by Matt Sitman
Jason Byassee pens a Protestant appreciation of relics, or the bones and possessions of Christian saints, arguing that to reject them puts you “dangerously far away from the presence of one whose resurrection was so unbearably physical that it will draw our bodies from their graves too one day”:
The church in the Middle Ages built elaborate reliquaries for bones, clothes, and other physical objects related to the bodies of the saints. The reason was simple: saints are those on whom God has provided an especially gracious dose of holiness. In a faith like ours that is built on the incarnation, holiness comes not despite but through the physical body. The great Peter Brown’s book on this, The Cult of the Saints, shows that ancient Christians’ veneration of bodies came in marked contrast to their pagan and Jewish neighbors. Both rival groups viewed the dead as unclean in a way that was contagious for those who came in contact with them. Christians, on the other hand, viewed the saints as holy and their dead bodies or earthly possessions (see here Acts 19:12) as making others holy. So rather than flee cemeteries, we Christians built churches on top of them.
To some extent, we are our bones. What we do with the bones of those before us shows who we are. We shouldn’t treat them like talismans, as though independent of our own pursuit of biblical holiness they can magically whisk us into heaven. Neither should we denigrate them. We should honor them, even, to use ancient Christian language, venerate them. I remember seeing the top-hat of President Lincoln in his museum in Springfield, Illinois, with two fingermarks worn clean where he used to doff the thing. I felt my heart bow. How much more in the presence of the body of a holy one?
(Image by Ramón Cutanda López.)
by Chris Bodenner
A reader bristles over this post:
I disagree with the focus on relics, no matter who is doing the venerating or how much the apologetics try to explain that they are not idols. When I look at what people do aside from what they say, the physical objects are serving as idols if only for a small fraction of the orthodox followers. On top of that, to imply that if I do not idolize the relic then I am less worthy of approaching G0d is taking this even further in the wrong direction.
There is a strong human tendency to slip from veneration into idol worship. The Bible goes out of its way again and again to urge us to steer away from idolatry and to focus on one true G0d that does not manifest a physical presence. That the one G0d chose to be unseen and non-physical is the most sublime and wise decision in the history of humanity. Similarly that Moses was taken up without a physical trace, and that Jesus was taken up without a physical trace, goes a long way to preventing the focus on the physical remnants and to keep the focus were it is better set – on the one, unseen G0d. It keeps people focused on living better lives, now bowing to physical objects. (I once watched pilgrims bow to objects at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.) If we had a grave of Moses or Jesus, there would be a constant stream of millions of people and an almost irresistible tendency to turn them into idols. Similarly the Jews have to keep in mind the Kotel is not the focus and the Torah scroll is just a book, not something to be worshipped.
Another sends the above photo and writes:
From my travels, we recently saw two very different churches where bones were on display. The first was Sedlec Ossuary, in the small town of Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, east of Prague. We had gone on a day tour and this small church is close to the railway station, from where we walked. We saw a construction on the wall that claimed to have used all the bones in a human body, and another one where a chandelier is made of bones.
And more recently, our travels took us to Goa in western India. In the Basilica of Bom Jesus is the remains St. Francis Xavier.
Seen above. Another reader:
Reading the post on the relics of saints, I was reminded of the Bible referencing others who rose from the dead along with Jesus.
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (NIV)
I wonder what happened to those dudes.
by Chris Bodenner
In the ’90s, I visited a church in Budapest where they displayed the 1000-year-old hand of St. Stephen. You have to put a coin in a box to make it light up. I couldn’t bear to look.
Another goes deep:
The problem with Christian opposition to idolatry is that the Doctrine of Incarnation postulates that God really became incarnate in matter. The Body of Christ is literally an idol (although a true idol per Orthodoxy). Furthermore, from the standpoint of Alexandrian theology, the whole point of the incarnation is so that we can become like God through the example of Christ, divinization, e.g. icons of Christ. Otherwise, the whole thing is pointless; you should just give up and study Aristotle or something.
Without saints, and icons and relics, you end up with a God that is just some occult metaphysical abstraction that saves us through some occult metaphysical process in some occult metaphysical by and by. Why not just worship God in an occult metaphysical way too? That is, why not just be nice and think positively? Why make a gesture of prayer or come together in a gesture of worship at all? Obviously, if we look up when we pray, then aren’t we suggesting that God is some kind of being up in the sky? If we speak, aren’t we suggesting that God has ears and can hear us? (And if he has ears, why can’t we draw them?) How is this any different from kissing an icon?
