One of the favorite things I own is a leaf I took from the house where Balzac lived at the end of his life when he was hiding out from creditors. His writing desk was in the house, slightly beaten up and dented all over the top where he had pressed too hard with his caffeine-fueled pen (he died of caffeine poisoning). I also have a picture of his coffee pot. People try to imitate the people they admire, and sometimes people try to get—or to get near to—a piece of them.
I was thinking this a few weeks ago as I walked home from St. James Cathedral, where I had gone to see another desk, the writing desk of Saint Therese of Lisieux. Her "desk" was a rectangular wooden box about the size of a briefcase with a drawer in it for paper, ink, little stuff. She wrote some amazing work on this desk, which I finally got around to reading after having put it off because St. Therese's nickname, "the Little Flower of Jesus," or just "the Little Flower," rubbed me wrong. Either "little" or "flower" sound gooey to me; together they're almost toxic, like Shirley Temple or Little Nell or Disney or a grown woman who puts on a child's voice to try to sound "cute." (Cute has a shelf life.) Therese's cursory biography didn't help: She died young in a convent apparently without complaint. The myth of her made her seem like she was never human or flesh and blood, but invented by some gooey sentimentalist.
But then I actually read some of the work (an autobiography called Story of a Soul, letters, poems). That word "little" she uses is about her awareness that most of us are never going to do huge, important things—we'll never be crusaders or heroes or write as great as Virginia Woolf; we'll never have to make a choice as hard as Sophie's or probably any choice that's truly a matter of life and death. We'll mostly just lead forgettable little lives. These are lives in which you'll be irritated by someone fidgeting next to you when you want them to be quiet, or by someone splashing water on you because they're clumsy. There will be times you'll want, if you're like Therese, to glare, or if you're like me, to throttle whoever is bugging you. But also, if you're like Therese, there will be times you will decide to not. Part of Therese's "little" way is to recognize that though you are both insignificant and often very petty in your head, you don't have to always act like that.
St. Therese lived a lot inside her head. She also only lived 24 years, the last nine of them in a convent. Like a lot of other l9th-century romantics (Rimbaud was a near contemporary, Melville, Flaubert, Wilde—Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil preceded the birth of "the Little Flower" by 20-ish years), Therese dreamed of going to exotic places. The daughter of two extremely pious parents, however, she never left the province where she was born. She wanted to do exotic, un-female things like be a priest or apostle or missionary, but became instead what a lot of brainy l9th-century females became: a nun.
Sometimes it seems the Catholic Church, if it has a sense of humor at all, has a bad one. But sometimes it has a terrific one—like when they made stay-at-home Therese a patron of missions, along with Francis Xavier, the 16th-century Jesuit who missioned to Goa, India, Japan, Borneo, etc. (Another funny Catholic and relic thing: Xavier's body—er, most of it—is in Goa; his forearm is in Rome.)
It's funny to make those two the patrons of missions, but also serious, in that it values littleness. Therese wasn't able to have the adventures she imagined, but instead of becoming bitter, she thought and wrote adventurously. To recognize that Therese's role is important is to recognize the importance of desire and intent, of acknowledging the limits with which most of us live.
Like a lot of late-l9th/early-20th-century people and literary figures (Keats, Mimi in La Bohème, the drag queen in Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers), Therese died of tuberculosis, which was a nasty way to die. It was long and smelly and wasted you and involved a lot of bodily fluids (some of why it was easy for Jonathan Larson to transpose the TB in La Bohème to AIDS in Rent). Therese didn't avoid the approach of death or constantly romanticize it the way a writer of a novel or opera or hagiography might. In addition to saying things about hope and that she was okay to die, she also said brutal things like, when asked what she was dying of, "I'm dying of death." Or funny things like, when shown a picture of two priests, "I'm much prettier than they are!"
Therese was human—a weird and awkward girl who discovered that because her life was small, she could write about what it is to be a petty, awkward, very human human. She wrote in searing, brave, and self-aware ways about fear and aloneness and having and not having faith.
Catholics aren't the only ones with relics. Buddhists have a relic of Buddha's tooth. Mary Shelley kept the heart of her dead husband, Percy, wrapped up in a napkin in her house. The EMP has stuff of Hendrix, Cobain, rock stars. It's as much of a reliquarium as any cemetery or church.
I have my mother's ashes and my father's cigarette lighter. My wife wears a scarf my dead best friend used to wear. I wear a T-shirt of the husband of a widowed friend who gave it to me and asked me to. I still have a bunch of my long-dead friend Joe's books.
We keep these material things because they represent the people we no longer have. We keep them to remind us we can do or be or mean something and that the people we admire can inspire us.
Relics can get tricky, though, when the thing means more than whatever gave it meaning. This is partly why the Pontifical Mission Society (they have a sense of humor, too: The guy who was in charge of the "Little Flower" relics tour is named—I kid you not—Father Small, and when I asked him if this was why he got the job, he laughed), which sponsored the tour of Therese's relics, chose to send Therese's desk rather than a robe or bone or bodily something. They wanted to honor her as a thinker, writer, and theologian whose work merited her being named, in 1997, a doctor of the church (one of only four women to be so).
Missioning, i.e., people talking to people and feeding, housing, and sheltering people, and advocating for immigrants, prisoners, and poor people, can change the world or other humans' lives and is work where sometimes you can actually see the change. But words and books can change things, too, even though you probably won't see it. Therese's words were about trying to cope with the littleness of who you are but not letting yourself get bitter or squished. Her handwriting, of which there was a sample in a notebook on her desk, was really, really small. But the words and ideas she wrote in it were huge.