October 17, 2005

Dem Bones, Dem Bones: On Venerating Saints

My mother is dead. She was a holy woman. She was born on the feast of the Assumption, died on the feast of Sts Michael, Gabriel and Raphael and was buried on the feast of St Therese of Lisieux. I haven’t any of her bones. I have her rosary beads and a couple of photos. The beads belonged to her father and to his mother before that.

I also have a scrap of paper I found tucked among her few possessions. On it is the following verse in her handwriting, copied from the English Women’s Weekly:

Overheard in an Orchard

Said the robin to the sparrow,
‘I should really like to know
Why these anxious human beings
Rush about and worry so.’
Said the sparrow to the robin,
‘Friend, I think it must be
That they have no heavenly Father
Such as cares for you and me.’

I keep this piece of paper in my Bible. It reminds me of my mother. It expresses in writing what I knew about her from my fourteen years’ experience of her. Her fifty years had their share of tragedy beginning with the death of her mother when she was three. She didn’t study theology. She learnt about God and came to know God from being in a Colyton farming family of nine, from being a parishioner, from being the mother of seven and from being involved in helping others.

There were always other people in our home. She cared for her elderly father. One of her brothers and her only sister – her best friend – who suffered from mental illness were a constant part of our family. My mother would always know when it was time for them to go to Ashburn Hall.

My mother had to leave my father. Then her sister was diagnosed with leukaemia and was given three months to live. The next day was Friday. Mum brought Auntie home from hospital to look after her. Mum died. It was teatime. We were having tomato soup. It was my brother’s birthday. The butcher had just delivered the weekly meat order and it was still sitting on the bench. My older brother phoned the priest and the ambulance. Then we said the rosary. We always said the rosary. Auntie died three months later.

My mother’s faith was that of the sparrow in the English Women’s Weekly verse. She probably didn’t recognise the bird’s wisdom as coming from Matthew’s Gospel. The verse must have meant something to her otherwise she wouldn’t have copied it and kept it. I found it in her glory box – one of the few items that survived a fire which destroyed our home and virtually everything in it nine years before my mother’s death. I’m glad she died before her sister died and before the suicide of her brother and my father. She had already experienced enough suffering and sadness.

My mother is a saint. We celebrate her feast day on All Saints Day, 1 November. I’ve been to her grave once since her funeral in Palmerston North in 1967. One day I’ll pass the piece of paper, the beads and the photos – the reminders of my mother – on to younger family members.

By now my mother and St Therese probably know each other quite well. The visit of the latter’s relics is over and the visit of the relics of St Margaret-Mary Alacoque has just begun in Australia. What do these visits mean? Why do we venerate relics? As with devotion to Mary and any other saint, the ultimate purpose of such veneration is to make us more fervent in our love for God and therefore more committed to works of mercy and justice. If these recent visits have presented the heart of the Gospel message anew in ways that are easier to understand in our increasingly multicultural Church, if they have reminded us of the holiness to which we are all called in our everyday lives, then indeed we must be grateful. On the other hand, if they have encouraged us to believe that relics somehow have magical powers, then we must be concerned.

Perhaps the quiet rattle of these French bones as they move around the Pacific is the cry of the poor — an urgent plea for help by the thousands of victims of recent floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. My mother would have joined the crowds around St Therese’s relics. Then she would have done something to help someone in need.

Therese of Lisieux, Eileen Julian (Shortall), Catherine McAuley, Suzanne Aubert, All Holy Women, pray for us

Elizabeth Julian RSM
October 2005

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