reliquary \ֽre-lə-ֽkwer-ē\ n. {Fr reliquaire, from ML reliquaiurium, from reliquia relic + Larium-ary—more at relic}: a casket, shrine, or container for keeping or exhibiting relics (remains, leavings, of a deceased person) 

—Webster’s Third New International Unabridged



The Prague Book

I have traveled to Europe at least forty times across a handful of decades, but I never had occasion to visit Prague, the great diamond of Bohemia with its “fairy tale” skyline, a city that centuries ago was planned to rival Paris and Rome. 

In 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York brought together a magnificent exhibit called Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347–1437, and I read ecstatic reviews of it in the New York Times. In 2011 the museum offered the hardcover catalogue of the exhibit at a wonderful sale price I could afford, and so I bought it. When I opened the package, I was stunned immediately by the portrait of St. Luke on the book’s cover, a reproduction of a painting by Master Theodoric in Holy Cross Chapel at Karlštejn Castle. St. Luke holds a sacred text which spills over onto the angled edge of the tooled golden frame, and he riveted me with his large, gray eyes. In fact he looked directly and inescapably at me. A cream-colored ox, apparently Luke’s traditional symbol, whispers benignly in his ear (perhaps telling Luke a few of my secrets). 

At the bottom of the frame is a rounded hole that puzzled me. The book says it is “a compartment for a relic,” so St. Luke’s finger bone or toe or perhaps a piece of his shinbone had originally been placed there. The painting had been a reliquary until someone made off with the relic. 

The arrival of the exhibit catalog was a significant recent moment in my life. It is a beautifully produced collection of remarkable paintings, illustrated books, alphabet designs, tombstones, sculptures, and sacred objects of all sorts . . . but I was most struck by its emphasis on reliquaries. 

For instance, an arm of gilded silver, studded with gems and semi-precious stones, rises from a beautifully crafted four-steepled church. The rising arm has a thin open grate through the metal up its inner length. This reliquary contains the arm bone of St. Vitus (290–303), the patron saint of the cathedral where it is deposited.

One reliquary bust made of gilded silver, cameos, intaglios, pearls, and rock crystal contains the arm of St. John the Baptist. John is an imposing, regal figure; over his shoulders is draped a cloak of gold that looks like a camel hair coat. Another bust, dated 1355, is quite strange: it shows an aesthetic, very thin, unidentified man wearing a jeweled crown; in his chest is a long, elaborate opening through which, even in the catalogue photograph, I can see some sort of bone capped at each end with gold. 

A striking copper repository bust might portray Count Matthew Csák, a lord of upper Hungary in the fourteenth century, but the book says it could also be St. Ladislas. In either event the top part of the reliquary head has been sawed off, so the potentially identifying attributes of either Csák or Ladislas are now gone. 

The Prague book is a wonder to me. I sometimes keep it propped up on a table in our library so that the eyes of St. Luke are on me when I am working.



The Splinters

Usually the cabinet in the sacristy of St. John the Baptist Church in Canton, Ohio, was kept locked, but it was open that morning almost seventy years ago when I caught a glimpse of the reliquary inside. When later I asked Eugene Aspell about the splinters displayed in the golden receptacle, he informed me in smug, reverential tones, “They are pieces of St. John the Baptist’s shinbone. Every church in the world that is named for St. John has some of these in its sacristy.” 

Aspell was head-altar-boy-in-charge, and his family’s house was a block away from the parish. It had a big cross next to its doorbell, there was a small holy water font just inside the door, and all the pictures on the walls were decorated with palm fronds. 

Mr. Aspell, Eugene’s father, who owned a large clothing shop, seemed to be permanent president of St. John’s Men’s Club, and Aspell’s mother was chief officer in that club’s feminine counterpart, the Women’s Sodality. Aspell was the smartest kid in our grade school, an ecclesiastical prodigy who, through his unquestionable piety, was even able to ward away the playground bullies, who gave him wide berth, committing their atrocities on me and other children in far corners of the yard. 

Aspell was even envisioned by some of his admirers to be a potential candidate for canonization. I sometimes suspected he was already scheming about the miracle he would be required to perform. When he prayed, Aspell did not bend down over his clasped hands like the rest of us, but spread his slender hands open like lilies at his sides as he raised his rapt face to the altar. This was impressive, I must admit—but still, I didn’t always believe everything Eugene Aspell said. 

I had heard school rumors about the fabulous gilded repository in the sacristy cabinet. I had but one peek at it; Aspell, in his sanctity, claimed to have seen it many times while he performed privileged tasks in the vestry. When I questioned him carefully about this, he assumed his religious “mystery” look and gazed at me with pity and forgiveness for my probing. 

