Relics

October 12, 2004 | 17 comments
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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.

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17 Responses to Relics

  1. Levi on October 12, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    How many people feel like their scriptures are holy? Not just the words, but the leather, paper, and ink themselves. How many don’t place their scriptures on the floor? We seem to see these books as more than just books-as holy icons of a sort.

    Maybe that’s why I raised all kinds of eyebrows when I had my family home evening sister make a scripture cover out of Levis for my quad–a scripture cover that made you have to unbutton the fly of the 501s to get the scriptures out. So was it sanctimonious shock or venal envy that made someone steal that scripture case two weeks later?

    As for historic relics…I think you’re right…we may not have a strong theology of relics, but since we are much more historical in our religious claims, I think we are possibly more prone to seeing material objects as imbued with the sacred.

  2. danithew on October 12, 2004 at 4:09 pm

    My wife and I were reading Book of Mormon a few days ago and came across the scripture (I think it’s in Helaman, if I’m remembering correctly) that says men should bury their treasures up to God and not to themselves. It seems to me Nate that from a scriptural standpoint, with golden plates, brass plates, a sword of Laban, a breastplate of Laban, etc. that we have a strong scriptural basis for treasuring certain kinds of objects or relics that have played a role in significant historical/religious events.

  3. danithew on October 12, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    Let me just add that I’d love to get my hands on a real Assyrian sling stone.

  4. J. Stapley on October 12, 2004 at 5:55 pm

    Mormons in general express distaste and even disdain for the relic worship of others. I spent some time in Amiens, France where they have John the Baptist’s head (I think there are 8 or 9 of them through out Europe). The Missionaries have a hay-day castigating such things.

    Deep down inside, Mormons are just like our Catholic brethren. We want a piece of the history, and while we may not look to the finger bone of Saint peter for a miracle, we derive “Testimony Building� experiences from the tangible relics of our history.

    As a teen, I lived in Missouri. My parents were friends with some of the Missionaries up at Adam-ondi-Ahman and we had several dinners with them on sight. One of the most interesting memories was the missionaries’ stories of the “Nephite altar� that they had to regularly add stones to because the members took them. I think it wasn’t even the original one, just one for the tourists. This is very similar to Nate’s Temple stone (my brother has one too).

    The Mormon expectations for such relics are potentially short of the mystical; nonetheless, the expectations are for a spiritual effect. We can just assert better provenance for our relics.

  5. S. Taysom on October 12, 2004 at 7:26 pm

    I have a rock from the site of the Haun’s Mill massacre, where my great (etc) grandfather was killed. Like your temple stone it contains no mystical powers, nothing, in fact, but what I take to it. But I take a great deal.

  6. Bill on October 12, 2004 at 7:30 pm

    For people who “have inherited a protestant distaste for icons,” there sure was a huge crowd last Saturday morning for the raising of Moroni to the top of the Manhattan temple.

  7. Adam Greenwood on October 12, 2004 at 8:02 pm

    But that wasn’t an icon, that was just . . . oh, wait, I see your point.

    It’s interesting how our attitudes to the bodies of the dead parallel our attitudes to relics. Nate’s rock is just a rock, and a corpse is just food for worms, but it would be unthinkable for Nate to crush his rock for fun and unthinkable to throw dead bodies out to the trash or bake them for supper, and in God’s grace it will ever be so.

  8. Adam Greenwood on October 12, 2004 at 8:06 pm

    If I may:
    the advantage of Nate’s rock is that his own body can respond to it, can touch it, heft it, smell it, see it, and so forth. So if he crushed it, it wouldn’t be so much the rock’s connection to Mormon history that he would be denying, but his own connection. It’s not so much that the rock ‘embodies’ a moment in history, it’s that Nate’s body embodies Nate. I think crushing the rock would damage the latter.

  9. Rosalynde Welch on October 12, 2004 at 10:06 pm

    Nate, we have the same thing–a rock taken from the original Nauvoo temple, but ours has chiseled fluting from a pediment rather than from a sunstone.

  10. Jonathan Green on October 12, 2004 at 10:54 pm

    Nate, I agree that we have a culture but not a theology of relics, and, as J.Stapley points out, that there are parallels with medieval and Catholic traditions that we are too quick to mock. Not only do we expect a spiritual reward (in the form of spiritual experiences, strengthened testimonies, and the like) from “pilgrimages” to Palmyra or Nauvoo, but we have also institutionalized–enshrined–those places and events to a certain extent through pageants, youth-conference re-enactments, and commemoration in talks given by church leaders. What I think is interesting is the question of what places, events, and images are officially sanctioned and which are all but ignored.

