A return to relics?

My latest column for the Christian Courier.


I thought my 12-year-old son would find it both creepy and cool, but it turns out he just finds it weird, and kind of gross. In response to my question, he mimes the action of taking a man’s heart out the chest cavity and holds it up in the air with a look of confused disgust on his face. His expression asks, simply: “Why? Why would you do that?!?”

I’ve become something of a regular at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal since our son (see above!) sings in Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal. This is the boys’ choir that accompanies Mass each Sunday morning at the Oratory, and his particular group sings every other weekend. On the days that I serve as a parent-accompagnateur I can’t help but pass by the small shrine that holds the heart of Frère André (Brother Andrew) – the shrine is just outside the choir room door.

Oh, and here’s the question I asked Reuben: “What do you think of that heart?”

For most of my life I would probably have agreed with my son’s sentiment of confused disgust, and the truth is that it still makes me just a little queasy. Yet over past months I’ve also started to reconsider. Or more accurately, perhaps, I have found my mind and imagination brought ‘round to something approaching appreciation for that formaldehyde-immersed heart.

Alfred Bessette came from a working-class family in Montreal and as a young man held a succession of unskilled jobs due to poor health and limited education. Eventually he ended up as a doorkeeper at Collège Notre Dame, later becoming also a messenger and laundry worker there. He took his vows as a lay member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in 1874, at the age of 28, and became known as Frère André from that day. He recently came to greater fame with his canonization in 2010 – he is now Saint André de Montréal.

weeda oratory andres heart

The shrine with Frére André’s heart.

His sainthood within the Roman Catholic Church owes to the care he gave to the sick, the listening ear he offered those who shared their grief with him, and the prayers he offered for them, commending them to Saint Joseph, the father of Jesus. Stories of his healing prayers began to proliferate and spread, and the visits to Frère André increased dramatically. Skipping forward, it was Frère André who first built a small chapel in honour of St. Joseph on the side of Mount Royal, a chapel that would eventually (only after the death of Frère André) become the massive Oratory it is today.

So how does someone raised solidly in the Reformed tradition come ‘round to an appreciation for that formaldehyde-immersed heart? Am I suggesting a recovery of relics in our churches? Am I advocating the veneration of Frère André? Or perhaps prayers to St. Joseph? Well, I don’t think so.

Rather, I think I am coming ‘round to a deeper appreciation for the ways that God encounters and blesses us through the creation itself – through the stuff of the world. By the living Word, God has brought all things into being. By the living Word, all things are held together, or sustained. It seems like it shouldn’t need saying, but somehow it does: Through prairies, rain, wine, bread, bodies, breath God meets us and blesses us and reveals Himself to us. And by extension, how hard is it to imagine that through a heart, also, God might bless and meet us?

Not because that heart is somehow a magical or certain conduit to God. Not because Jesus has left something undone that this heart can accomplish. But because that heart is a heart that pumped oxygenated blood to the mind and body and hands of a man who clearly knew what it is to love and to show compassion and to serve the God who has embraced us in Jesus Christ. That heart puts me within sight and within arms-reach of a broken and beloved human who was a saint. And with that heart I’m reminded of who I am, and of who I am called to be.

Yes, it’s both creepy and cool. Reuben and I will just have to disagree on this one.


800px-Montreal_-_QC_-_St.-Josephs-Oratorium (1)


3 thoughts on “A return to relics?

  1. I also find there’s something special in relics like the heart of Frère André. It is an incarnational touchstone, a reminder that God works, and has always worked, in the physical world: through real people made of real flesh and blood.

  2. Hi, Roland. I sat by that heart one day this past winter. I wasn’t thinking creepy or cool. Or of the nearness of such a precious defining part of a saint. I was immersed in the essence of so many prayers. A holy place, centered around a relic, but thick and present as the Spirit.

  3. “By the living Word, God has brought all things into being. By the living Word, all things are held together, or sustained.”
    Which is what RC/Anglican/Orthodox folks mean when they speak of a grace-infused world. And as I’m sure you’re well aware, Roland, but perhaps not everyone, Thomas Aquinas (who belongs after all to our undivided pre-Reformation Western heritage), following Dionysius (who belongs to both Eastern and Western Christians), regards grace as really the way we explain everything that falls outside the godhead — in other words, all creation. And your apt paraphrase of John 1.1ff is precisely the text that “explains” that concept.

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