind because I recall playing with them alone in the driveway of our house.
Barbies and Skittles aren’t much on their own. I’m sure I ate lots of candy as a little kid and I know I had tons of Barbies, but those specific objects from that time in my life have come to mean so much more to me. Their power is twofold. When I dig deep in the archives of my life, they are the oldest objects that I retained. If my history were a museum, the doll and the Skittles would be cordoned off with clear plexiglass or a nylon rope because of their rarity. But like relics, they are things that tie me to my bigger, longer narrative that I am still trying to put together. They indicate love; even though my parents told me they were gifts from my newborn brother, I know that they were really from my parents who wanted me to feel a part of our growing family. The addition of a new child to the family is always a little hard for the other kids, and they knew that. They wanted me to know that we were all in this together.
So, in a way, when I look at these objects and use them to curate my own story, I am venerating them just as a medieval pilgrim would have. We are all just looking for our histories and trying to find objects and ideas we can put our faith in.
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