One of my more prized possessions is a small chunk of limestone. It is about 8 inches long, roughly the size of two fists. Its value lies in the fact that is is a piece of one of the shattered sunstones of the original Nauvoo temple.
The only practical use for this piece of rock is as a not very effective book end. In and of itself it is not especially beautiful. One side of the stone contains carving that was once part of the stylized clouds from which the sun was rising. Nevertheless, there is something very powerful to me about having some embodied bit of the Mormon past sitting on my book shelf.
Now there may be nothing more than some insidious pack-rat gene at work here. As anyone who knows my extended family can attest, this is a disorder to which Omans seem to be particularlly prone. Still, I would like to think that there is something more at work here. The stone is only meaningful to me because of my place in the story that it recalls. I am at the far end of the line that traces back to saints building a temple on the banks of the Mississippi to recieve an endowment from on high. I am part of that particular epic. The stone recalls me to it. It rebukes me at times. It makes what is abstract real, even when I am not abstracting.
By and large, I think that most Mormons have inherited a protestant distaste for icons and reliquaries. We feel a kind of Lutheran discomfort with such “idolatry,” and have a moderns condescension for the pilgrims praying before some purported bit of the true cross. Still, there is something to be said for the embodiment of belief and memory. In a sense, this is a large part of what the temple is about. It is why, I think, the Church spends time and resources of acquring places and objects of historic significance. It is more than simply documentation, antiquarian fascination, or even ancestor worship. In my mind there is some affinity between the theology of an embodied God who errupts into history from time to time, and the ability of religious experience to transform certain bits of wood, stone, or dirt into sacred objects.
We need a better theology of relics.