For T.S. Eliot, April is the cruelest month (as it is for many teachers, professors, and tax professionals). But for the medieval English poet Chaucer, and for many of the faithful in medieval Europe, April was when pilgrimage season started. In spring,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
Page from the Ellesmere ms of The Canterbury Tales. Public Domain.
Some pilgrims sought foreign lands, but many went to the relatively local Canterbury, site of the twelfth-century martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. Chaucer’s lines imply that some pilgrims journey to give thanks to this “hooly blissful martir” for acts of miraculous healing accomplished at a distance. Many such long-distance miracles were attributed to him, such as that of William of Kellett, to whom St. Thomas appeared in a dream. William, whose story is told in one of the surviving early thirteenth-century stained glass windows at Trinity Chapel, afterwards woke to find his wounded leg whole again.  St. Thomas also appeared in a dream to a man whose family who had been spared from the plague, this time in order to warn him that he must make the overdue “pilgrimage of gratitude” to Canterbury.  In these cases, while the miraculous intervention of the saint was accomplished at a distance, physicality — stuff in the realm of the tangible and corporeal — was crucially important to the spiritual economy of relics and saintly intercession. This applies to relics as well as physical sites like shrines; recipients of healing were expected to travel to the saint’s “home” if possible rather than convey their gratitude from a distance, at least for “big favors.” Quite often, the saints’ benevolent intervention in the lives of the living faithful was accomplished by means of, or at least in the presence of, the relics of the saint. For instance, in another miracle portrayed in the windows of Trinity Chapel, “Mad Henry of Fordwich” is cured after spending the night at Becket’s tomb. 
A reliquary in the Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art at Schloss Hellbrunn in Austria.Some Rights Reserved: photo CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, by Curious Expeditions at flickr
Even though these objects and sites are part of a spiritual economy, one keenly concerned with the immortal soul, the flesh matters too – matter matters, as it were. As the Canterbury examples illustrate, relics were important to this belief system, but so were sites sacred to departed saints that were not, strictly speaking, relics themselves. And these two elements – the relic and the shrine – are intimately associated, in many cases intertwined. But physical relics are not always easy to come by, and pilgrimage is not always possible. Even though possession of a saint’s relic was at one point a requirement for the dedication of a church,  the faithful sometimes had to be creative or even aggressive in their efforts to obtain the necessary relics, and theft of relics was not uncommon in medieval Europe. One way that a relic shortage could be handled was through a principle of transference, by which we get what are today, in English-speaking countries, often called “third class relics.” Many relics needed for the consecration of churches in the sixth century were obtained by this osmosis or contagion principle. Church authorities would place a “box containing portions of silk or cloth, known as brandea,” into the tombs of the Apostles, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. The brandea, “after lying for a time in contact with the remains of the holy Apostles, were henceforth treated as relics.”  This type of relic is very easy to come by today, and new ones can be “made” as needed.
So the Church, or at least members of it, categorize relics according to how far removed from the physical body and life of the saint, in a sense (in the U.S. you often hear of “first class relics” and “third class relics” and the like, while in Italy you will sometimes hear of “major” and “minor” relics — reliquia minima, reliquia notabile, etc); while these particular categories are not universal and are not, as far as I have been able to discover, published anywhere in any official Church source as an explicit teaching or guideline, the habit of categorizing them in some way according to their “distance” from the saint him- or herself is pretty common. These categories, like various modes of “official use,” have always been somewhat of a shifting and sometimes grey area. The Church allows for these grey areas, not just in terms of vocabulary but also in terms of spiritual practice about and faith in these relics and other sites or media through and by which the spiritual and temporal worlds interact; according to The Catholic Encyclopedia, despite the fact that many popular and long-venerated relics (like the Veil of Veronica or even the “True Cross”) are of dubious authenticity, the Church frequently “allows the cult of certain doubtful relics to continue” . The Church recognized long ago that many long-venerated relics could never be proven authentic beyond a shadow of a doubt, and it furthermore realized that many “devotions of ancient date” were “deeply rooted in the heart of the peasantry” and could not be “swept away without some scandal and popular disturbance,” in one writer’s (rather dated) words . In short, we can’t prove this bit of wood is part of the True Cross (for instance), but if its veneration harms no-one and does not conflict with Church teaching or principle, and if it fosters the faith of the people, then it is just fine.
Veronica’s Veil. Diptychon mit Johannes dem Täufer und der Hl. Veronika, by Hans Memling. Public Domain.
In fact, the Church stays out of the business of pronouncing any particular relic, miracle, or apparition as authentic or not; Church officials to this day are called on to sanction the veneration of relics and apparitions, but their role is actually confined to stating that, after examination, they have determined that its veneration is or is not heretical. That’s why it’s not really accurate to say, like this article’s headline does, that the Church has “certified” or “approved” a given apparition, miracle, etc. (though this article redeems itself if you read the whole thing, explaining a lot more clearly how it actually works). The Church doesn’t say “Yes, this vision or miracle or relic is verified or authentic.” Church officials tend rather to express opinions in terms like “reliable” or “worthy of belief,” as in the case of Cardinal Ratzinger’s judgment on the 20th century apparition of the Virgin Mary in Akita, Japan.  In short, the Church only gets involved in cases where it needs to determine whether a popular tradition of veneration is or is not in danger of leading to heresy, apostasy, or idolatry.  It often makes no pronouncement at all on popular sites of devotion and pilgrimage.
