It’s amazing what you can find on eBay.
For a little more than $2,000, you can buy a small silver-plated case containing some hair of the Virgin Mary, a relic venerated by Catholic believers. Add a few hundred dollars, and you’ll get a wax-sealed reliquary carrying pieces of clothing worn by St. Peter and St. Paul, together with a yellowed record, handwritten in Latin, that supposedly attests to the relics’ authenticity.
A more significant investment, $16,750, will get you an austere multichambered reliquary with 50 of “the most important relics in Christendom,” including the remains of top-tier saints like St. John the Baptist and St. Benedict. But devotees on more of a budget can easily find scraps of the True Cross soaked in Jesus’ blood, ancient-looking nails containing iron filings of the nails used in the crucifixion, garments of martyrs, [and] skullcaps worn by popes.
Those are the promising opening paragraphs of a story in the New York Times about the booming market in religious relics. Italian author Mattia Ferraresi acknowledges that most of these eBay peddlers might as well try to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge:
The whole business smells of scam. “Final sale with no returns due to the Sacredness of this item,” one online vendor warns, implying a peculiar moral system in which selling sacred articles is totally fine, but returning them is somehow sacrilegious.
The phenomenon is partly fueled by thefts from church altars in a rapidly secularizing Europe — according to the Italian police, on average more than 300 relics have been stolen in the country every year since 2010, and the number of thefts has spiked in the last three years. Buyers from the Philippines and Brazil lead the rankings of relic-hungry countries, but they’re not the only ones.
While organized religions are shrinking, religiosity is in full force. … But this long-in-the-making trend [of secularization] coexists with the impressive rise of alternative forms of devotion — from Wicca and astrology to mindfulness and SoulCycle — in a staggering metaphysical quest for meaning through ever-adjusting combinations of ancient liturgies and postmodern rituals.
Maybe I’m misunderstanding Ferraresi, but why would he connect the popularity of SoulCycle and mindfulness exercises to the apparent trend of collecting Catholic relics? They may all be signs of people dabbling in the metaphysical, sure; but to shove every such thing into the rubric of faith or religiosity is to render those words practically meaningless.
The resurgent business of relics and items vested with some sacred significance is just a small trace of the contemporary craving for the transcendent. It’s a deranged need, which translates into a highly questionable practice, one that is actually particularly offensive for believers. Still, it needs to be considered for what it reveals about [our] religious impulses.
Does it, though? I’d love to see the numbers on that. The bookcase in my office is adorned with a 15-inch silver Buddha statue that, I assure you, is purely decorative. I had an early-20th-century Christian print on a wall of my previous home; I liked it for the gold-foil accents, the old-timey typography, and because it had belonged to my wife’s late grandmother — not because it brought me closer to the divine.
Sure, the relic business is driven in part by religiosity, I suppose, although neither buyers nor sellers seem to respect their faith enough to refrain from trading stolen or counterfeit “sacred” objects — so it remains to be seen how much of it is motivated by heartfelt veneration.
My guess is that plenty of buyers bid on relics thanks to the off-the-charts kitsch value of the items; or because St. Paul’s big toe is a pretty unique (if ghoulish) conversation piece.
Claiming that the trend is a “postmodern” manifestation of the search for life’s meaning… well, let’s just say it would take a good deal of faith — or some actual evidence — for me to accept the premise.
(Image via eBay)