Altar boys were not allowed to come into the vestry proper until the mass was beginning and the procession being formed. The one occasion when I was able to see the holy splinters, I was putting on my surplice in the altar boys’ cloak room when Mrs. Denke, the housekeeper in the priest residence, came hurrying through to bring a message to Monsignor Animus. On an impulse I followed behind her into the vestry because I was a nosy kid and wanted to have a look around. 

The room was crowded with priests, deacons, novitiates, acolytes, and assorted thurifers for a Palm Sunday solemn high mass; for a moment no one noticed me lurking behind Mrs. Denke’s considerable presence, so I managed to slip all the way into the room. The big ornate wall cabinet was open, probably because special objects were needed for the service, so I got a good look into it. 

The gilded reliquary was on the top shelf. What looked like splinters of some sort were displayed against white cotton or cloth pressed into a round piece of glass. Gold encircled the glass and radiated from the relic, the entirety resting on an elaborate base studded with green and blue jewels. 

Mass was to begin in five minutes, and Monsignor Animus was annoyed by Mrs. Denke’s interruption as he finished straightening his spangled chasuble. The monsignor always seemed to be irked by something. Then he noticed me standing behind her gawking, and his face suddenly turned the color of uncooked hamburger. 

“Zimmer! What are you doing in here?” he rasped. Monsignor Animus was gray, holy, ancient, and considerable. His glower was a ray gun. I knew if he wished he could forever damn me all the way to hell in an instant. Whenever he looked at me my urine grew warm and urgent. I had sneaked into sacred territory and was caught out, breathing heavily as the retinue of clergy and sub-clergy all turned to look at me. Eugene Aspell was in the room, preparing for the important job of bearing the bannered cross. He looked away from me. 

Finally I managed to respond: “I thought Mrs. Denke was motioning for me to follow her, Monsignor.” It was the best I could do, and the old priest found my response totally inadequate. He reached out with both hands and I winced, thinking he was going to shake me by my ears, but he grabbed my shoulders and squeezed hard, then turned me around abruptly and marched me in disgrace out of the vestry and back into the altar boys’ dressing area, where he turned me around so he could drill me with his ray. 

“I’d send you home right now, Zimmer, if we didn’t need you to fill out the procession service.” He shook his finger in my face before he hurried back into the sacristy to finish robing. “We’ll talk about this later,” he snapped over his shoulder. 

Lord, God! Could I admit to Monsignor Animus that I’d slipped into the room because I wanted to gawk at the splinters of St. John’s shin? Doubtless this was a major desecration, perhaps even a mortal sin, a violation of some privilege given only to priests and a few elderly nuns . . . and Eugene Aspell. Would I be struck blind? It was probably a mortal sin! In any event, I felt sure that it was damningly serious. Perhaps Jesus would forgive me—but never Monsignor Animus. 

Then, somehow, I was granted my own miracle. I spent weeks cringing and hiding at school, certain the fires of hell were about to be ignited around me. But my violation was never mentioned again. Apparently the incident slipped away into the deeper creases of Monsignor Animus’ ancient brain. Perhaps he just had bigger Friday fish to fry, or was just letting me stew in my own guilty juices. Or perhaps it didn’t really matter at all. 



My Pagan Place

When I was a kid I had my very own hallowed turf, an untended vacant lot just down the street from my family house on McGregor Avenue. Here I built hideaway huts of orange crates, stashing childhood objects and burying personal treasures such as dead bugs and spiders after placing them in tobacco tins. Here I conducted my private rites of youth.

I very much liked these times when I could be alone—as I like being alone now with these words and paper. With my Dad’s sickle I cleared small isolated patches in the high weeds, areas that were concealed and known only to me, some of them tucked up against the tan concrete garage building that ran beside the field all the way back to the alley behind. When I was on the outs with my playmates (which was not infrequently, because I was the only Catholic kid in the neighborhood) or feeling moody, I would go to my pagan place to hide, meditate on little boy things, and renew myself. I wasn’t wanking off or looking at dirty pictures, I was just being by myself. No one knew I was there, and I recognized early that this kind of aloneness is a rare thing in this world, and to be cherished if you desire it. 

One summer someone posted a FOR SALE sign on a wooden post at the street end of my sacred ground, and this violation disturbed me. The cheek of some adults! I decided to eliminate the threat. Late one warm morning when I was certain I was not being observed, I knocked the sign over with my father’s hatchet, took it back into the high weeds of the lot, and buried it under some loam and dirt that a colony of ants had turned up. 

