07 November 2015

Kissing the relics

Shrine of Blessed John Henry Newman

After the mass on the first Sunday of the month at the Birmingham Oratory, in the side chapel, the shrine of Blessed John Henry Newman, people gather to pray. John Henry Newman is the same Newman as Newman where I teach Stylistics: the fourth or fifth university in Birmingham, depending on how you count it. You can get into Newman with two Es, a guy tells me at a comedy night in Cradley Heath and I say, That's not exactly true.

I sat in the back of the shrine, though the woman I was with had gestured for me to sit next to her. One miracle has been attributed to Blessed John Henry Newman now: a crippled deacon in America prayed and was healed — he could walk again. The Catholic church verified this miracle with a team of investigators. Newman was beatified. He intercedes for the faithful: it is an empirical fact. In the shrine, people pray for a second miracle: they write the requests on papers that the priest reads out loud.

When I hear a Hail Mary prayed, I think of my Grandmother who died on the first floor of our house in America, north of Chicago, in the winter of 1999. I was just 16 then, and Grandma Tootsie came, the cancer growing through the months. We had Christmas in her room because she couldn't come downstairs to the tree and she was hollowed out by the cancer. I remember being angry when, after her death, the priest said that the rosary, the Hail Marys, had brought her comfort in the last days. I righteously thought, bullshit, we brought her comfort in her death. My mother bathing her. My father helping her up and down the stairs with the oxygen tank. Bullshit. 

Now, my own faith vetted, the Hail Mary is the prayer I most want to pray: I want Mary to pray for me in the hour of my death even though I don't or won't or can't believe that she will.

In the shrine, the priest raised his voice to say, with confidence in his heavenly intercession, we make the following petitions and read off the requests — for a man to come back to the sacraments, for a terminally ill someone, for another terminally ill someone, for a deformed baby, for peace, for the poor. I sat watching, seated, not kneeling like the others — for the recently passed mother, for the terminally ill brother, the chronically ill sister, for the unemployed son.

And then we stood to kiss the relics and I remembered suddenly the miracle. I was in the jungle, wasn't I, just two years ago today when the e-mail came that they would interview me for a job at a university I had never heard of named after a famous Catholic intellectual. I had given up at that point; I had resigned myself to a future of traffic jams and heat. Then an interview and that night an e-mail, Newman calling me out of my exile, back to the West. I remember wanting to cry: why did I want to cry. It wasn't ever that bad.

The man healed through his prayers to Newman, who could miraculously walk was struck down again after three years. The article in the Telegraph highlights this point, but that part of the story can and should be left out. What does it matter how it ends. Newman was buried in wood and moss, his body completely decomposed. We are making up a story about him anyway: say whatever you want and leave it at that.

I asked, Should I kiss the relic too? and she nodded. I stood and waited and put my lips on the gold. For his insight into the mysteries of the kingdom, his zealous defence of the teachings of the Church, and his priestly love for each of your children, we pray that he may soon be numbered among the Saints. Yes. I am not one of the children, am I. I am one who lights the candles and buys the cards with the pictures of the saints because I like candles and images and prayer cards. I like to look at the people who gaze into the void and can see something. Never mind what I cannot see.

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