The practice of religion has always involved “stuff.” The spiritual life may be invisible, but visible and tangible tokens and expressions of faith, prayer, and religious devotion have an important role to play in our embodied life as Christians. At Pray Tell we have had several posts concerning popular piety, and I would like to offer one concerning a pious practice that may be waning yet which continues to intrigue me: the use of holy cards as an aid to popular devotion.
I grew up with holy cards. As a child, holy cards were my introduction to fine art, as many were reproductions of classic Italian oil paintings. We got them at funerals, mostly, and even as children we were always on the lookout for the most beautiful ones. It might be an image of Jesus that especially appealed to us, such as the Good Shepherd, or a particularly gentle Madonna.
Holy cards were not only funeral mementos. Sometimes such cards were given out at retreats, or sold at shrines devoted to the saints — a tiny gift suitable for someone’s name day perhaps, or an image of a popular saint, along with a prayer associated with that person. Today these also include inspirational figures not yet canonized. The one devoted to Dorothy Day (left) I received before the cause for her canonization was even opened.
As the biblical renewal took hold, holy cards took on new roles. They were emblazoned with bible verses and scenes from nature. Later, reproductions of icons became popular. There was an ecumenical flavor to all this. Yet it also built upon a Catholic sensibility concerning the communion of saints and tangible religious devotional objects, widening the lens while keeping the focus.
Our elders used holy cards as book markers in their missals and prayer books. Women kept them in their purses, dogeared yet always handy. Sometimes you didn’t know why people kept them. They just liked them. They belonged to the order of play rather than work. Of course they were also useful. You’d find holy cards tucked between pages of the Bible to mark a favorite passage, or fixed on the corner of a bedroom mirror on someone’s dresser to remind them that their favorite saint was watching out for them. They were also keepsakes of important anniversaries, such as ordinations or professions of vows.
Were they only religious-themed tchotchkes, though? I think they represented something more, positioned as they were at the intersection of memory, relationship, and personal prayer.
To the extent that they were woven into the fabric of a life of faith, holy cards had a benign presence. The ones with dates of birth and death functioned as reminders of beloved relatives and friends who had passed away, and those lives were clearly placed in the context of our Christian hope of salvation. On one side of the holy card, a person’s name and dates. On the other, a sacred image. Our lives are our own participation in the sacred story. When a holy card was inserted in the pages of a Bible or missal, it lightened the text-heavy page with color. When we carried such cards with us, they helped to bring to mind inspirational verses that might otherwise be forgotten, and they prompted us with texts to pray. Does anybody carry around holy cards anymore?
When I was in charge of the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion for the Archdiocese of New York, we printed holy cards with the date of the liturgy and a quote from the ritual text. These were given out as a remembrance of the event to all the catechumens and candidates and their sponsors. They were surprisingly popular. I do not know precisely how they were used by those who received them, but in an era dominated by secular images, I hoped they would be a small reminder that a sacred event had taken place in their lives on that day in the cathedral.
Popular piety can’t really be programmed. You never know where something like this is going to land. When we prepared the cards for the Rite of Election I noticed, with some satisfaction, that my secretary, who was black, snared for herself a card with an image of a dark-skinned Jesus. She quietly kept it on her desk for as long as she worked there, and she took it with her when she left. The face of Jesus that she looked upon looked back at her, knowingly.
Nowadays at funerals it has become popular to give out a picture of the deceased on a card, instead of printing the name of the deceased on a card that has a picture of Jesus, or Mary or another one of the saints. Just as a number of Christmas cards now showcase family portraits rather than the Holy Family, memorial cards are still popular, but they have become expressions of and celebrations of the individual, rather than a summons to engagement with a religious tradition.
They are quite beautiful and touching, and frequently they are much more expensive and deluxe than the old-fashioned holy cards ever were. We spend a lot on ourselves. But I cannot imagine keeping these as I kept the older ones.
And there’s the rub. The material culture of a faith tradition has many components, and some may be ephemeral, but the ephemera also have a role in telling the story of who we are. In some sense, popular piety also helps us to live into the people we might yet become.