Several weeks later another wooden sign appeared. I waited two days and, when I was certain the coast was clear, dispatched it in a similar way. One day a larger steel sign on a metal post had been hammered deep into the ground—a Nazi-like violation of my sacred ground. A sticker affixed to the reverse side of the sign stated, WARNING: REMOVAL OF THIS SIGN IS A VIOLATION OF THE LAW! 

Bullshit! What was the Law to someone who had already committed a mortal sin? This required even sturdier action. But how? One evening at dusk I tried to shake and dislodge the metal sign, but only succeeded in cutting one of my fingers open. 

Well, I thought, how much risk was I willing to take to protect my hallowed ground? This would require brave action beyond the law of land or church. I appropriated one of my father’s heavier screwdrivers and slipped down the street one evening just after sunset. But strain as I might with my twelve-year-old hands, the bolts kept turning on the other side of the steel post, and I could not remove the screws. 

I pondered my father’s toolbox some more and selected a crescent wrench and a larger screwdriver. One evening just at dusk I violated the civil law—as I had violated church law. With my bony hands aching, I finally managed to remove all the nuts and bolts just as my parents started calling for me in the early dark. I hustled the sign away and momentarily covered it with leaves, then ran home. 

My parents were angry with me for violating their curfew and wanted to know where I had been. I would not lie, but I would not tell them. It was my secret. I was grounded for a week—but protecting my place was worth the punishment. The offending sign was gone and I had triumphed. No one ever had the temerity to post another sign on my restricted, sacred patch again during my tenure. 



The Dog 

When I was seventy-five years old, our wonderful dog—our perfect dog—Sheba died at the age of seventeen. My grief overwhelmed me, memories rolled, and I staggered with sadness, crying like a chastened child. My wife Suzanne and I loved her too much, perhaps, and waited too long to have her put away. Sheba had done all she could do and was ready to fall over by the time we finally took her to the veterinarian. (I weep again as I write this.) The doctor was very kind to all of us and gave Sheba the fatal shot as Suzanne and I placed our hands on her. 

The vet said, finally, “Her heartbeat has stopped now.” We fell away from touching Sheba and reached to hold each other. The doctor waited until we had gathered ourselves again and asked, “How do you want me to dispose of her? You can have the body to bury, or we can take care of it here. We can also have her cremated and you can have the remains.” 

Neither of us had given this any thought. Burying Sheba in the fields she loved seemed the thing to do, but I had had a heart attack and surgery not long before and was in no shape to be swinging a pick or shoveling—which would have only prolonged our grief anyway. 

Both of us wish to be cremated ourselves when we die—so why not our beloved dog? “It will be $200,” the veterinarian said. In our sadness we would have given $2,000. 

A few days later an office assistant called and said Sheba’s cremated remains were ready for us to pick up. I don’t know what we expected, but the ashes were not in a sack or a paper box; they were in a wine-colored vessel, not much bigger than a large soup can—a fancy enameled cylinder decorated with golden interwoven curlicues. The vessel was not sealed—apparently in case we wanted to scatter Sheba’s ashes. I opened it. Yes, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But Sheba’s ashes did not smell of death. 

I closed the can again and for a while put it on a bookshelf over my desk in the library. For weeks, each time I looked up and saw it, I would have a small meltdown. Still, Suzanne and I did not feel we wanted to scatter Sheba’s ashes, preferring to keep them in one place. 

We decided to bury the can of ashes in our yard. I got a spade from the barn and managed to dig a small hole between two trees. I found a large flat stone and asked our daughter, who does sculpture and happened to be visiting, to chisel an “S” on it. I placed the can of Sheba’s ashes in the hole, filled it in, and dragged the flat rock over it. 

The rock is still there. After first writing this passage I left my desk to walk out into light flurries to look at Sheba’s reliquary. I brushed the snow off so I could see the S

In summer when I run the John Deere mower around our yard, I have to fiddle my way around the stone between the two trees, but I always do this happily. Sometimes I scatter grass clippings across the stone with the mower. I always look down and think of Sheba, sometimes saying hello to her aloud, and this gives me strange comfort. 



Familia de Delcausse

Some years ago, traveling with my family in rural France, we stopped in a lovely small town built across some hills. We took a walk, looking for grand houses, monuments, or churches, trying to take in the aura of the place. Turning a corner that gave onto an open market area, we saw a small domed temple in the midst of a centuries-old graveyard on a rise above the square, and we ambled up the hill to inspect it. 

