The philosophical error of our times is to stay stuck inside our heads seeking meaning and coherence in subjectivity, a meaning and coherence that subjectivity cannot give on its own. Catholic realism is a much needed counterpoint to this error. The Catholic tradition recognizes that ideas can’t dwell forever in the hypothetical mode; they demand an objective world outside of us, a frame of reference outside our own to test things out and help us get our grounding in what is eternal. Catholic realism is just this craving to connect what we understand subjectively to its objective correlates.
But Catholic realism also, and as a consequence, denotes a love affair with the created world, a love so concentrated and concrete that it cannot love the “concept” of Justice that parades around proudly with a capital J. It loves the particular act of justice (with a small ‘j’) in the act of the saint who clothes this particular bearded homeless man named Nick, who wears this particular t-shirt that makes us smile. Realism crackles with detail.
This realism is one of the aspects of Catholicism that Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman praised when he commended the Catholic faith to the Anglican community after his conversion. He knew it was something the educated Englishman did not understand sufficiently. This longing for things above and beyond mere “ideas” is indeed an anachronism to some philosophers, and idolatry to some Christian Evangelicals, but as Catholics, we should remember and cultivate this spirit of longing for the concrete.
Wittgenstein said, “We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” (Philosophical Investigations, 107) That’s our situation today. Ideas in the abstract are thrown around with abandon, leading us nowhere without the friction of concrete life. Catholic realism is a particular way of viewing the world, and I’d like to paint an informal picture of it using personal examples, and then talk a little about relics.
A Brush with Greatness
My only certified brush with greatness came when I was as a teenager working at a music store. One afternoon I heard the manager yell, “Hey Jeff, Carol Kaye is here!” I knew exactly what that meant, so I sprinted to the front desk.
Who is Carol Kaye, you ask?
Carol Kaye is a legendary studio musician, a part of music history. She worked in the studio playing bass for the Beach Boys during the Pet Sounds sessions. If you’re a Beach Boys fan, you know this was their masterpiece.
I stood weak-kneed, trying to make conversation. I think I just blurted out, “Tell me everything you know.”
She was gracious and kind, and gave me all sorts of details about what it was like to work on that project during such a pivotal time in pop music history. I heard her describe in detail Brian Wilson’s depression after he listened to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. She confided that Charles Manson gave her the willies.
This experience immersed me in a feeling that has become ever more familiar to me over the years, this feeling of what is real. There really was a recording studio in California. Those talented musicians put on headphones and stepped up to microphones, and this Carol Kaye was really sitting with them.
Now this wonderfully talented Carol Kaye, among her ten thousand studio credits, also played guitar on the studio recording of Ritchie Valens’ hit song La Bamba from 1958. I mention this because of what happened to Ritchie Valens: his career was cut short, along with the careers of radio personality J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and the legendary Buddy Holly. They died in a plane crash over Clear Lake Iowa on February 3, 1959 on a cold, snowy night as they attempted to fly to Fargo, North Dakota, the next stop in their travelling concert tour. Country star Waylon Jennings lost the coin toss that night (because there were only three seats on the plane), so he took the bus and lived. The poignancy of this awful day was captured in Don McLean’s hit record American Pie.
Can you conjure up an image of Buddy Holly’s glasses? They are very much in fashion today. They are the kind with black frames and thick lenses that made this young guy from Lubbock, Texas look very nerdy, long before nerdy was cool. They were his trademark. Because the crash site covered such a wide area, the Buddy Holly’s glasses weren’t recovered until years later. Therefore, I remember quite clearly the day I read the news that Buddy Holly’s glasses were finally found in a field near the airport in Clear Lake Iowa. This happened in March, 1980. I saw a picture of the glasses and gasped. Again, I had that distinct feeling of “contact with reality” outside of myself, the feeling that this very sad plane crash really happened, that this Buddy Holly really came to Clear Lake Iowa and died that day. All mythology was stripped away as I encountered the unembellished fact.
In other words, there really was a man behind the legend, he had a wife and family, and these are his glasses.
Sacred Relics and the Incarnation
All of this brings me for some reason to affirm the importance of relics in Catholic life. Relics are concrete fragments of things – anything, such as possessions, a piece of cloth from a garment, a lock of hair, or ashes – from a saint, martyr or other venerated figure in salvation history. Some people who do not understand Catholic realism confuse relics with dark objects like idols or talismans. It disturbs them to think that what they imagine as a purely subjective faith could be en-fleshed with mere physical material.
But I hope that after our exploration into Catholic realism above, we see that relics are not magic props at all, but rather bridges we cross, or doors we open, to bring us into secure and confident contact with the Incarnation.
Are they still relevant in the modern world? I would say that relics are even more important in this modern world of such doubt and disorder. As I said at the start, our realism is an antidote to subjectivism. Physical tokens are not analytical proofs. They are primitive, raw perceptions. As such they remove the mythology from the cloud of legend. They clarify what is starkly real.
We know there was a St. Peter because we have his bones. We know there was a last supper because we have the Holy Grail. We know St. John Vianney lived because we have a lock of his hair. Consider the psychological, not to mention the spiritual, power of this confidence.
Through relics we reach outside of ourselves to recognize and embrace the historical reality not only of the saints and martyrs of our Christian tradition, but the historical reality of the Incarnation itself. Let us never consign Christ, or the apostles and martyrs, or the saints, to ideas in our heads. The communion of saints is much too grand a thing for a single skull to contain!