Rag and Bone
~ A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead
by Peter Manseau

This book is one of my top 2009 reads; moreover before I sent it away I had to reread it🙂

It is also probably most surprising reading experience I’ve had for a very long time. It’s a great travelog, it’s incredibly funny, equally educational, shocking (how surprising!), ticklingly blasphemous, and absolutely bizarre!

You really would not even imagine (if you’re unfamiliar with the world of relics like myself) what people are able to do with something (human origin) that consider sacred but even worse is to see what Church (!!!) is doing. I was really shocked so many times while reading this book.

First paragraph (I love it!):
”This is a book about dismembered toes, splinters of shinbone, stolen bits of hair, burned remnants of an anonymous rib cage, and other odds and ends of human remains, but it is not book about death. Around every one of the macabre artifacts that, for a variety of reasons, have come to be venerated as religious relics, circles an endless orbit of believers and skeptics, bureaucrats and clergy, con artists, and just plain curious souls. This is a book about life.”

Manseau has done fantastic research about the issue covering all major religions. There are very informative story about each relic while being part of precise human being and that’s very interesting. But the story of the body after soul continued its journey, is stunning! I found that my own religion as the most bizarre (probably because it’s mine). I was more than once reacted like “Oh gosh no! They didn’t! How could they?” and even “Oh hurry up and lets move to Buddhism!” (I‘m joking!) And then the most pathetic: “OK I’m Christian but at least I’m not Catholic”. There are many (I guess ) blasphemous moments; but then how not be blasphemous when you’re reading about Holy Prepuce (Jesus foreskin)!?!? I didn’t even know such thing even exists and is worshiped (by the way do you know the origin of the Saturn’s rings? Go figure! You wouldn’t believe; there is no way you would even guess!)! Or few churches that each enshrines a head of John the Baptist in the same time?!? I’ve seen in Spain part of The Cross (later I’ve found out there are so many pieces of that same cross that Romans must have deforest entire Middle East to made it) also I’ve seen the hand of some saint and then I thought it’s quite morbid (now I see that was actually light image).

What I liked is that Manseau is never offensive; I don’t think he’s hurting religious being in his readers. At least he didn’t hurt mine. He’s looking from a rational point of view on something which is in enormously large scale not rational whatsoever.
As I said he’s very witty and don’t expect from this book to be profoundly serious. Quite opposite; it looks like a coffee chat … OK I admit, the topic would be quite insane but still a coffee chat. And what I liked the most in this book is how people are 100% ready to believe in something so unlikely accurate and even to actually feel the sacred power of it; whether that is a shinbone or a pebble founded in the ash after cremation. It’s really amazing.

From the blurb:
”Manseau’s “Rag and Bone” reads like a novel, entertains like a TV docudrama, and educates like the best college professor you ever had. It is at once informative, quirky, and funny. Do people really think that the leathery tongue of 12th century saint can bless them with good fortune? They do. Why do people believe in such weird things as the holy relics of religion? Read this book to find out. WARNING: you may well discover that you also hold beliefs in holy relics and not even know it!”

Here I’d like to mention one vignette I found very interesting. It’s part of the relics in Buddhism, religion I know little about. The only Buddhist I know personally is my dear friend Shanna (whose BLOG is one of  virtual places I regularly visit; check why) who told me while visiting me in Belgrade something very interesting: That Buddhism is actually not religion but philosophy.  Reading this book helped me to fully realize her words.

There is a story in the book about the Temple of the Tooth in the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Of course it’s worshiped and moreover in Myanmar they made a replica equally worshiped as “the original”. As I said I knew little about Buddhism but I knew that much to see a mountain-sized contradiction. And here is an explanation:

There are two branches in Buddhism: one that is following Siddhartha’s words how we should disconnect ourselves from impermanent things in our life (which is basically everything) and the one that is doing completely opposite thing: that is worshiping something so undoubtedly impermanent such is human body (i.e. Siddhartha’s tooth) and even ready to die for. But what was incredibly surprising is that Siddhartha was fully aware that people would hear his sermons and understand what he had meant or they would hear them and understand the exact opposite. He never denied that he told people what they needed to hear to affect necessary change in their lives. He knew that his followers would take from his message parts they needed the most. For some that meant philosophy, for others that meant teeth.

So what about relics? And should they necessary be connected with religion? Are they mandatory sacred? What one relic could be?

“Relics seem to me to admit that, yes, while we do have spiritual dimension to our lives, we are also flesh under the looking glass of all those around us. Our lives and or deaths are witnessed by others, and what our lives might mean to them is mostly beyond our control. We are simultaneously people who need symbols to survive, and we are symbols ourselves. Our bodies – our toes and shins, our foreskins and ribs, our hands and whiskers, our teeth and hair – have the capacity to tell stories we can not imagine. And the facts of our lives can be as mysterious and in need of explanation as anything that lies beyond.”

This is without doubt one of the best nonfiction book I’ve read in years. I so didn’t expect this. I didn’t know what to expect at all. I was attracted with the bizarre topic it deals with and was hooked from the page 1.