    I’ve visited Nauvoo twice, and each time has been an inspiring and moving experience. The church, I think, is right to re-create a place where we can see and touch and smell our history. So it was striking, almost shocking, when I all but tripped over the graves of Joseph and Hyrum. I had never seen pictures of the gravesite before, I don’t recall ever hearing conference talks about them, the sites are not made in any way a prominent part of the Nauvoo experience. There are any number of practical and theological reasons for this, of course, and I don’t disagree with it. Still, the contrast between the enshrinement of other sites of Joseph Smith’s history, from Palmyra to Carthage Jail, is striking. This isn’t much of a contribution to a Mormon theology of relics, except perhaps to point out a few of the institutional parameters.

  11. Susan on October 12, 2004 at 11:36 pm

    Hmmm. Now I’m wondering about that sunstone. How big would the sunstone be if all the pieces were gathered together. Tell me more about your provenance, Nate.I can remember a wonderful period of my life (an actual job I was paid for) I spent driving around Utah looking for goodies for a folk art exhibit–talking to the older folks in all the towns, picking through pretty much every DUP museum in Utah. (It can be a real challenge to figure out how to get into one of those.) I was amazed at all of the hair of the prophet (and his brother) I found, how many stones from this or that, slivers of wood from the door in the Nauvoo jail, etc. . . . . Mormons are not entirely immune, I testify!

  12. Jeremy on October 13, 2004 at 12:19 am

    Does anyone else remember reading a short story a few years ago (in Dialogue maybe?) in which Mormonism is recast with contours of Catholic culture? As I recall, the story follows someone into a “Mormon Reliquary” in a tiny shop in downtown Salt Lake, where locks of hair from long-dead prophets and apostles, folklorically significant fixtures from the temple, and other Mormon relics are on display. I don’t remember much else, but I remember thinking it was a clever conflation.

  13. Rob Briggs on October 13, 2004 at 1:39 am

    Some years ago my brother & I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, down where the vishnu schist dwells. I carried around a small sample that, the geologists say, was between 1.5 & 1.7 billions years old. The thot of all those eons of time fascinates me.

    I think that’s probably my only relic.

  14. Nate Oman on October 13, 2004 at 7:56 am

    I think that the provenance of my rock is pretty good. It is a castaway from the church historical department, and I believe it was recovered from the archealogical digs conducted at the Nauvoo temple site back in the 1960s (1970s?). Also, I have compared the carving on my rock with the carving on the intact sunstone at the Smithsonian (the advantages of living in DC) and they look pretty similar.

    Stil, I agree that there is a great deal of…er…sloppiness in the relic trade and it is entirely possible that I simply own a bit of limestone.

  15. lyle on October 13, 2004 at 6:45 pm

    Nate, so you are suggesting a form of community property ownership/communal pack-ratedness?

  16. John Young on October 15, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    It is no surprise that we share a sensitivity to sacred objects with our medieval Catholic ancestors. After all, we perceive in the death masks of Joseph and Hyrum, the watch of John Taylor, etc. a powerful sense of sacred history. These things were “there” during some of the important “moments” we have revisited dozens of times in primary lessons, YM/YW expeditions, and general conference talks, among other venues. Many, myself included, consider it almost a duty to visit, at least once during a lifetime, the sites of our sacred history–all of which amounts to no much less than a full-blown pilgrimage akin to a Muslim’s voyage to Mecca, a medieval Christian’s journey to Santiago or Rome, or a modern Catholic’s trip to Lourdes, Fatima, or Notre Dame Stadium.

    We are, moreover, beholden to a prophet whose encyclopedic knowledge and keen attachment to Mormon history informs his judgment in fundamental ways. Case in point: he took everyone on a tour of his office during the last worldwide leadership broadcast, stopping to draw attention to his personal relic collection–his portrait of Brigham Young, his bronze statue of Joseph, his Christus made by Lladro, etc.

    Still, proposing to formulate some kind of theology of relics is potentially problematic; that is, it raises questions we have a difficult time answering. On the one hand, we may already have a self-evident yet simple relic theology–that these objects are a means to an end; that viewing them draws our minds to sacred events, which helps us feel the spirit, which brings us closer to Christ. But on the other hand, the questions: Do these objects have an inherent spiritual power; are they somehow saturated with the Holy Ghost, such that anyone with a pure heart who comes in contact with them may feel it? Should we use these as tools of conversion, both with our children and in the mission field? It seems there are no clear answers to these queries.

    Medieval Christians described their contact with relics (even bogus relics like the multiple heads of John the Baptist or the scores of vials of Mary’s breast milk) in much the same way many have described their experiences here–that these things helped them feel closer to God, either through intense spiritual feelings or through miracles. Since the light of Christ is given to every man, even those who lived during times of apostasy, did audible spiritual power inhere in these objects as well? At the very least, should we not acknowledge the relics of other faiths and eras for their role in developing the spirituality of so many of God’s children, recognizing all the while how very close we are to those we decry?

  17. Jim F on October 15, 2004 at 6:56 pm

    As self-serving as this is, I think I’ve said something philosophical/theological that is relevant to this thread in “Scripture as Incarnation” (in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University, 2001, 17-61) and also in a devotional address I gave (available at http://speeches.byu.edu/index.php?act=viewitem&id=774&tid= ).