Or even better, isn’t the idea of a God that is not, in some sense, really physically present in matter a vacuous and meaningless idea? And isn’t that the central foundation of a vacuous and meaningless “contemporary” spirituality?
by Chris Bodenner
A reader sends the above photo:
Here in Philadelphia, we’ve got the entire body of a saint on display. St. John Neumann is not very well-known outside of Philadelphia. He was a Redemptorist priest who became the fourth bishop of Philadelphia and is credited with founding the parochial school system and the Forty Hours devotion. During the canonization process, his body was exhumed from its resting place in the basement of St. Peter the Apostle Church and found to be in excellent condition after nearly 100 years in the ground. The basement of the church was converted into a church and shrine. There’s a side room off of the sanctuary that serves as a mini-museum to St. John Neumann and a gift shop.
I’ve been to the shrine a few times. The entire experience is equal parts fascinating and creepy. I believe in the veneration of saints, but spending time looking at a dead saint’s body feels strange.
Another dead saint:
A relic was actually one of the catalysts for my conversion from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism. The skeleton of Saint Munditia lies in Old St. Peter’s in Munich, and it is stunning. We simply don’t have stuff like this here – I speak of North America, but particularly of Toronto, where I’m from. I first saw the relic on my first trip to Europe in the late 1990s, and it was part of my broader discovery of the spiritual richness of the Roman church. The old Protestant dig is to disparage Roman Catholicism for the smells and bells, but that’s where my journey of faith was leading me. To me, Lutheranism was dry, untethered to either a rich history (since it seemed Christianity only really began in 1517) or a larger family of faith (since each congregation is essentially independent; when visiting another congregation, you need to pre-clear having Communion with the pastor before the service). Munditia’s relic showed me not only the faith’s ancient roots, but also its physical manifestations. These people in the New Testament – they existed, and you can see their bones. You can see the bones of those who believed so strongly in Christ that they died for it. For me, who grew up in an utterly unadorned and nondescript church, it was a revelation that led to a much deeper faith.
More dead saints and readers’ thoughts on them here.
A reader keeps the thread undead:
Your fascinating series reminds me of a summer tour I took as a teenager with a youth choir from Montana, where I grew up. I’d been raised Presbyterian, and though my home church was neo-Gothic and quite beautiful, it included none of the statuary and shrines of American Catholic churches, and certainly no sign of European churches’ veneration of relics and remains. Death was kept at a prim distance; open caskets for example were considered both spiritually suspect and (though this was unspoken) in terrible taste.
One of our first stops on the trip was Salzburg, and I vividly remember stumbling on St. Sebastian’s Church and Cemetery, near our hotel, a place teeming with carved memento mori – skulls, snakes, bones, bats, and winged hourglasses [example seen to the right]. In the walled cemetery, a statue of a ragged corpse – sunken-eyed and grimacing, as if decomposed – rose out of an above-ground tomb. I’d never encountered such morbidly bracing imagery and didn’t then have the familiarity I would discover later – through works of Schubert, Freud, Hermann Broch, and many others – with the Austrian intimacy with death. A few days later we sang in the gorgeous abbey church of Mondsee, not far from Salzburg, where five skeletons, bejeweled and richly vested, are encased in the high altar. (It’s the same church where the wedding scene from The Sound of Music was filmed; you can see the skeletons as the camera pans upward if you know to look for them but they’re hidden by the overall detail.) We usually sang in churches, and throughout the tour it was much the same – a niche of monks’ skulls in a Swiss village chapel, glass coffins displaying remains, the haunting crypts and mausoleums of Père Lachaise, silver hearts encasing saints’ organs, dimly-lit Roman catacombs. The encounters in these places cracked open the WASPish Christianity of my childhood and my sense of mortality as little else did, except subsequent encounters with death itself.
Decades later on trips to Mexico, I was struck by the the unflinchingly gruesome depictions of Christ’s torture and crucifixion in churches there, and it would bring to mind that summer as a 17-year old. It is impossible not to be moved and horrified by some of the depictions, and I would not say I could regularly worship near them. But they and their European variations have deepened my own faith, making it both more mystical and more visceral, paradoxically more alive, for which I’m very grateful.