France has many such cemeteries; the weathered gravestones heaved this way and that around a large, memorial temple with a rusted gate of iron bars across the entrance. We peered into the shadowed recesses at a niche where a statue of the Virgin Mary sublimely gazed down at the infant Christ in her lap. She was surrounded by dusty mourning wreaths and by cloth flowers arranged in porcelain vases. Two huge candlesticks, now encrusted with pools of cracked wax, had been placed on each side of the virgin. 

A heavy padlock was clamped to a hasp on the bars across the entrance. Someone had placed two pots of begonias, wilted long since, on the steps leading up to the barred entryway. A bronze plaque over the arched threshold was ornately inscribed, FAMILIA DE DELCAUSSE, 1816.

Napoleon’s wars had finally ended in 1815. Perhaps this monument signified a renewal of religious fervor in France. Were Delcausse family members buried beneath the shrine, or was this just a pretentious display of wealth and devotion? The place held latent forces—there seemed to be remote spirits in the shadows, an ancient perspective which eluded my grasp, and yet somehow I sensed its significance.

Looking into this dim space I could make out a tarnished bronze urn with a curved glass plate embedded in its side, through which I could barely see a gray/brown object. I took off my bifocals and put them back on. Perhaps it was some family keepsake, a piece of jewelry or consecrated object. I shivered when I realized I was looking at a bone in the urn. I felt sure of this—perhaps it was a bone of the Pater Familias Delcausse, or some saintly family member. 



St. Augustine

Many years ago, when I was twenty, I met a young man several years older who remained my good friend until he died a few years ago. He was a man who had studied religion a long while and came within a year of being ordained a Catholic priest. He left the seminary for intellectual and personal reasons, but retained his religiosity into his early middle age—when he lost it somewhere in the mire of the Korea/Nixon/Kennedy assassination/Vietnam/Johnson/pill era. 

I am not in the slightest sense a practitioner or scholar of religion; when I met my friend I had already begun drifting away from Roman Catholicism, already doubting many of the beliefs that are required of the faithful. My friend, who wanted me to make a balanced decision about religion, hovered nervously about and gave me books to read: a copy of the New Testament, The Imitation of Christ, The Diary of a Country Priest, The Seven Storey Mountain, the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and The Confessions of St. Augustine. With some difficulty I lurched through the latter two. The Augustine confessions particularly mystified my fidgety twenty-year-old psyche, and ultimately I abandoned my reading. 

Continuing to wonder, as I always have, about the origins of the curious human inclination to hang on to the corporeal parts of the saintly dead, I was directed back to Augustine’s Confessions through an interesting new book by Andrea Nightingale, Once out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body (University of Chicago Press, 2011). A review of it sent me back to my now-yellowing, sixty-year-old copy of The Confessions in an attempt to trace some history of the reliquian custom. 

Much of Augustine’s book remains opaque to me, but Nightingale in her book about him says that Augustine, “By a daring feat of imaginative inversion, applied to the relics of Saint Stephen in Hippo . . . insisted that ‘the region of the living’ was to be found where one would least expect it—‘in the dust of the dead.’ ”

In Confessions Augustine wrote: 

. . . my mind gave over to question thereupon with my spirit, it being filled with the images of formed bodies, and changing and varying them, as it willed; and I bent myself to the bodies themselves, and looked more deeply into their changeableness, by which they cease to be what they have been, and begin to be what they were not; and this same shifting from form to form, I suspected to be through a certain formless state, not through a mere nothing; yet this I longed to know, not to suspect only.

He then goes on to address God: “Thou wert, and nothing was there besides, out of which Thou createdst heaven and earth; things of two sorts; one near Thee, the other near to nothing; one to which Thou alone shouldest be superior; the other, to which nothing should be inferior.”

I lack a scholar’s rigor or the ability to fully comprehend Augustine’s meaning in “to which nothing should be inferior,” but I believe that a basic key to the reliquian tradition is in this last phrase, in which he “bends himself to the bodies themselves” as they “begin to be what they were not, a formless state to which nothing would be inferior.” 



Morose Inclinations

Not only saints’ particulars are venerated in reliquaries. Several years ago a reliquary was purchased by a collector at an auction in Florence. In it were a right thumb, a finger, and a tooth preserved in a slender case created of wood and glass and topped with a carved bust. When the new owner consulted with scholars about his recent acquisition, the contents were authenticated as being the remains of Galileo Galilei. They had been taken, along with another finger and vertebrae, during his reburial in 1737, almost one hundred years after his death, by some Florentines who wished to remember the great scientist as a counter-saint, a martyr for the cause of science. 

