We are not as sophisticated as we would like to imagine where religion is concerned

It is a matter of taste, or maybe conviction. Either way the relics of St Anthony have prompted the devotion of thousands in all-weathers around the country.

We are not as sophisticated as we would like to imagine where religion is concerned

They are with the Capuchins in Church St around the corner from the Four Courts in Dublin today. Wexford, Cork, Limerick, and Galway had their turn. Tomorrow its Belfast and then off to Glasgow.

Halloween, the vigil of the Christian feast of All Hallows, popularly called All Saints, is nearly on us.

The bangers are starting to bang, the shops are full of it, and the kids up for it. Is this a time of year for superstition; all dark evenings and falling leaves? Or is there something deeper we are losing touch with? Could there be something lacking in the commercialised, confected trade that is retail infill before the lead-in to Christmas starts in earnest? Yes, Christmas has already begun and, no, they don’t wait anymore for Halloween to be over first. This day two months is the eve of Christmas Eve.

As every day is now a shopping day that’s just 62 shopping days to go.

Strange then the long queues to kiss relics. But there is a deep-seated fetish for tangible things.

Things we don’t need, stuff we won’t part with. St Anthony is a megastar in the firmament of the saints. There may be thousands of them on the books but he is an all-time crowd pleaser. If something is lost, he is your man. A wedding ring, a sum of money, anything at all and he can find it.

Of course you have to believe and you have to promise something in return, like giving up your auld sins.

Knowing where the bodies are buried is clout indeed. There was once a thriving trade in the body parts of deceased saints, the instruments used to torture them and forests of trees purporting to be the wood of the true cross. Those bones, chains and wooden splints conferred legitimacy on their possessors and revenue streams from the pilgrims travelling to venerate them.

I hate to spoil the party but Leo Varadkar didn’t invent the Gathering. Boosting tourism numbers on the back of sentimentality has been going on for a very long time. Feast days and holy years predate even Fáilte Ireland.

But if there is much to guffaw at there is an enduring need to be physically connected. Auction houses boast of the provenance of the items they are selling. Objects connected with fame or notoriety commands a premium. It is strange how often the clutter was swept out, only for us to gather it back in again.

Protestantism, the Enlightenment, and even the information technology that promised a paperless society all promised and failed in one way or another. The paperless society never arrived.

Protestantism, which was to be the iconoclastic clear light of the Word, relapsed back into stained glass after a couple of hundred years. The exaggeration and schmaltz of Victorian mourning and its fetishist hankering after the dead makes most relics look like minimalist objects.

The Enlightenment at its ultimate deranged destinations of communism and atheism carried the juju of exposing dead bodies to new heights. Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square, Ho Chi Minh’s in Hanoi, Mao’s in Tiananmen Square, and the largest of them all, Kim Il-sung’s in Pyongyang, are great modern reliquaries. We had the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and papal tombs by Michelangelo and Bernini, but they were all intended to house the deceased body both in great splendour and out of sight.

In states where religion was banned, where the promised afterlife was the next step in the continuing revolution and hell was to be an enemy of the people, damned for criminal civic sin, saints were made and cults created. The embalmed bodies of the dead leaders conferred legitimacy and potency on the usually nondescript functionaries who succeeded them. An underlying emotional need to connect with the dead and the beyond was refashioned to meet new needs. Stalin literally stood atop Lenin’s embalmed body.

Our faux sophistication that in its leisure hours roams shopping centres and searches for human connection online is of course beyond the parody of kissing relics. We are saved from the embarrassment of having to maintain a national mausoleum filled with the waxy remains of dead leaders only by accidents of history and geography. There was never any innate objection.

Hagiography and hate have in turn always been offered as the rewards for fame and fortune here. In Ireland words are the preferred from of formaldehyde.

Some words last week was taken as the desecration of a great Irish reliquary; the liberal tolerance of the Church of Ireland. Archbishop Michael Jackson spoke to the synod of his united dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough of his “shattering sadness” at “exclusionary attitudes, and indeed sectarianism itself” he found in his diocese. A Fermanagh man, he is entitled to speak of sectarianism.

His predecessors John Neill and Walton Empey disagreed. I am inclined to too. It is unlikely that bigotry isn’t ruminating somewhere under the floorboards but the desire for a continuing and strongly expressed cultural identity isn’t the same thing as sectarianism.

What the Church of Ireland suffers from isn’t mainly sectarianism; it just enjoys its own share of snobbery. That may not be completely Christian but it falls short of being a hate crime. The archbishop in yesterday’s Irish Times, continuing his theme saying how members joining from other churches, mainly Catholic presumably, were disparaged as “polyester Protestants” by cradle members of his church. In the Republic that sort of small mindedness is so universal as to be completely ecumenical. While the archbishop is right to condemn such unchristian thought he shouldn’t lose sight of its valuable contribution to comedy.

In our public debate lapsed papists who never set foot in the Church of Ireland regularly use it as a shrine of convenience for the chip on their shoulder. The assumption that it is a natural partner in a secularising agenda to end Church-run schools and hospitals is nonsense. Irish Protestantism is entitled to its reliquaries. The begrudgers be damned.

On Sunday the clocks go back. The days will get shorter and darker. Then we have All Hallows, All Souls, and the ghouls will be about. We are not as sophisticated as we want to imagine. The Irish funeral, even more the wake, shows we seldom let life pass without the old palaver. We do it for them, because we really hope it will be done for ourselves.

Now we prepare to cavort around the Halloween tat and the Christmas turkey. We make festivals out of anniversaries we have forgotten the meaning or the name of. So our era goes on, a sort of afterlife, between a world we can never return to and another we have not yet discovered.

What are we like, pretending we don’t kiss relics?

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