Rag and Bone: A Jour­ney Among the World’s Holy Dead

  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
Believ­ing in relics is like believ­ing in G‑d Him­self: it takes a lot of faith to believe in some­thing you can’t be 100% cer­tain of. That a devo­tee would trav­el a great dis­tance, pay a hefty fee, and entrust prayers upon a tooth, bone, ash­es, or hair that can­not be proven as authen­tic, demon­strates that faith. For jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor, the­ol­o­gy stu­dent, and four-time author Peter Manseau, fol­low­ing relics was less about faith in the objects than curios­i­ty about the faith­ful, as chron­i­cled in his lat­est work, Rag and Bone: A Jour­ney Among the World’s Holy Dead. While simo­ny, or the buy­ing and sell­ing of reli­gious objects and offices, is for­bid­den in Chris­tian­i­ty, Manseau reveals a his­to­ry of rel­ic trad­ing under the guise of dona­tions” that is all at once sexy, dan­ger­ous, and quite lucra­tive. Sto­ries of devo­tees kiss­ing dead saints’ feet, only to bite off a toe in order to cre­ate their own saint’s toe-focused tourist des­ti­na­tion, are not uncom­mon.

But it’s not just Chris­tians mak­ing the big bucks. In one chap­ter, Manseau vis­its the Heart Shrine Rel­ic Tour, which charges devo­tees to look at relics that are said to have been found among the cre­ma­tion ash­es of Bud­dhist mas­ters. Prof­its from the tour will fund the con­struc­tion of a $200 mil­lion dol­lar Bud­dha stat­ue, twice as tall as the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty, to be built in India. Rag and Bone: A Jour­ney Among the World’s Holy Dead, reads like a travel-writer’s diary: Manseau treks around the world to see the relics, pro­vid­ing a pithy ver­sion of each bizarre object and offer­ing sweet anec­dotes of the care­givers and fol­low­ers. Even if a read­er has no inter­est in the rel­ic itself, one will be delight­ed by the jour­ney Manseau describes from almost burn­ing him­self on the hot coals he tucks into his jack­et for warmth while dis­cussing Mohammed’s chin hair with elders in Kash­mir, to play­ing chains” with stu­dents in Goa, India, who insist on call­ing their new USA friend Peter Park­er.” Thank­ful­ly absent from Manseau’s prose is a skep­ti­cal tone, which, for any oth­er writer, might be all too easy. After all, no com­mu­ni­ty, reli­gious or oth­er­wise, is with­out relics; Ted­dy Roo­sevelt was said to have worn a ring with an embed­ded piece of Lincoln’s hair in it. Even Jews, who don’t believe in relics, have a sto­ry in the Book of Kings, which recounts a corpse that touch­es the Prophet Elijah’s bones, and the deceased comes back to life. 

Ulti­mate­ly, for Manseau, the rea­son relics are worth fol­low­ing seems to be revealed in an inter­view with an Amer­i­can-born Russ­ian Ortho­dox nun, in Jerusalem. Sis­ter Cather­ine takes care of the remains of one Saint Eliz­a­beth and in describ­ing her under­stand­ing of the relics in her charge she says, We don’t pray to (her) bones; we pray to live the kind of lives those bones lived, and to die their kind of death.”
Mar­garet Teich is a free­lance envi­ron­men­tal writer and eco-con­sul­tant liv­ing in New York City. Check out her blog, Gspot​ting​.net.

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