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A Precious Box

'Sacred' is in the Eye of the Beholder

by Sally Cole Mooney

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 34

When I heard that the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux were coming to the church in my New Orleans neighborhood, I braced myself. I knew this meant traffic and parking problems and a whole lot of hype. The local news couldn't seem to get enough of it, triggering a memory from my children's grade-school days. A Catholic mother had told me her newborn fourth child's name with the cryptic comment, "We had to have a Theresa." Now I understood what she had meant.

I was determined to rise to the occasion, let the local culture strut its stuff with a minimum of grousing on my part. I vowed not to guard my parking place with garbage cans on leaving for work, in the mean-spirited way of those who live near the fairgrounds where Jazz Fest is held or those Californians with beach-front homes who extend their property lines into the ocean. Modern-day pilgrims need parking spaces, too, I reminded myself, and willingly hiked a block and a half from my car to my front door at the end
of the day.

Then the six o'clock newsman warned us the church would be open all night, to accommodate the faithful. I could feel my own pledge to accommodate waver, so I sought an analogy, imagined Lucy's bones on display at Tulane and myself hellbent to see them. Theresa and Lucy, the Carmelite and the caramelized. As far as I could tell, there wasn't much difference. I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

I enlisted my son, Chris, to accompany me. In some irrational way, I sensed the church's authority, its power like that of the awesome sea, and felt the need to buddy-up. We queued outside St. Dominic's, trying unsuccessfully to blend. I just couldn't muster that beatific glaze the other women were wearing. I'm tense and edgy, having too long juggled kids and work and long commutes. And Chris is hairy. His high-school friends dubbed him "Chewy," in reference to Star Wars' Chewbaca, and in this line he looked like a testament to Darwin.

When we got inside, I saw an old neighbor who was serving as an usher. Her son used to come by our house on muggy summer days after church camp in his "July for Jesus" T-shirt to play with my young heathens, and she knew I wasn't Catholic. I remembered my mother yucking it up over that T-shirt when she came to visit, but now the tables were turned. I almost panicked, moving two-by-two with some ancient woman toward the altar. Chris had slipped behind, and I couldn't see what lay ahead. Even worse, everyone was chanting in sync with loudspeakers churching out Hail Marys, and neither of us knew
the words. A child of the fifties, I could have held my own if it had been the Lord's Prayer or the Twenty-third Psalm, since in those days we chanted and prayed in public schools every morning. I don't think Chris knew so much as "Jesus Loves Me," my base line for religious literacy. And I wouldn't have either if it hadn't been for school. My father was compulsively sacreligious. If someone was tone-deaf, he would say, "He couldn't sing 'Come to Jesus' in the key of C." If an old friend dropped by, he'd say, "I haven't seen you since Christ was a corporal." I had to shift gears when I went to school in the morning, like a kid growing up bilingual.

We had been given little cards with St. Therese's picture when we entered the church, and as we reached the altar I noticed people rubbing their cards on the outside of the plastic case protecting the relics. I didn't know what that was all about, so I just looked. Inside the plastic bubble was a beautiful box-like something out of a Hollywood pirate flick-its deep, rich wood girded with gold bands, a real objet d'art that would have been at home on the third floor of the art museum with the Fabergé eggs. But I couldn't get any farther than that to feel the mystery or spirit or whatever the woman behind me was feeling as she lifted her child up and showed her how to slide her card along the casing. As I passed out the door I looked back to see Chris rubbing his card with the rest of them. If I had been anywhere else but in that church, I would have laughed out loud. But then we learned that having rubbed his card, he was now in possession of a certified relic—in a kind of gilt by association—whereas I had just a postcard. Today as I look at the picture of St. Therese, I'm not sure if it's Chris's or mine, the real thing or the mere image of a fifteen-year-old nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897 saying, as the legend goes, "I'm not dying, I'm entering into life."