The creation of reliquaries and the collecting and preservation of human remains represent a sort of morose inclination which has extended through the world to this day, not always for worshipful purposes: Egyptian mummies, shrunken heads, two-headed babies preserved in formaldehyde by circuses, scalps taken in the “Indian wars,” the body of Ted Williams preserved in liquid nitrogen at minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit, trophy body parts taken by soldiers as souvenirs in wars, Lenin’s tomb, the preserved bodies of popes, Einstein’s brain—we remain strangely fascinated. 



The Turtle

My parents never allowed me to have a dog or cat, resisting my most inspired supplications. This deprivation was mostly my mother’s doing because she’ d been raised in country places and remembered how dogs dragged mud and filth onto the rugs of a cleaned house. 

But once, to my great excitement, I convinced her to allow me a small dime-store turtle, which I kept one summer on our shaded back porch in a wooden box stuffed with grass clippings. His name was Murgatroyd and he had a rough American flag decal on his shell. (This was in 1945.) I swatted flies and plucked ants and beetles for Murgatroyd all summer, and I gave him dried turtle food and water in jar lids. 

I tried to play with my pet, tried to get him to grip a twig with his mouth or chase a BB, but he was never interested and remained coldly indifferent. I couldn’t tickle him, and if I tried to pet him he pulled his head into his shell. He had no ears, so it did not seem sensible to sing songs to him, as I would have to a cat or dog.

I’d place him in the palm of my hand, hold him close to my face, and look at him for a brief while each day, believing he looked back at me, but he never blinked acknowledgment nor made movement enough to acknowledge my presence. 

Murgatroyd ate very little, despite my best efforts to keep him fed—and one day, after several months, he did not move anymore. The only pet I’d ever had—dead in a very short time. I purloined one of my mother’s canning jars, stuffed it with cotton from my Boy Scout first aid kit, slipped in Murgatroyd’s corpse, and screwed down the lid, then bore him down the street to my sacrosanct lot. With my mother’s garden trowel, I buried him between two trees-of-heaven in a very secret place beside the old cement garage. I piled some special rocks over his burial place, one of which I had chiseled a rough M on, and I said some sacred turtle words over the little reliquary. 

I went on to other things that summer: pea-shooter fights, Monopoly, Cleveland Indians radio broadcasts, jungle comics, Ouija boards, endless baseball catch with my mates. Then early autumn came, and I had to face the ordeal of school again. 

Not until the following spring, when the vacant lot was greening up, did I put my secret hideaway in order again and visit the place of Murgatroyd’s interment. Solemnly I unpiled the stones on his grave and dug up his reliquary. It was somewhat dimmed by its year in the ground, but I cleaned it off so I could see the turtle’s body, which seemed to have collapsed a bit and turned a darker green. I studied the corpse through the glass and—of course—finally could not resist the impulse to unscrew the lid. That was my first smell of death, and I fell back. How malodorously we all die! Somehow I got the lid screwed back on, and without further study or ceremony reburied the jar and piled the rocks back on top. 

I did return the following summer when I was fourteen, my last year as an altar boy, and the last in my sacred field. I dug up Murgatroyd’s reliquary and looked in through the grungy glass at his remains, reduced considerably now to a small black husk. I did not unscrew the reliquary lid again, but carefully reburied it and replaced the marker stones. 

More than six decades have passed. A few years ago I was invited to give a reading of my poetry at one of the colleges in my hometown. My parents are long gone, but I took the time to drive through our old neighborhood in Canton, past our house, which looked reasonably well tended. But, down the street, a rather large house stood on the lot of my sacred ground next to the seemingly indestructible cement garage. I paused my car to look along the garage wall toward the place of Murgatroyd’s burial. 

No, I did not presume to knock on the house door and ask the owner if I might look for my turtle’s reliquary. I am a strange-looking, bent, hoary old man now. Looking for a dead turtle’s grave? They would probably have called the police.

But as I gazed down the garage wall I fancied the jar might still be there—being close enough to the old concrete to have survived the bulldozing when the house was built—and I felt certain that there might still be a bit of Murgatroyd in that durable canning jar, even after all this time—something not sacred and superior, but “to which nothing should be inferior.”


Paul Zimmer lives on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin. In the fifteen years since his retirement from a long career in university publishing, he has published two books each of poetry and essay-memoir. His first novel, The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove, is forthcoming from Permanent Press in early 2015, when he will be eighty years old—which surely makes him, he believes, one of the oldest first novelists ever.