Before Lincoln there was St. Catherine, but before Catherine came Christopher.
Catholics raised in the faith, even those who have turned away, rarely lose complete touch with pieces of its rituals and observances.
My Uncle’s funeral took place at St. Catherine Laboure** in Harrisburg. A glass box encased in the wall contains a medal of the Immaculate Conception as commissioned by the Virgin Mary — St. Catherine said that she appeared and spoke to her 3 times. Copies of the medal are said to bring its wearers the possibility of special favors at the moment of death. Reading the material on St. Catherine and examining the medal, I rooted myself in front of the glass for minutes
Abraham Lincoln’s life masks, taken in 1860 and 1865, rest on a table in the National Portrait Gallery. I had not known of them. When I turned from one exhibit, they appeared, sharply lit in the dusk of the hall; they are presented in an intimate setting. The rest of the space and its tourists seem to drop away. This was Lincoln’s face as he lived in it as a new President and then just months before his death. The 1860 mask reminds me of the faces on busts of Roman emperors, full of rectitude and certainty. In repose, the 1865 mask shows thinner hair, the flesh fallen away from the nose, the same firm mouth, the old-fashioned spare patriarch’s beard, the high and worry-lined forehead. From the front the right eye seems lower than the left. Serious lines are embedded on either side of the nose. Deep indentations are apparent to the side above both eyes.
He was only a man, flesh of flesh, dust of dust, but of course, he was extraordinary, a 19th century Atlas bearing the sins of the Civil War, a temporal Christ, long suffering, shot not crucified, bearing the sins of slavery. The solidity of the cast lends the viewer a feeling about the solidity of the actual Lincoln, dead now for almost 148 years.
Relics promise remembrance for the dead, but how can the dead care? We do. We want memories of greatness preserved. We want to conserve our recollections of love. We want something with weight to gaze upon, lift in our hands, press against our skin. If we inhale its scent, we might conjure the dead back into the present.
Conversely, we want the memories of villains erased. One reason Bin Laden was buried at sea was to eliminate the creation of a shrine at his grave site. Who cannot imagine his murderous faithful making his bones a kin to slivers of the ‘True Cross’?
I can reach over and hold my father’s gray St. Christopher’s medal in my right hand as I drive. He wore it around his neck for as long as we knew him. Manufactured in the late 1940’s, it shows images of a vintage era plane, automobile, ship and train. The flip side shows St. Christopher, said to have been a giant of 7 and one-half feet, carrying the Christ child across a river. For years Christopher was the patron saint of travelers and thus an apt blessing for my father’s worldly trade.
I have letters from my mother in a drawer by my right hand. My younger sister has my father’s shaving gear, my brother his officer’s sap, my older sister pieces of furniture shaped by his hands. A photo of my father as a young man hangs in their homes and mine. It contains locks of his white hair and sits above my left shoulder next to my desk. I can turn and look into his young eyes.
**from St. Catherine Laboure: “St. Catherine Laboure, virgin, was born on May 2, 1806. At an early age she entered the community of the Daughters of Charity, in Paris, France. Three times in 1830 the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Catherine Laboure, who then was a twenty-four year old novice. She died on December 31, 1876, and was canonized on July 27, 1947.When her body was exhumed in 1933, it was found as fresh as it was on the day it was buried. Although she had been in the grave for fifty-seven years, her eyes remained very blue and beautiful; and in death her arms and legs were as supple as if she were asleep. Her incorrupt body is encased in glass beneath the side altar at the chapel of the Daughters of Charity at 140 Rue de Bac in Paris, France, beneath one of the sites where our Lady appeared to her.”