I think sometimes our consolations are the costliest thing —Louise Glück, “Relic”
The woman lies behind glass, head lolling on two royal purple pillows, blood oozing artfully from a single gash on her neck. She seems to be swooning: Her skin is sallow and waxy as an old candle stub and, through her half-closed lids, you can glimpse the whites of her eyes. Artificial roses—petals stiff, leaves dusty—bloom around her head. And in the space below the glass, a small golden plaque reads “CORPUS S. VICTORAUM.” The body of Saint Victoria.
I’m crouching before an altar in the Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome, the shadowy hush of the place broken by the click and flash of tourists taking pictures behind me. They’re photographing the famous Bernini sculpture set in the opposite wall, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa . It depicts the young female saint reclining before an angel, a winged boy who—his face lit by an almost indecently cheerful smile—is about to plunge a spear through her breast. But Teresa isn’t afraid. She seems lost in some kind of otherworldly bliss, her eyes half-lidded and her mouth fallen open with pleasure. I’m not the first to find it a startlingly erotic scene: My guidebook tells me that one eighteenth-century viewer observed, “If this is divine love, I know it well.”
The tourists aren’t as interested in Saint Victoria, who is tucked away discreetly in a glass-fronted alcove beneath a small altar. But once I catch sight of her, I can’t look away. For a second I wonder if she’s a corpse (somehow perfectly preserved?), but, as I press closer to the glass, I see that her body is all waxwork—a replica of the real thing. There’s no biographical information on the plaque, no pamphlets for the taking, so I won’t learn until later that—despite her curly blonde ringlets and pre-Raphaelite face—Victoria is supposed to have been a Roman virgin martyred in c. 250 AD.
But I do catch one hint of her true age, that morning in the church. When I peer more carefully at the saint’s pink lips—softly parted, like Teresa’s—I glimpse something else. Something much older than the smooth surface of her cheeks: crusty bits of broken teeth, as jagged as any jack-o’-lantern’s grin. I pull away from the glass, from those tiny yellow teeth, and the hair on the back of my neck and arms begins to prickle. Underneath all of that beautifully sculpted wax waits an ancient skull.
photo by B. Pietras
I first learned about saints’ relics more than ten years before visiting Rome, during my sophomore year at an all-male Catholic high school named for St. Francis of Assisi. I know it happened then, because that was the year I began to amass a shrine. I kept it in a drawer under my bed, where I hid everything I owned that was secret or sacred or both.
It seemed innocuous enough at first glance, this shrine: just a fat packet of papers, all of them folded up tight, rubber-banded together until they could fit in the palm of your hand. Some of the pages looked a little raggedy at the edges—torn out of spiral-bound notebooks, messy handwriting looping out into the margins—while others were crisp and clean. Some were unlined paper, some blue-lined, some graph. But the one thing that these scraps all had in common—the thing that made them precious—was that, at one time or another, they had all been touched by a boy named R.
He used a page from his daily planner to scribble down notes from our Religion class. (The paper is white and blue, with an orange Nike swoosh logo.) In the space allotted to Monday, January 15, 2001, R. wrote:
The Blessed Mother Mary
What did we learn about relics, R. and I, the year that we were fifteen? Probably only the barest facts: that they were the physical remnants of the holy saints. That belief in them was part of what made us Catholic, as was the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in the holiness of the Virgin Mary.
But the history of relics runs deeper than that. It’s a history of remembering and forgetting; of protection and destruction; of loss and consolation. Most of all, though, it’s a history of desire, a history of longing.
“Touch me and see,” the resurrected Jesus tells his incredulous Apostles in The Gospel of Luke, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” It makes a certain kind of sense, then, that early Christians began to revere the bodies of their most holy men and women, particularly those who had died for the strange new faith. And once the Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians in the early fourth century, they began to display the remnants of these martyrs in the altars of their newly-built basilicas. Entire bodies, however, could be difficult to come by; the saints’ remains more often existed only in fragments, in bits of hair and skin and bone.
Relics mattered, in part, because they performed miracles—especially those of healing. The thirteenth-century Life of Saint Katherine tells the reader that after the saint was martyred in Alexandria, “there issued out of her body milk instead of blood,” and, from her bones, “oil … which healeth all maladies and sicknesses.” But relics mattered, too, because they promised direct contact with the sacred. Throughout the Middle Ages, the most valuable relics were ones said to be from the life of Christ: pieces of the True Cross, his Crown of Thorns, or the spear that pierced his side. Touch me , Jesus told his followers—and, through his relics, they could.