I haven’t thought as much about relics as I probably should have, but they keep popping up when you read about medieval history. People thought of relics as having supernatural power. This gave them very real economic value.
For example, there was a movement called the “peace and truce of god” that was designed to constrain noble violence, which was seen as one of the most significant societal problems at the time. Churchmen would summon nobles to a meeting, where they’d be confronted with a big display of all the relics the local churches were able to muster. The relics were used to frighten the nobles into making pledges to limit their violent conduct in certain ways.
And relics played a big role in the Crusades. Everyone wanted relics, and everyone was aware that some of the relics floating around Europe were fakes. People thought that the best way to get authentic relics of very old saints was go to to the source, the Holy Land. So in a sense, relics were a resource, sort of like oil, that the Holy Land possessed and that Europeans wanted.
There’s a famous incident that took place during the First Crusade, at the siege of Antioch. The crusaders were very discouraged and there was a lot of talk about packing it in and going home. Someone claimed to have had a prophetic dream that showed him where to find a relic of the holy lance, the spear used to pierce the body of Christ during his crucifixion. There was debate about whether the dream was valid, but when they dug in the place specified by the dream, they found a relic. This pushed everyone toward sticking with the project, and had a big effect in keeping the siege and the crusade going.
Obviously, there were some who felt the whole thing had been staged. And at the Battle of Hattin, during the Third Crusade, Saladin was able to capture an object that was believed to be part of the true cross. It had been brought into battle because the crusaders believed it would give them an edge. The loss of the relic was a really big deal – it loomed large when people tallied up the losses from that crusade. It was very significant to the Europeans.
I know that the blog has been talking about body parts, and that neither the holy lance nor the true cross were parts of anyone’s body. But in the medieval world, they were all relics, and these stories illustrate the extent to which relics were invested with power. I don’t know enough about the subject of relics to come up with good stories about body part relics that make the same point.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the discussion in the blog about relics has been the part about how the idea of relics ties into the notion of bodily resurrection. That’s something pretty important, I think, and I had never thought of it before.
But before I thought about that, the thing about relics that was most interesting to me was how primitive the whole thing seemed. Medievalists like CS Lewis and Tolkein present medieval Christianity in a really positive light – the Christianity that dates back from the time that Europe was Christendom seems better, in some respects, than today’s Christianity.
But when you read about the holy lance at the Siege of Antioch, it’s kind of jarring to think about where people’s headers were at. The idea that the fate of the crusade hung on such a story seems insane, and the crusaders seem sort of childish and easily fooled. They seem to be more superstitious than religious. And I find the prospect of armed men of that mindset traveling great distances to conquer foreign territory to be pretty frightening.
One of the really great things about Catholicism is that there are these strange fragments of medieval thinking that have been preserved, in some form, to the present day. I’d put relics in that category. I don’t know what people think about them now. I suspect that most modern Catholics don’t really think about them.
But whenever I’m in Paris (which isn’t often, lately), I always visit the cathedral at St. Denis, and walk through the crypt where the bones of all of the ancient kings and queens of France are kept. And I’m always interested to think about how the revolutionaries felt it was worth the trouble to turn the pantheon into a reliquary for secular saints, to counter act the symbolic power of St. Denis. That might have been the idea’s last gasp.
Think about how differently we think about the bodies exhibition at the South Street Seaport. I haven’t seen it, because I’m squeamish about such things, and there have been allegations that the bodies of criminals and perhaps political prisoners from China were used for the display. But while the innate fascination with human body “stuff” pulls people to the exhibition, we justify and explain our fascination with science, rather than religion. We just want to see how the ligaments are attached.
I think that this is one of those subjects that’s most interesting in an “archaeology of thought” sort of way. The idea of relics has a long, complicated, and surprisingly intense history. The shriveled stump that’s left of it today is kind of creepy and mostly interesting in a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” kind of way, but not much more. Who would think that the idea had enough power at one time to play a significant role in the conduct of several wars?
Maybe that’s the message we ought to take from the subject on this day in 2013. Maybe relics ought to remind us that when you go to war, there’s a pretty good chance that your reasons are actually crazy. Maybe relics can serve as a reminder that when you think you have to go and kill people in a war for moral reasons, a lot of the time you’re just being batshit crazy. Maybe the ideas that seem fighting for today will fade in the future, and they won’t seem worth dying over any more.
By the way, I just checked, and someone is selling what they claim is a piece of the true cross on Ebay. It’s only $245.