For years, I’ve collected religious iconography. Moist-eyed apostles festoon my walls; my jewelry box overflows with rosaries and holy medals. This summer I even made a 500-mile pilgrimage on foot to the relics of St. James, and have a certificate verifying—in Latin—the completion of my journey.
I began collecting saints my during a brief brief romance with vodou, and I’d been introduced to many of them syncretism with the lwa. My relationship with vodou was tumultuous. When it was over, all that remained was Mary. Whenever I was inwardly freaking about something, without fail I would see an image of the Virgin — whether it was a statue in someone’s yard or a tattoo on somebody’s arm — I felt like She was looking out for me. Later, when I began to pray to her, I had an experience that I can only describe as an awareness of God’s awareness of me.
But when it comes to the other saints, I’m affected more by their stories than their presence. Joan of Arc is one of my heroes. I also like to think about St. Anthony, hanging out in his mountain crevasse, trying not to be bored. Or St. Elijah hearing God’s voice in the gentle breeze. As a writer, I’m compelled by stories. Give me five minutes on a train or an airplane and I’ve made up a story about everyone around me. I love taking walks through the cemetery in my neighborhood and trying to piece together stories based on the headstones.
But ultimately, with the exception of Mary, that’s kind of how the saints seem to me — like dead people.
I don’t want to feel this way. I want to be the kind of person who believes in the saints and has a whole skyfull of magical pals, and for whom the world is mysterious and flickery and smells like wax and old wood and who doesn’t care if people think she’s crazy. The truth is, my inability to believe that I can actually talk to the saints has nothing to do with what other people think, because in the end, what I pray, and to whom, is private. Nevertheless, I feel … weird about it.
This summer on the pilgrimage, I talked to St. James a lot. I was on the way to his relics, so I figured I might as well introduce myself. I talked to him about all kinds of stuff, but mostly I prayed for a guy who had a brain tumor. Because St. James was decapitated, I thought he might be especially sensitive to matters of heads.
The priest at my church says we pray for the intercession of the saints the same way we’d ask a friend to pray for us. The saints aren’t dead, he tells me, their spirits are alive with God. Which is nice, and kind of makes sense. But when I got to Santiago, where James’ relics are, I found out that they were mixed together with the bones of two other guys I’d never heard of, and — I don’t know. Something about it just made me mad, like it had been a sham. I know James can’t help it if they snuck some other guys into his box, but it felt like trickery. I prayed at the relics anyway, because I’d come all that way. But in the end, the pilgrimage had been the point, not the bones.
When I got home, I found out the guy with the brain tumor underwent surgery and is now doing fine. It doesn’t prove anything. But it gives me hope.