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By Eric A. Clayton

As it turns out, the skull of a saint looks like any other skull. Not that I’ve seen a lot of skulls, of course. Not live and in person. But I’ve watched my fair share of movies. Indiana Jones, that sort of thing.

A skull is a skull.

Except this one: The one I traveled by train to New York City last week to see. The one that was ported across the Canadian border in an unassuming black box. The one that was on display in churches and chapels across the United States throughout February, culminating in an evening of adoration and confession and Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in early March.

The one that belonged to St. Jean de Brébeuf.

Brébeuf was a French Jesuit, a missionary and a martyr. He met his end ministering to the Huron — people whom he loved. Along with another missionary and a number of Huron, he was captured and tortured and killed.

Staring at his skull for hours on end, it was hard not to think of death: his death, my death, the deaths of others.

I spent not an insignificant portion of the evening crouched behind the altar rail, camera in hand, watching as one person after another approached the skull — a first-degree relic, no less — fell to their knees and prayed. I snapped some photos, took some video.

It wasn’t until the next day that Isaac Beck — a recent graduate of Saint Louis University and the one tasked with accompanying the skull throughout the entirety of its tour — offered me the spiritual key to unlock the whole experience.

“We need people that will enter the wilderness of another person,” he said. The imagery was helpful to me, that sense that the truest frontiers to which we journey, to which we are missioned, are the frontiers found in our own deepest selves and the deepest parts of another person. The wild within.

Isaac Beck prays before the relic of St. Jean de Brebeuf at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC. Photo Credit: Eric A. Clayton/Jesuit Conference

I was reminded of what I witnessed, crouched there in the church: One pilgrim after another approaching the relic, fishing around in their pockets and producing holy medals and prayer cards and the like. These pilgrims would hand their items to Isaac, and he would gently, reverently press the object against the glass case containing the skull.

It was striking.

“These are the objects that they pray with, that connect them to God in some way,” Isaac said. “They got to be a little bit closer to a saint. … We want to be close to holy people.”

I think about the weaving together of our own sacred stories. I think about our own small, holy objects, those things that point us toward the sacred, toward God and God’s desires. I think of the old rosary in my pocket and the old skull at the front of that church.

And I wonder how it is that we all muddle forward together, striving our best to live holy lives, to manifest the holiness that God has already infused into our very being — into our very bones.

The relic of St. Jean de Brebeuf sits in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC for pilgrims to pray with. Photo Credit: Eric A. Clayton/Jesuit Conference

And then we necessarily plunge into the wilderness, armed with nothing more than a few sacred trinkets and the God of the universe, and we encounter ourselves, we encounter one another, and we encounter that same God who delights and desires to draw us near.

And yes, we are inspired and encouraged and challenged by the witness of holy folks who have stumbled down that same path before us. Not because they got it perfect but because God doesn’t need them to be perfect in order for them to be beloved.

This reflection is part of the award-winning weekly email series, “Now Discern This.” If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith and My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality (Loyola Press). He is the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterU.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine and more.  Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat.