Rag and Bone

Watching an ultrasound of his unborn daughter swimming in the dark soup of the womb offered Peter Manseau more than just a glimpse of the infant soon to make her way into his arms. It put him on the road to another discovery. ?These bones are where belief begins,? he mused seeing the baby?s tiny limbs. And so began his wondrous journey to teach her, ?that faith is strange and beautiful and sometimes scary,? by way of exploring the stories behind a diverse collection of sacred relics the world over. Relics, those fragments of flesh, bone, or fabric believed to be taken from the holiest people to walk the earth, have been revered for thousands of years by the faithful of many religions. According to Manseau?s vivid descriptions, they are indeed as strange, beautiful (and sometimes downright scary) as the faiths that preserve them. From the Catholics? prodigious and peculiar assortment including the purported prepuce of Jesus (which he did not actually view) and the ?chewed piece of licorice? said to be the tongue of St. Anthony (which he and hundreds of others stood in line for hours to see), to a surreal traveling Buddhist reliquary, on to Kashmir?s most sacred Muslim treasure: Prophet Muhammad?s chin whisker, and others, Manseau?s unerring eye for detail makes for a fascinating travelogue. But it?s more than that. Drawing on history, spiritual traditions, legend and contemporary reports, this book is a totally exuberant compendium of human beliefs, certain to satisfy devotees of all stripes, ?because make explicit what we all know in our own bones: that bodies tell stories; that the transformation offered by faith is not just about, as the Gospels put it, the ?word made flesh,? but the flesh made word.?

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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