This grey area is home to an incredible array of folk and personal spiritual practice in Judeo-Christian tradition (and traditions growing out from Judeo-Christian traditions), from personal pilgrimage to home-made shrines, in addition to being the fertile ground for more formal sites and acts of devotion like pilgrimages to Canterbury. By this sort of positive contagion principle, by which a cloth can be touched to a relic and thus become a relic itself, and by which a relic can be built into the founation of an altar by which to consecrate a church, it is not an exaggeration to say that no physical item associated with a saint is without spiritual value,  and that includes even the homespun altars and shrines that people assemble in their own homes or on roadsides. Sometimes, if you can’t go to the saint, you can bring part of the saint to you. People without the means or access to sites like Canterbury or objects like the Shroud of Turin can still work to create personal sacred sites, where the spiritual and temporal intersect even in everyday life. And this brings us to the wide variations in personal and popular practice and “folk Catholicism,” and thus to the real point of this post: the long, living, and vibrant tradition of “unofficial,” folk shrines, altars, sites of devotion, and physical objects of faith.
An altar to St. Expedite on Reunion Island. Some rights reserved: CC BY-SA 2005 David Monniaux
Today’s folk practitioners build shrines on roadsides; make them out of candy tins; create them on their mantelpieces or in their bedrooms; carry or wear them around their necks; build transient ones to serve as sites of sacred intersection for the short span of a single ceremony; build living ones that last years or decades but are fluid as they reflect the coming and going of offerings, candles, ex votos, milagros, prayer papers, flowers, and statues of the faithful as they interact with and add to the site; build permanent structures as chapels in the forests or the deserts of their regions; build tiny chapels in the middle of nowhere as a gesture of thanks or faith or as a home for their saints and their devotions.
As a celebration of these sacred art objects and structures in Judeo-Christian traditions , this April’s contest at Karma Zain is focused on these personal shrines, altars, sacred spots, assemblages, and objects where the spiritual and temporal meet according to the principles I’m describing in this article. As you can gather, I hope, from the preceding, I am interpreting “shrine” and “relic” quite broadly; but simply to put some parameters or limits in here somewhere, I am confining this contest to shrines, memorials, relics, reliquaries, nichos, altars etc that are in, or peripheral to, or aesthetically inspired by, or philosophically derived from, the Judeo-Christian tradition.  To enter, just send photos of a shrine, nicho, reliquary, ex voto, altar, etc that you have created, made, assembled, or are otherwise primarily responsible for. You can submit up to three photos of your subject, and each subject will equal one entry. If you want to submit more than one entry, you can. (So if you have three photos of the same altar, that’s one entry. If you have three photos, one each of three different altars, that’s three entries.) If this gets a number of entries that makes it impossible to put them all in single blog post for judging, then Karma Zain and associates will select a manageable number of finalists. If all entries, total, end up being a manageable number for a single blog post, then they will all go to the finalist stage. To help spread the word towards the ideal of creating a curated collection of images of your awesome spiritual art and folk practice, you guys — my readership — will be the judges of the finalists.
Our Lady of Sorrows shrine, (c) Karma Zain
First Place gets – big surprise – a custom shrine, designed in conjunction with the winner, for the saint, spirit, figure, or patron of the winner’s choice. You win, you tell me what saint, angel, spirit, figure, etc you’d like a shrine for (as well as any preferences like “small enough to fit in my car glove compartment” or “suitable for hanging on a wall,” and I make it for you, one of a kind and custom, incorporating your prayers, petitions, devotions, etc. My shrines are *all* one of a kind (and usually retail between $80 and $300), so this is a great chance to win some spiritual folk art made just for you!
Ghuede shrine, (c) Karma Zain
Second Place gets a custom spiritual jewelry item, designed in conjunction with the winner, for the saint, spirit, figure, or patron of the winner’s choice. You win, you tell me what saint, angel, spirit, etc you’d like an item of devotional jewelry made for, and I make it for you. This could be a hoodoo medium’s necklace, a traditional Marian rosary, a bracelet, a chaplet, an incognito necklace that doesn’t give away its true meaning, a “collar” for an altar bottle, even a decorated sash or scarf if you use those in your practice. My jewelry and prayer bead pieces are all one of a kind (and usually retail between $20 and $100), so this is a great chance to grab a custom-made wearable piece.
Mary Magdalene Rosary, (c) Karma Zain
Contest Rules and Details Summary:
1. Email the photo to me, as an attachment, to karmazain at gmail dot com. Please make the subject line refer to the contest somehow. The image must be your intellectual property and you must have the right to publish it, share it, etc. You are welcome to send a short caption if you’d like to explain the object or the context, in which case I may incorporate your written info, verbatim or paraphrased, as part of my posting of your photo.