When we got back to the house, I plunged into algebra with my daughter, Kate, who had an exam in the morning. She was about as out of place in her honors math class as Chris and I had been at that altar, and I was getting worried about the night ahead. She needed her sleep to cope with that exam, and I needed mine to make it to the one I was giving in the morning. But the pilgrims kept coming. From my room I lay awake listening to car doors and voices and the click of high heels. To make it worse, every time a door slammed, my dog would bark. Somehow I finally drifted off, only to be jarred awake by church music blaring from St. Dominic's towers. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, nor the fact that my clock read 1 a.m. Chris had heard it too, though Kate miraculously stayed asleep, and the two of us had had it. I stuffed my nightgown into my jeans, threw on a jacket, and set off up the block, thinking of a lifetime's unrequited gestures . . . the lint screens I'd cleaned in apartment-house dryers and the coated ones I'd found left for me, the picnic tables I'd washed on vacating campsites and the sticky ones I'd arrive to find, the dog poops I'd scooped and the ones I'd stepped in . . . all that doing unto others, and now, the last straw, that parking place I'd sacrificed paid back in organ notes, my tolerance flowing up a one-way street.

Harrison Avenue looked surreal at this hour, all lit up with church ladies milling about in some weird parody of the action on Bourbon Street. A patrol car waited on the neutral ground across from the church with two officers like bouncers or hawkers, I wasn't sure which. I walked up and asked them, "Is the Catholic church above the law? They were startled, and I had to ask again. "Is the Catholic church above the law? Because I've got an exam at 8 in the morning, and I'd like to sleep. If I played my music at 1 a.m. on a school night, you'd be knocking at my door to turn it down." To my surprise, the policemen agreed that the music was unnecessary and promised to cut it off. I walked back home and for four and a half hours slept the sleep of the just.

The next morning wasn't half bad. At least I was getting out early enough to avoid the chaos of the ten o'clock procession carrying Therese's box from St. Dominic's to Mount Carmel, several blocks away. And I must admit I felt a glow from having taken on Rome and lived to tell about it. On my morning commute I noticed a familiar bumper sticker on the car ahead of me—"Think Globally, Act Locally"—which seemed this morning to have gotten it wrong. The Catholic Church had no problem thinking big—globally, even cosmically—but it had lost all sense of the local, couldn't see itself as a building in a neighborhood, adjacent to houses with people inside, couldn't imagine the lives behind those doors, the single mothers making grocery lists and the girls learning algebra. It was calibrated for the big event, the arrival of relics in a gilded box, or the Judgment Day, which for St. Therese marked not the end, but the beginning of life, "Life" capitalized, the real thing.

Then I thought about that box and just what had been inside that would sum up the person who had been Therese. Her habit and her rosary beads? I remembered the Box of Precious Things that my brother, Tom, had kept since the day he found it, an old jewelry box, in a garbage can when he was eight years old. In it, he had a picture of his best friend, Jan; a chunk of Jan's original pigeon coop; the first wood shaving he had made in wood shop; his milk teeth; a Lucky Lager bottle cap with a bullet hole shot through it; the tip of the garden hose he had brought along when we moved from Louisville to Tempe, Arizona, in 1959; the jaws of a walleye pike and the Canadian Jig Fly he'd caught it on; a twenty centavo piece that he and Jan had put on the railroad tracks to flatten; a firecracker from a long trip to Mexico in 1963; an old guitar pick from 1966 or so that he had found inside our piano; a beer bottle opener that he had used during the year he lived in Mexico; a piece of the shirt he had worn when he first soloed an airplane; and a scrap of paper on which he had written, "John Lennon Died Today." 

All that small stuff, it seemed to me, had captured the essence of a life well lived-an ordinary life-one deserving of an upper case L, a spot on the local news, and a procession of humanists filing by (during working hours, in sensible shoes) to celebrate what it's really all about. With that thought, I eased into the grind of just another day in New Orleans. 

Sally Cole Mooney is associate professor of English at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a member of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association. Her "Living by the Bells" appeared in the Winter 1999/2000 Free Inquiry.

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