I don’t learn about these things during my freshman year at Saint Francis. Instead, I discover what it feels like to have fear suffuse your body, leaving you brittle and tongueless. I keep my eyes lowered, my mouth shut; even my breathing is measured. I am waiting to get caught. But maybe that’s also why I start to focus on R. He joins our class late—transferring in from public school in October—but he has no trouble making friends. R. is cheerful, outspoken, charismatic: everything I’m not. Most of all, he is not afraid. He is not afraid to walk down the halls alone; he is not afraid to talk to other boys; he is not afraid that the wrong look, the wrong gesture, the wrong smile or laugh or involuntary twitch will betray him. Unlike me, he has nothing to hide. On some deep level—one I am only slowly learning to recognize in myself—this absence of fear tells me that he isn’t gay; it is also, in time, what makes me love him.
We start talking during an after-school math review class. I don’t know when my feelings for R. begin to be more than friendly. I don’t know the moment when his smile transforms, going from a benign expression to something that makes my throat constrict, as though someone just tugged fast and hard on the tie knotted around my neck. I don’t know when I begin to memorize his face, noticing how his two front teeth turn in ever so slightly, and the full softness of his bottom lip.
I memorize, too, the facts of his life—store up every detail in my mind. His father is Sicilian, his mother Lebanese; he has three younger brothers, all with the same thick black hair; he likes to think up ideas for music videos and is fascinated by time travel. He has very brown eyes, but sometimes he wears green contacts (early on he tries to convince me they are really that color, and I almost believe him). In eighth grade—the year before this one—he had a crush on a girl in his class. Somehow he learned that she wanted a certain pair of expensive jeans from the mall, and he sold his camcorder so he could buy them for her.
As my feelings for R. grow, I find excuses to touch him, to mark him as my own. In the library after school, he lets me draw temporary tattoos on his arms in black ink, my fingers holding tight to the cheap, clear plastic of the pen, the bottom of my palm pressed against his skin—lightly, as though by accident. At moments like this, sitting right by his side, I can hear the heavy fall of his breath, see the dark curve of his eyelashes, the hint of stubble on his jaw. He grins at me—close, conspiratorial—and it’s like light passing through a stained glass window in our chapel, catching the face of a saint.
Something else we never learned in school: The Catholic Church recognizes three separate categories of relics. A first class relic consists of the body of a saint, or parts of it. Second class relics are slightly more removed; they may be clothing worn by the saint, or one of the saint’s frequently used belongings. Finally, a third class relic is any item that’s been touched to a first class one. It all comes down to closeness, then. A relic is holy insofar as it has been touched by (or is part of) the saint’s body, and the saint’s body is holy insofar as it’s been touched by God: Think of The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa , of the smiling angel about to pierce her heart.
It’s ironic, then, that relics are so often untouchable, kept by churches and basilicas in special protective containers known as reliquaries. Often these vessels are made out of gold and encrusted with gems, but not always: the waxwork body of Saint Victoria is a kind of reliquary, a structure made to house—and guard—her ancient bones.
Sometime during our sophomore year, I tell R. I am assembling a file on him. I frame it as a joke, some funny quirk for us to laugh about. It’s a useful story, because it gives me an excuse to be obsessed with him. According to this narrative, I am not a lovesick teenage boy but something like a government official, collecting every available scrap of information on him, hoarding the detritus of his life for some urgent but never-specified purpose.
R. responds well to the idea of the File—surprisingly well. He tears out the old pages of his daily planner, now filled with crossed-out assignments, and hands them over, along with unneeded paperwork and outdated notes to self. I accept every scrap of paper eagerly, gratefully; nothing is too mundane to be saved.
Once, he gives me a design for something he calls “A Flotation Device.” Done on graph paper, it shows a man hovering above a square field, arms and legs outstretched, his shirt and pants covered in dashes: A note explains that he’s wearing a “negative charged suit.” The square beneath him has plus signs on it, and says, “positive charge.” In chemistry class that year, we learned about ions—atoms or molecules with either a positive or negative electrical charge, charges that make the ions attract or repel one another. R. reasoned that, if you could correctly harness the push and pull of these ions, you could make yourself float: be suspended in mid-air, untouched and untouchable.
I don’t figure out until later that this flotation device, even if it could be constructed, wouldn’t work. Wearing a negatively charged suit wouldn’t hold you at a distance from a positively charged field—it would only pull you closer. If you wanted to float (to be repelled, repulsed, lifted into the thin air), you would need ions with the same charge: positive-positive, or negative-negative.
But at the time I’m not concerned with science. The three photos that R. gives me for the File take up my attention instead.
The first shows him kneeling outside on the grass in a blue and white football jersey, yellow helmet on the ground and football cradled under one arm. His eyes are narrowed, his expression cold: He’s giving the camera the fuck you stare favored by so many sullen boys at Saint Francis, a look so different from his normal, sunny smile that it sends a thrill through fifteen-year-old me. (Is it fear or desire I feel in that moment? A mixture of both, maybe.)