2. You are agreeing to have your photograph, or links to your photograph, published in my blog and any connected social networking sites (Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, etc). You retain ownership of your own intellectual or creative property, but your entering the contest constitutes your agreement to have your photo published, blogged, linked to, reblogged, etc. If you’d like me to publish your name (and/or website) along with it, I will, or you can submit anonymously and I will use initials and location (like JS from CA).
3. You are agreeing to have your photographs entered into a contest, the finalists for which will have their stuff judged *by my readership,* probably via a poll that I put up in a blog post after the deadline. Please don’t be a jerk and try to game the system by voting for your own photo a bunch of times (the poll won’t allow it anyway), though you are free to campaign for your own photo and ask your friends to vote; I’m just asking that folks please stick to “one vote per person”).
4. The contest will be open until April 29, the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena (for no other reason than because she was my Confirmation saint). I will put up the poll and open the voting shortly after that, and voting will be open until May 8 (an old feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, the anniversary of his apparition at Monte Gargano). 
5. No whining. (You would not believe the grief I get when I try to give shit away for free. People complain about the rules, complain about how the contest is set up, complain about the prizes, complain about how I notify winners, complain because they cut themselves opening the box containing their free shit – I am telling you, it is land-o-overdeveloped-sense-of-entitlement, aka greedy grabby shit, in some quarters. If you don’t like the rules, feel free to not enter the contest, for God’s sake; I’m just over here trying to give some cool stuff to people who are interested in the same type of spiritual expression and practice that I’m interested in.)
6. This list should be a quick ref, but reading this summary isn’t a substitute for reading the whole article, without which you might not understand what the whole ethic and aesthetic at work here are.
Two necklaces, (c) Karma Zain
 Harris, Anne. “Pilgrimage, Performance, and Stained Glass at Canterbury Cathedral.” Art and Architecture Of Late Medieval Pilgrimage In Northern Europe And The British Isles: Texts. Sarah Blick and Rita Tekippe, eds. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005: 263-264.
 Harris, 263.
 Canterbury Cathedral: Becket Miracle Window 4.
 The second Nicean council decreed in 787 that churches had to be in possession of relics in order to be dedicated. I haven’t extended my research on this into contemporary times so I’m not sure if this is still a requirement today. See Kamowski, William. “’Coillons,’ Relics, Skepticism and Faith on Chaucer’s Road to Canterbury: An Observation on the Pardoner’s and the Host’s Confrontation.” ELN 28 (1991): 4.
 Thurston, Herbert. “Relics.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia‘s entry on relics, “Neither has the Church ever pronounced that any particular relic, not even that commonly venerated as the wood of the Cross, as authentic.”
 Thurston, “Relics.”
 “Messages of our Lady in Akita, Japan.” Michael 337 (2005): 17. Michael Journal.
 Pope Innocent was asked to make a ruling on the authenticity of the Holy Foreskin at the abbey of Charroux in the twelfth century; the Pope declined. See Farley, David, “Fore Shame,” Slate 19 Dec. 2006. Calcata and Charroux both claimed to have the Holy Foreskin in the early twentieth century; the Vatican, rather than ruling definitively on the status of either claim, simply threatened to excommunicate anybody who perpetuated the controversy. See Silverman, Eric, From Abraham to America: A History of Jewish Circumcision, Devon, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002: 158.
 Sumption, Jonathan, The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God, Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003: 112.
 Broadly interpreted, so ATRs using Catholic iconography are included in this category, as are nichos made in traditionally-inspired style for people or personalities who are not, strictly speaking, recognized as saints or angels, as would a homemade reliquary made to house a physical object tied to a non-canonically-approved figure like Black Hawk. In other words, it’s possible to work within the folk traditions ultimately springing from or inspired by these Judeo-Christian traditions and principles of shrine and relic without considering yourself a monotheist, a Catholic, or a “person of the Book.”
 So, as much as I love sand mandalas, Kali, homemade shrines to Hecate, hand-carved drinking horns for blot, etc, those would not fit the parameters here in their “pure” form; those are different traditions with different aesthetics and philosophies underlying the construction of sacred art and sites. This is nothing against paganism or Eastern philosophy or practice at all, but there are lots of forums for those types of traditions and practices already, and they are not what this blog is devoted to.
 Some saints or angels have more than one feast day, and for visitations and apparitions, the feasts often have to do with the anniversary of a given visitation or apparition. That’s why you see so many different “faces” of the Virgin Mary, for instance. There’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, OL of Sorrows, OL of Mount Carmel, etc. So you will see people say the feast day of St. Michael is Sep. 29, and they’re not wrong, but that’s not really the whole story, either. In southern Italy and much of Europe in the Middle Ages, one of St. Michael’s feast days was commonly observed on May 8. See, for instance, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 6082, a twelfth-century Benedictine manuscript from southern Italy. For more on St. Michael’s feast days and their histories in various parts of the world, here’s an excerpt/summary of a chapter written by Father Francis Xavier Weiser in The Holy Day Book, Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., New York, 1956.
St. Expedite shrine; Memento Mori chaplet, (c) Karma Zain