So I was cleaning out a drawer that had not been opened in a long time. In a back corner, I found a small plastic bag of white stones. I bought this bag in 1985 from a couple of adolescent girls sitting in the doorway of the Basilica of the Virgin of Copacabana in Copacabana, Bolivia while I was doing fieldwork for my Ph.D. Although a chapter in my dissertation is built around the stones, I am amazed I still had that little bag.
The stones were called “Su platita de la virgen” which means “the Virgin’s silver”. Pilgrims to her miraculous shrine were told to buy them, place them with their money, bless both with holy water regularly, and their money would grow.
While such ideas are fine in a time of physical bills and lock-boxes, they are harder to carry out when money is an almost intangible string of binary code in a bank account. Nevertheless they illustrate they ways in which physical objects, sometimes natural like this, or like the small bag of dirt from another miraculous shrine, Chimayó, New Mexico, that should still be in the back of a cabinet, and sometimes industrial like various saint’s images and medallions, help create and maintain a religious life.
The objects become invested with some of the holiness of the shrine they are connected with, yet they also carry other meanings in their form and production that associate them outward, away from the holy and into society.
Latter-day Saints also have their trinkets of faith. There are the almost ubiquitous CTR rings (whose inventor, Douglas Coy Miles, recently died) and other objects that give us a place in the world. One can look at them from the outside and study their form and symbolic structure, but it is perhaps more interesting to see the way they circulate within social relationships; they can connect people with one another, and through that people with faith, practice, and belief.
My mother passed away a long time ago, but I keep her scriptures in their carrying case on one of my bookshelves. Just like the Book of Remembrance she made for me decades ago. With its white plastic cover which she probably purchased at Deseret Book, it ties the temple depicted on it with my family and me, not simply through the sheets recording people’s genealogies and sealings, but also through the way it was put together—with all those extra-long genealogy sheets. It connects her to me; she made it and gave it to me. It indexes her, but locates my relationship with her in the domain of the Church and its dependent organizations.
In another bookcase I have the row of books that document my family and locate me within them. These include books such as The Utah Knowltons, The Charles Shumway Family, Ezra Thompson Clark’s Ancestors and Descendents, and so on. Related to American romantic notions of family, these volumes are nevertheless characteristically Latter-day Saint—which I am, just as my bag of stones, my other brown paper bag of dirt, and various images I have of the Virgin are characteristically Catholic, though I am not. The books speak not only of the importance of family, but of family narrative as part of the ongoing story of people taking on the gospel and building eternal ties across generations.
Religion is not simply a matter of belief and ideas. It is also contained in the physical, from trinkets of faith to the built environment. In them the ideas and the social relationships that mobilize them are enshrined and located within governing ideologies and practices.
The dirt from Chimayó and the Virgin’s Silver from Copacabana are not just inert memories, codifications of beliefs and social relationships, they are expected to do some work. They are supposed to perform miracles, such as healing the sick and making your money grow. The CTR shield, the Book of Remembrance, the scriptures, and the books documenting stem families are also open ended with expectations. They manifest hopes my life will fit the form of the others documented within them, from birth and blessing on to eternity. They are an invitation to a Latter-day Saint life. In a way, that is a kind of miracle; the others healing and material blessings are expected to follow from it.
We live in a material world that manifests our faith and opens ritual and drama for us. Although our chapel walls tend to be bare of images, our world is filled with things that are one of the substances of our faith.