words + photos by Rachel Dickinson
This summer while on a pilgrimage of sorts to Germany to see several Women’s World Cup soccer matches, I stumbled across something that kept me dipping into every cathedral in every town I visited. I discovered the appeal of the relic.
St. Kilian's reliquary holding his bones in a little side chapelI am not, and have never been, a devout anything. So it’s not like I was an active or even a lapsed Catholic who knew how to behave properly in a cathedral – who knew not to ooo and ahhh over the bones and bits of cloth displayed for the world to see. Instead, I was the overweight woman on the wrong side of fifty who had experienced the hellish spring. Everything you don’t want to have happen, happened to me in the spring. My mother died. My mother-in-law died. My kid went into the psych ward for a week. And, finally, menopause struck with a vengence leaving me red-faced and sweating profusely and not sleeping at night. In other words, I was the perfect vessel for any kind of religious enthusiasm that would take me out of my own head.
I caught my first glimpse of relics in Cologne cathedral. This over-sized Gothic structure with a façade too great to capture in my camera had a gold reliquary the size of a child’s toy chest encased in a plexi-glass box that sat behind the altar so the congregation could gaze upon its wonderfulness during a service. It held the bones and some clothing of the Three Magi, which were brought to Cologne from Milan in the 12th century by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa as part of the spoils of war. I stood and stared at the gold box and kept thinking about every image I had ever seen of the Three Kings – and I realized I didn’t know anything about what happened to them after showing up in the manger with gifts in hand – and then I felt dumbstruck. And I kept tripping over details like – did they die at the same time and that’s why their bones are together or did they wait for the last Magi to die and then they sealed up the box and in essence wrote, “This is It – The Three Kings” on the cover? I mean, how did anyone know these were the right bones?
John Calvin, not a big fan of Catholics nor of relics wrote, “How do we know that we are venerating the bone of a saint and not the bone of some thief, or of an ass, or of a dog, or of a horse? How do we know that we are venerating the ring and the comb of the Virgin Mary rather than the baubles of some harlot?” Harsh words. I don’t have a bone to pick with Catholics but I admit that I was thinking similar thoughts. But the fascination was there, maybe because relics are not commonplace in America and the idea that people would travel to a spot to see a particular relic because of the power it held was gripping.
I wasn’t going to Aachen so would miss out on Jesus’s loin cloth but I decided that I needed to specifically ask each guide about relics so I didn’t miss anything on my impromptu relic trail.
I saw seven skulls. A nail from the True Cross. A moldy-looking finger. And a reliquary holding a tongue. I kept wondering – but how do we know? – kept wondering – what’s real? – but I kept my mouth shut.
The nail was in a little chapel for silent worship in the cathedral in Bamburg and was embedded in a gold gem-encrusted reliquary encased within a glass box. I stared at it for a few minutes and wondered how many nails of the True Cross there were in the world. I asked my tour guide who said that any nail could be a nail of the True Cross if it had touched a nail that had touched a nail of the True Cross. “Kind of like six degrees of separation and Kevin Bacon,” I said. She looked puzzled.
St. Kilian's skull and his two traveling companions on display on the altar of the cathedralMy favorite stop was Wuerzburg Cathedral. I just happened to be there on St. Kilian’s Day. St. Kilian was a 7th century Irish monk who traveled to Bavaria with two companions and proceeded to tell the locals how to live their lives. This didn’t sit well when he told the prince that he shouldn’t be married to his late brother’s wife. The wife got furious and had Kilian and his two companions beheaded. Kilian was elevated to saint within a hundred years and the skulls of the three murdered men sit in the cathedral. On St. Kilian’s Day the jewel-encrusted skulls happened to be on the altar in a large plexiglass box. While I was gawking at them, a priest came down the center aisle with a group of about ten men and they all stood in front of the skulls and proceeded to sing what I assume was the St. Kilian’s song. And then they left.
I stood, stunned and wishing to god that I believed in something like that; that I was unabashed about worshipping or revering something. Then I realized that in some way I do seek out and revere relics. They just happen to be cliffs and tidal pools and arêtes – remnants or relics of natural processes. And once I thought of that, I didn’t feel like such an intruder in the cathedral. I felt like that in some way I could understand what was going on.
Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York where she writes for a variety of publications including the Atlantic, Audubon, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and Executive Traveler. Her latest book Falconer on the Edge: A Man, his Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin) is now a featured selection in the YourLifeIsATrip.com Trip Shop.
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