The second photo more closely resembles the R. that I know, although here again, things seem a little off: He wears a sleeveless shirt for track practice, and his lips are slightly open. He seems hesitant, a little unsteady, his hands hidden behind his back. I spend a lot of time looking at his arms—remembering the feel of them, the glide of the ink across his skin.
The final photo is in some ways both the most and least familiar. It’s his class picture from kindergarten, brought in for a presentation in Spanish class and later bestowed on me. R.’s mother dressed him in a black and white checkered suit coat, and his features are delicate and tiny, but his smile hasn’t changed—it’s that same grin, the one that lights up his whole face.
And there’s something else I add to the R. File, something even stranger and more embarrassing than old notes and photos. R. had long, dark eyelashes, and they sometimes fell onto his cheeks during the school day. I would ask for them, laughing—“More for the R. File!”—and, unbelievably, he would give them to me. But the joking stopped once I was back at my desk. There, with the eyelash pinched between my pointer finger and sweaty thumb, I waited and waited for the class to be over. And as soon as the bell rang, I drifted past the teacher’s desk, snagged a piece of tape, and carefully encased my prize in cellophane—already imagining tucking it away into my shrine, where it would always be safe.
In the sixteenth century, people began to destroy relics.
One of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation, the French theologian John Calvin, published a fiery Treatise on Relics in 1543 that denounces their veneration, which he sees as a form of superstitious idolatry likely encouraged by the Devil himself. Rather than seeking to imitate Christ and the saints, Calvin grumbles, people now focus all of their energies on the “preservation and admiration of [saints’] bones, shirts, sashes, caps, and other similar trash.” He alleges, moreover, that often what passes for holy relics is, upon closer examination, nothing of the sort: The arm of Saint Anthony kept in Geneva, he announces, was found to be the bone of a stag, while the brain of Saint Peter “proved to be a piece of pumice-stone.”
For Calvin and other Protestant reformers, relics were an infuriating oxymoron: “precious rubbish.” And as the Reformation spread, many relics—along with religious statues, images, and shrines—faced the fire. In newly Protestant countries, paintings of saints were whitewashed over or scratched out, wall hangings torn down, and stained glass windows smashed. In England, the dissolution of saints’ shrines and their relics began under Henry VIII, and intensified under Henry’s more reform-minded son, Edward VI. An injunction issued in 1547 demanded that the clergy and lay folk “take away, utterly extinct and destroy all shrines, coverings of shrines, all . . . pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry and superstition; so there remain no memory of the same.”
Relics made a brief reappearance in the country during the reign of the Catholic Mary I, who famously torched Protestants instead of paintings and reliquaries. But after her Protestant sister Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, religious statues, images, and relics were once more suppressed—this time for good. As a sixteenth-century chronicle of London notes, in the year 1559, “all ancient Church relics and new made Images in Queen Mary’s reign, were beaten down and burned in the open streets.”
R. transferred out of Saint Francis early in our junior year. I don’t think we were talking at the time. Sick with love, with a wanting that could go nowhere, I became jealous and possessive. At times I tried to punish him by not speaking to him. It was a poor strategy: he had plenty of other friends, and I had none. My one other close friend—and the only other person whom I knew to be gay at Saint Francis—stopped talking to me during these months because, he said, I was “too obsessed” with R.
I never told R. how I felt, although near the end he seemed to realize something was going on. Once, when we were chatting on AIM, he wrote, “sometimes you talk like you’re in love with me.” He followed this with an emoticon composed of a colon and an X: a nauseated, repulsed face.
We started talking again, briefly, in the fall of my senior year, and eventually he came to see me after school. During the visit, R. showed me photos that he and his brother had recently taken of themselves at a hotel pool—they had walked right in, pretending to be guests. All of the images were small and square and dense with color, products of a disposable camera.
“Here,” he said. “You can keep this one.”
And he gave me a photo of himself standing by the pool, shirtless, his skin warm and smooth and unmarked. As I held the picture in my hand, a blush already spreading across my face, R. suddenly asked, “Do your parents know?”
He didn’t specify what it was that they might know about me; he didn’t need to.
“No,” I said, too surprised to pretend not to know what he meant.
He left not long after—still friendly, still smiling.
For a while I kept the new photo in the drawer with the other pieces of the R. File. Eventually, though, I tore it to pieces and threw it away. Maybe I destroyed it because I knew that it was unhealthy for me to keep around, to keep fawning over. Maybe. Or maybe I destroyed it because it didn’t fit into the story I’d been telling myself about a shrine and two boys: one of them beautiful and oblivious, the other sad and lonely and knowing.
