Old things are, well, old. If they’re especially old (read “useless”) they become relegated to the status of “relic.” These days, what really matters is what’s new and therefore better or just whatever is “next.”
The obsession with everything new is a challenge for just about every religious tradition as those traditions seem to care mostly about what sits rather far back in the history slipstream. But what if “relic” might mean something more than just “old”?
Some ancient Christians took great care to preserve artifacts, bits and pieces, and other random traces of particularly revered people (“saints”) in their communities. Some of these relics are supposedly wonderfully preserved in the altars of various cathedrals and basilicas around the world.
Now that’s pretty peculiar. And quite honestly, I never really got why any of that vaguely superstitious stuff should have any part in Christian faith. But all of that changed on a trip to France some years ago, about which I was reminded last month when I read about one of my favorite tombs in one of my all-time favorite cemeteries: Pere Lechaise in Paris. The tomb in question is Oscar Wilde’s (and yes, he’s buried in Paris; I mean, of course he is – where else?).
If you’ve never visited the cemetery, you must. And if you’ve never seen Wilde’s tomb, it’s a wonder. An enormous winged angel based on Egyptian/Assyrian mythological creatures. But what was much more interesting to me were all the tiny little pieces of paper crammed into the nooks and crannies of the sculpture; the greasy stains left by thousands of handprints; the lipstick smears deposited by admiring kisses.
The little pieces of paper were notes. Most of them were variations on a single theme: thank you for your courage; you saved my life; bless you for making my life possible. (And yes, I had the audacity to pry out those notes and read them – but at least I put them back.)
I sat on the bench opposite that tomb on that first visit for quite some time. I was deeply moved by what I saw and felt. Some people were crying. Others told ribald jokes and had a good laugh. A few slipped still more paper in the cracks – and some did so quite surreptitiously.
Watching all this and thinking about Oscar’s plays, his essays, his biting wit, I suddenly had a sense of him as a real person. He really wasn’t just a wonderful literary fiction or some phantom from a Victorian past. Oscar Wilde was a flesh-and-blood human being just like me; in fact, he was lying ensconced in a tomb just five feet from where I sat. I was transfixed.
Wilde’s tomb helped me understand better why Christians, both ancient and contemporary, might care about relics. It’s important not only to see something but also to touch something, to caress it, to plant something of yourself in that “thing.” But it’s not just a “thing.” It’s some kind of highly-charged, vibrating thread that connects all of us, now, to all of them, then, and thus links all of us together in an unimaginable future.
So I wrote my own note on that visit to Pere Lachaise: “Oscar, you were insufferably arrogant. Thank you for giving me courage to be myself.” I slipped it in a crack near one of the wings. I cried a bit.
Would you like to do that some day? Alas, you cannot. Late last year, Oscar’s descendants decided to have his tomb cleaned and to erect a seven-foot glass barrier around it. No more touching. No more kissing. No more greasy hand stands or smeared lipstick. No more note-tucking, no matter how surreptitious.
How sad, and what a shame. To me, touching it mattered. Placing something of myself in it mattered. Watching others do the same mattered.
That moment was, for me, a moment of incarnational renewal. Physical stuff matters. Matter matters. And what a great reminder during this season after the Epiphany on the Christian calendar as we lurch our way towards Lent. God gets our attention best with the world of matter, with touchable things, with flesh – or with outlandishly carved stone.
Epiphanies are, by definition, new. But they can be prompted by old things, by relics – especially if you can touch them and kiss them.
3 thoughts on “Relics, Revelation, & Oscar Wilde”
Jay, thank you for this poignant post. – Ricardo
When I was young, relics (the real bits of holy dead people) used to freak me out. Now that I’m “old,” they don’t bother me. I wouldn’t accord them “power” as some do, but then again, who knows what’s in the realm of the possible?
About a year ago I read a blog ( https://oscarwildestrunk.wordpress.com/) about a trunk that may have once been possessed by my favorite writer Oscar Wilde. This was kind of mind blowing. I collect stuff from my favorites. I have a letter written by Poe, Whitman, Verne and of course Wilde. I also collect ‘relics’ like locks of hair (Poe), books from their personal library (Issac Newton and Charles Dickens). My collection is quite extensive and I enjoy each piece. I was fortunate enough to make some good money back in the day, I never married nor had any children, so my collection quickly became ‘my children’. I have traveled all over the world to buy or trade. Anyways, I digress, I live in California where the ‘Oscar Wilde Trunk’ resides. I contacted the blogger who wrote a plea to preserve this relic and got the contact information for the person who owns the trunk. I was given permission to examine the trunk for myself.
First off for those who were concerned about the status of the trunk. It is being kept at a college and is in a facility that is climate controlled. So that alleviated some of the concern about it’s preservation.
I was able to meet the owner of the trunk at the facility. He was gracious and patient with me and answered all my questions to the best of his abilities.
Well firstly I want to tell you that the trunk does not resonate with what we know about Wilde. It is wood with a a rawhide cover. The letters OW are emblazoned on the top. It looks like something that may have been used on a stagecoach sometime in the old wild west. Which got my imagination reeling.
People are sometimes surprised to learn that, as young man, Wilde, the poet, playwright and wit famous for his flamboyant and ultimately dramatic life in London and Paris, made two earlier visits to America.
This trunk just screams Oscar Wilde in America. And the owners story kinda corroborated this theory. The owner who wishes to stay anonymous, said that the trunk has been in his family since the 1930’s. He claimed that his great great uncle was in Paris in the 30’s and visited a makeshift museum that was created out of Wilde’s last address, a hotel room in Paris. When Wilde passed in his room the owner of the hotel offered Wilde’s ex wife the opportunity to pick up his belongings. This included books, clothes and a couple of trunks. Wilde’s wife refused the items and told the owner to keep or throw out the items. Instead the owner of the hotel opened his makeshift museum putting these items on display.
Around 1930 interest in Wilde was waning. The hotel owners wife and daughter decided to sell the contents of the room to a few of Wilde’s friends and patrons. This was around the time that the current trunk owners uncle arrived in Paris. He purchased the trunk for $200 and returned to the U.S.
A little research shows that Wilde was gifted many items while here in the America and they were really treasured by Wilde who loved the savagery and elegance of America It is my theory that the trunk was part of that history. I believe it was a treasure that Wilde carried with him through great times and brought back fond memories during his bad times.
As far as provenance well that is where it gets tricky. But my friend and fellow blogger has spent the last year in Paris researching the trunk. She interviewed people who were alive when the items were on display, she talked to the kin of the hotel owner, and looked over records of Wilde’s possessions at the time and has concluded without a doubt that this is the real thing. Currently she is writing her third book on Wilde with an emphasis on what happened to his personal relics. It is so sad, of all contemporary artist we have very little that belonged to this immortal man.