Saturday, April 20, 2013



A "pop-up shrine" in Boston
"Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is sacred ground." (Ex. 3:5)

First, I want to assure you that I have removed my sandals and am aware that I am on sacred ground in this post. Second, I would truly love to hear some opinions from you, my readers, on this subject.
The aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings has got me thinking about memorials, physical symbols that we use to mark a special place or to remind us of a special person or event we wish to honor.  

Frankly, I have a little trouble warming up to a fairly recent phenomenon: the makeshift memorial shrines that pop up at crime scenes around Newark. A drug deal goes bad, resulting in the murder of yet another young citizen of Newark, and the next day, on the very spot of the murder, friends and loved ones begin placing helium balloons, candles in plastic cups, baby pictures, teddy bears and such things. I already told you that I have my sandals off on this one; I would never criticize people’s ways of grieving. I do however, have some questions. 

Is this as recent a phenomenon as I think it is, or have people been doing this for centuries?

North Carolina Monument
I’m well acquainted with the hundreds of noble stone memorials that dot on the National Battlefield at Gettysburg, the “hallowed ground” of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I understand that kind of memorial. So maybe it’s the impermanence of these urban shrines that bothers me. They seem to be eloquent symbols of the transience that is the bane of our cities. After Whitney Huston’s tragic death, the entire fence in front of her home church in Newark became a veritable wall of balloons and cardboard signs. Each day as I drove by I watched the balloons wither and the cardboard disintegrate until one day the whole sad, soggy eyesore was removed. On to the next memorial shrine!

I also wonder about the context of these symbols. What is the difference between a lily taped to a tree at a murder scene on King Boulevard, and a lily placed on the altar during the Easter Vigil in the abbey church a block away?  It seems to me that the second lily has been given a transcendent meaning by being made part of the church community’s celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The same for a candle. Placed on a sidewalk by an individual it's one thing, but blessed and held aloft in a darkened church as the "light of Christ" it seems to me to take on a deeper meaning. The faith context has given the lily and the candle a deep religious significance they don't otherwise have. Do you agree?

On the other hand I’m not at all sure of the context of the various symbols I see on the city sidewalks. A heart-shaped balloon that proclaims “I love you!” is clearly someone’s very personal expression of love and grief. I’m not criticizing that. Just wondering. Are these shrines more "personal" than  "communal" expressions? What purpose do you think they serve in our post-Christian culture? I.e. what is their context?

Here are some more questions that I hope will provoke some feedback in the “Comment” box this week. Please add your thoughts.

First, given that we are symbol-makers by nature, do you think that these impromptu shrines are modern substitutes for the abandoned classical communal religious symbols such as funeral services, hymn-singing, and so forth? 

As a Benedictine I spend hours a day in the world of symbols: bowing, standing, singing, making the sign of the cross, reciting sacred poems (Psalms) with my brother monks. Do you think that this is why I’ve never been tempted to put a candle on a sidewalk – even for a murdered student of mine? 

Do you think that a church-goer is as likely to place a balloon at a "pop-up shrine" as someone who doesn't go to church?

Have you  ever performed some sort of symbolic action like the one I’m talking about? What was the idea or the feeling behind your gesture? 

How about some help on these questions.  I’d be interested in your thoughts.
Why do you think people make these shrines?


  1. Fr., I'm always perplexed in the days of old why people were buried in the church - mostly rich and famous people, or why there is a need to remind people which family paid for which pew, or stain-glassed window.

    I think it depends on which perspective you are coming from when it comes to shrines. I have read about the idea that at that place where a murder, or tragedy took place, there is a disturbance in the very fabric of time and space. That's a bit "New Age" for me, but I don't want to digress into a metaphysical speculation about time and space.

    I think people remember. It is a ritual of sorts.

    I'm still perplexed about the notion that we live in a "post-Christian" era. Maybe because I live in this type of community and there is always some talking head speaking for or against some Christian belief.

    I think the context is remembrance. The same reason we honor fallen soldiers. It is a ritual and I do believe that many of those who create these shrines are church-goers. I think one will usually find a cross in most of these locations. I have never seen a Star of David or an Ohm symbol, or crescent moon by the side of the road. I found the 911 shrines a bit "secular" and disturbing because of the American Flag being prominently displayed (as in the photo you include here).

    But I would bet there's a cross somewhere in there. If it's not there, then I do think it's in the hearts of those who constructed the shrine. Well, I hope so. If not, then, well, I think God's there to some extent, even without the symbolism.

  2. Basically, I think that memorials are created by people who do not know what else to do. Their intention depends on who sees them.

  3. A distinction should be made between the shrines created for road side tragedies. Those are family and friends. In the case of say, 911, I don't know because I can't speak for everyone. But in the face of an epic tragedy what are you supposed to do? I see those who place the photos and mementos on the shrine and then I see the onlookers. I don't understand what you mean by "their intention depends on who sees them." Also, you make the judgment that they "are created by people who do not know what else to do" then make the statement about intentions being in the eye of the spectator who is presumably not participating in the ritual? Maybe you are correct, but I see the faces of those who make the shrines and the spectators. There is a sense that this is all the can do. So, it is not a matter of not knowing. Any little bit of compassion, empathy, or sympathy helps I think in this world that tells us we aren't supposed to care about our neighbor. Or maybe since we all believe the lie of the world, we forget how to care,

  4. When Jesus was transfigured, Peter immediately wanted to erect three tents. I'm sure that, as in this instance, these popular memorials have something to do with holy ground, but it may have more to do with eliciting a communal response. If you were not there at the time of the tragedy, seeing the memorial puts you there in terms of remembering the event and how other people are affected by it. You share their grief and, for a while, become one of them. As the memorials pile up, the survivors, friends, and family members are consoled by the number of people whose hearts and prayers are with them. Even if fleeting, those are testimonies of the importance the lost individuals had on a part of the world; they mattered to someone, their lives were not in vain.

  5. I personally don't think the memorials have anything to do with holy ground and perhaps more to do with communal response. I'm a little unclear about the reference to Luke 9:27-36. On the mountain of transfiguration, Peter repeats his error of talking too quickly and thinking too little, the way he did in Matthew 16:17-19 and then when Jesus mentions his coming suffering he calls Peter Satan Matthew 16:21-23. I think in both instances, despite his enthusiasm and commitment to Christ, Peter was hasty in his remark as I think that his ill-conceived words would illicit some divine response. This is the problem with the disciples and us today. But that's my reading, so I am not sure what the comparison is.

    I think these memorials are sincere and heartfelt and perhaps the only gesture that these people can make at whatever point they are in relation to Christ or not.

    The tragedy does make the ground appear to be hallowed, but is it the tragedy itself. That in that place, in which the victims were, despite what happened, salvation is there? I think so.

  6. I believe that what matters in certain situations, like these, is what we feel, not exactly what we think. What people think about certain things, and what people feel about them, can be different, even between several people. Therefore, reactions to such events would be different depending on a person, or a group of persons.

  7. Believing and thinking are synonymous when it comes to something like this, even when it comes to religion. Do we believe something BECAUSE it's true, in our believing it BECOMES true. It's all wrapped up in our identity, whether as individuals, communities, or nations. It matter a great deal in all the situations. Emotion is a by-product, a result of belief and/or thought. Two people can react in rage or sorry, can be compassionate or indifferent. The point, I think, is the significance of the act. I don't think these acts is superficial at all and do believe/think that there are plenty of churchgoers who do, and should, participate in these acts. Of course, there are those who will just go to church, and there are those who won't care in the least.