Maybe I destroyed it because, by then, desire for me was not something to be returned or acknowledged, even in the smallest of ways. No. Desire hummed in your bones, radiating out from you like an electrical charge. And when all this wanting met its source, it didn’t pull you closer to the one you loved—it pushed you back, pushed you away, repelling you until at last you were floating, skin and bones and hair all humming, untouched and untouchable.
Today, hundreds of years after the Reformation, relics can easily be seen as quaint if not bizarre pieces of a medieval past—and indeed, the word “relics” can be used to refer to history instead of religion, to whatever curiosities survive from times long ago. (This was true even in Shakespeare’s day: In Twelfth Night , one character asks another, “What’s to do? Shall we go see the reliques of this Towne?”) Since the nineteenth century, moreover, the word “relic” has acquired humorous connotations, suggesting something—or someone—that is old and outmoded, archaic, useless. The Oxford English Dictionary ’s entry on “relic” cites a book from 1904 that exclaims, “A dear old early Victorian governess, left over from the last century; a relic, like elastic-sided boots and side curls!”
Once a marker of the sacred or the precious, a relic is now more often something by turns hilarious and embarrassing. A piece of the past that refuses to gracefully disappear.
I graduated from Saint Francis more than a decade ago. I am not supposed to care about what happened there anymore, about the boys I loved and feared, but I do. And the internet conspires with me in this—in my stubborn, shameful holding on—in ways I could never have imagined at fifteen.
In those days, a role-playing game sat under my bed, just beneath the R. File. It described a spell that, once cast, let the character you played see any person they wanted, anywhere in the world. That seemed a great and useful magic to me at the time. When I looked into my bedroom mirror at night, I didn’t see R., only the face of a scared boy, his skin pale as candle wax. I couldn’t see the glitter of anger in his eyes, or the wanting so fierce it was almost ugly, although I could feel them both in my gut.
Now, though, the internet can make any monitor into a magic mirror. I look into the glass, and in a few keystrokes I can see R. again. I can see that he is still beautiful, that his smile has not dimmed. And I can see that he is married, to a girl with big, dark eyes and honey blonde hair. Not that pretty , I think, as though that means something.
To feel this way is absurd, of course. It’s adolescent in the worst way, as ridiculous as the Victorian governess from the OED , that remnant of the nineteenth century who persists, blindly and stupidly, into the twentieth. After you come out, all of your unspoken crushes and impossible loves, all of your feelings of shame and guilt—all of that is supposed to melt away, to vanish into the air like a few dim curls of smoke. The pain you endured in your stifling little closet is an artifact of a time best left forgotten, or told only as an amusing story, as a prelude to the bright and dazzling now. You should erase that pain, extinguish it—even if that means losing, too, the beauty that studded the darkness, the moments that left you quietly electric.
Now more than ever, to dwell on the past seems perversely ungrateful. The world is changing, after all—and quickly. After the US Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in June 2015, Republican commentator S.E. Cupp told Wolf Blitzer on CNN , “My party really has to reconcile with the fact that we’ll become relics if we don’t [support gay marriage] . . . It’s really time for the party politics to shift on this.” She wasn’t the first to think about gay marriage in the context of relics. Not long before Proposition 8 was struck down in California in 2013, the Christian Science Monitor published an article describing how attitudes toward gay people had changed since 2008, when the ballot initiative banning gay marriage in the state passed. “Prop. 8 seems a relic of different era in California,” the headline proclaimed. And back in 2010, Republican Senator Arlen Specter announced his support for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act by declaring it “a relic of a more tradition-bound time and culture.”
One day soon, queer shame may itself be a relic of an older, sadder time, one we will turn away from with relief. In ten or twenty years (or even sooner?), maybe a student at Saint Francis will be able to love another boy, to tell him—and, even if his feelings aren’t shared, there will be no more shame there, no more guilt, than R. felt after his rejection by a girl in eighth grade. This boy will know the rush of love, of wanting, without the too-tight grip of fear. He will be spared the awful pleasures of suppressed desire, the buzz in the blood like bees swarming around a pulpy mass of rotting apples. And we will seal away stories like this one in archives, in airless little rooms visited only by antiquarians and historians whom no one reads.
I know all of this. But when I think back to the packet of papers that still waits in an old shoebox at my father’s house, my little pile of precious rubbish, I imagine even more impossible things. Blood becoming milk, and a spear that plunges sweetly through the heart. Oil that can cure any sickness. A boy who hovers above the ground, eyes closed, arms outstretched. A virgin made of wax and old, old bones. My fingers reaching out until at last I am touching him, through the years and the glass and the shudder of the ions I am touching him, and I am not afraid, not anymore. He is turning to me, the light again catching his face, and everywhere we touch is holy.