On relics and textiles and spiritual weight

There aren’t a lot of relics lying around these days. Occasionally, someone finds the likeness of Mary or Mother Theresa in a pancake or in a splintered oak tree. Then TV crews flock to the scene and interview the yokels. A bunch of bunk that. Makes for good TV though, something that Murdoch knew.

More often, sacred objects are put behind glass and stored in museums. The card on the right says that they’re old. Hard to know what’s the difference between this mealy fabric and the one on sale in the gift shop. The aura’s gone, the aura of human fingers and divine blessedness.

Even a Ukrainian translator of Dostoevsky’s elephants seems a relic, albeit a beautiful one, a relic of spiritual rhythms. In “The Woman with Five Elephants” (the trailer is here), Svetlana Geier describes how her mother stitched together a fabric. What was required, even before the first stitch, was a visionary gleam of the whole, but that was not all. When her mother stitched, there was no room for mistakes, and thus what was also necessary was exquisite craftsmanship and the sharpest focus. Vision and craftsmanship in which the past coursed, through which the divine recurred. The holiness of work, the auratic memory of fabric held fast in the fingers of an old lady, the daughter, who understands work and love.

The gulf separating Svetlana Geier and us is so great as, I fear, to be impassable. This became clear to me as I visited The Cloisters this past Sunday and sat in the church. The Cloisters are a collage of Spanish and French buildings dating back to the medieval period. They were transplanted here in the early 20th C. with the generous support of Rockefeller’s prodigious oil wealth. Each, originally an entity unto itself, hitherto rooted in its native soil, then expressive of monastic rhythms, had to be uprooted, shipped off, and re-planted in NY soil next to its French and Spanish brother. And what would the brothers have made of this? Of the church and the tapestries? Of the enjambments? Of the tombs and the gardens? What of the exile and repatriation?

As I sat in the church which was no longer in use, hence no longer a church, I felt like the speaker from Larkin’s “Church Going.” There was an “unignorable silence” about it but no spiritual weight. Whither had fled the spiritual weight? Whither today? No guidebook would tell me.

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