David Farley’s Quest to Find the Carna Vera Sacra — The Foreskin of Christ
We travel for different reasons. The sun and sand. Adventure. To discover something new. To leave something old behind. To conquer fears. To conquer mountains. To learn. To drink. To sober up. To experience other cultures. To find the foreskin of Christ?
In David Farley’s recently released book, An Irreverent Curiosity, that’s exactly what took him on a yearlong quest in Calcata, Italy. Before it became an excommunicable offense to talk about, this relic was a Church superstar. Early on, it attracted droves of faithful pilgrims, and then, controversy. The controversy eventually led to its mysterious disappearance in 1983, or as Farley’s research uncovers, was it really 1986?
The last known resting place of the relic, Calcata, Italy, is where Farley begins his quest for answers to the current whereabouts of the infamous relic. Despite a subject that could easily be a mockery slam-dunk, what the book is not, is irreverent towards the relic or its place in Church history. It’s as good as travel writing gets. A quest. A mystery. A well-researched exposé on eccentric Calcata, Church history and Italy that is easy to read and hard to put down.
If Indiana Jones could write well (I suspect he can’t), this book is in the vein of what he would be publishing. Intrepid travelers, take notes. Farley’s ability to open closed doors abroad is relevant to any foreigner finding frustration in a far-off land. Following is an interview with Farley about his search for the “Church’s strangest relic in Italy’s oddest town.”
The Expeditioner: Your book is not just a travel book, but it’s a quest book, detailing your yearlong quest in Italy to find the holy prepuzio, or in layman’s terms, the holy foreskin of Jesus. How is questing for something different than just simply traveling somewhere?
Farley: A lot of traveling consists of either aimless wandering or checking sites and experiences off a list, which isn’t a terrible thing, b ut putting yourself on a quest instantly makes you part of a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, creating a narrative arc and a resolution. Whether you choose to write about it is another story. It instills a bit more significance to one’s travels and takes the traveler to parts of the city/country/place that they would never think to visit.
The Expeditioner: Your title, An Irreverent Curiosity, made me assume that your book was not going to be extremely reverent towards the Church’s treatment of relics. Considering the subject matter — finding Jesus’ lost foreskin — as written by a former Catholic, it would not be difficult to take a mocking, sarcastic tone. Though the Church might not agree, I thought you wrote fairly and respectfully. At times it seems that you treat your quest to find the relic with the same reverence that was shown to it during the Middle Ages. Was this always your intentional when you decided to write about it? Basically, why is your book respectfully devoid of any penis jokes?
Farley: Thank you for pointing that out. I’ve done a lot of press — radio interviews and Q&A’s online — but almost none of it has been with Christian publications or radio shows. They read what it’s about and immediately think I’m making fun. The fact is, I didn’t have to make the obvious puns and jokes about the subject matter. One could view my book, from the first to last page, as an implicit dick joke. But that was never my intention. I respect history and the worldviews of the people that came before us and I wanted that to come through in the book. It fascinated me most of all that this relic, once a player in the spiritual landscape of medieval Europe, was now unknown and no longer appreciated.
The Expeditioner: One of the things I liked the most about your saga to find . . . okay, I´m just going to say it . . . a preserved part of Jesus´ penis, was the uniqueness of your travel saga. Looking for Jesus’ foreskin is not something that Lonely Planet has on any top ten list. It’s certainly not something I know of anyone else doing. The twenty-first century is perhaps not the best century for the pioneering spirit. There are no new lands to discover, fewer virgin mountains to climb, and simply less things to discover. Let’s be real. Who hasn’t summited Everest? Who hasn’t flown solo around the world in a hot air balloon (yawn)? Were you intentionally looking for a something novel to travel for, to quest for, or did the foreskin unintentionally pick your interest?
Farley: You mean, it’s not on any Lonely Planet lists . . . yet. No, in all seriousness, what attracted me to such a bizarre idea was the fact that we are in the twenty-first century and this long-time aspect of western spirituality — relic veneration — is slowly, quietly dying. I’m interested in the history of spirituality but I’m more interested in documenting aspects of world culture that are not surviving modernism. So this was less of a literal exploration than a documenting of a piece of history that has almost been lost to us.
The Expeditioner: After reading your book, I’ve decided that there is not enough “questing” going on today. Do you agree? What can run of the mill travelers do to become intrepid questers?
Farley: I agree. I’d start with figuring out where your interests lie. Then arrive in a city and let those interests guide you. If you’re in Tokyo, put yourself on a quest to find, say, the most unusual sushi or some food you can’t get back home, like fugu (the potentially lethal blow fish). Or just pick some random thing—creepy vintage ventriloquist dummies, for example—and try to find one. You’ll end up in some interesting off-the-radar places and meeting interesting people. In a way, it’s a travel enhancer. Cialis for travel.
The Expeditioner: The Vatican certainly did not go out of their way to help you on your quest. Complete dismissal of anything to do with you and your mission seems a good way to describe their presence. Have you received any feedback, positive or negative, from anyone in the Church about your book?
Farley: Like their policy on the Holy Foreskin itself, the Church’s reaction to my book has been silence.
The Expeditioner: Travel writer critic Edward Marriot thinks that we have “reached the moment when travel writing [cannot] go any further.” He goes on to say that “[w]ith many young writers of travel turning to history, biography or fiction, the genre has never felt so redundant.” What do you make of Marriot´s comments? Has travel writing really reached a critical mass?
Farley: Nah, travel writing will always be around. Like anything that sustains itself, the genre will change with the times and could look very different in a few decades. That said, the further technology may take us off the road or out of nature, I can very much imagine travel writing entering a retro phase, with writers doing things the “old” way, like getting on train and writing about the journey. But these days, in this age of diminishing attention spans, documenting long journeys hardly captures the interest of readers. So, in my humble opinion, travel books should have an extra hook to them, something that will transcend the travel genre.
The Expeditioner: You spent a year living in Calcata. What’s the difference between living long term in a place, and learning the language as opposed to quick trips.?
Farley: I’ve also lived in Rome, Prague, and Paris and besides the obvious—making new friends, learning the language, knowing your way around—you can really get underneath the place and understand how it ticks, how the culture affects quotidian activities. Traveling this way is a gift we give ourselves that no one will ever be able to take that away from us afterward.