“I’m not going to church anymore,” Joe said as we walked along. “I’m going to the mosque. I like it there.”
I knew that. Joe, a legal immigrant from Central America, was feeling very alienated from the Catholic Church. He had never felt welcomed by most Anglos in the parish, and now a lot of his “own people” had turned against him in anger because he had fallen in love with and married a Protestant, Anglo woman. Stung by the lack of acceptance, Joe turned his back on the church the way he felt it had turned his back on him.
I knew all that, but Joe felt he needed to say it, perhaps because of where we were right then. My wife, Deb, and I, had just had dinner with Joe and his wife, and afterward we suggested that we show them Enders Island, a small island connected to the mainland by a short causeway. It’s one of the loveliest places on the Connecticut coastline, a great place to walk quietly and contemplate God, life, and the world. It’s also home to St. Edmund’s Retreat center, and as we walked along, I think Joe just needed to remind me that he was there for the view, not the faith.
I respected his desire and just walked with him, pointing out the main house and other buildings on the ground, including the chapel. “The arm of St. Edmund is in there,” I said.
Joe stopped and looked at me. “The arm?” he asked. “What’s that?”
“It’s a relic,” I said. The arm of Saint Edmund, a 13th-century archbishop of Canterbury in England. Would you like to see it?” We walked into the chapel, and I led Joe to the small alcove where a crystal reliquary sits on a shelf, behind glass. Inside the reliquary, and protruding from an ornate Episcopal sleeve, is a small, delicate hand, complete with leathery skin and fingernails. The arm of St. Edmund.
Joe looked at the arm for a brief moment, and then fell to his knees before the reliquary, with his hands folded before his face, and his lips moving in silent but very fervent prayer. I felt awkward standing there, so I moved off to give this man — who was feeling so strongly alienated from the Church — some time alone with the arm of a saint I’m sure he had never heard of until he stepped onto the island that evening.
I’ve thought a lot about Joe and St. Edmund’s arm since that day. Though I’ve seen a few relics, I’ve never had a reaction like his. Relics pique my curiosity — Wow! That arm is over 750 years old! — but like a lot of contemporary Catholics I feel little connection to them. In some circumstances I can find them a bit embarrassing, even a bit creepy and ghoulish.
“Eeeew!” That’s the reaction I got recently when I was telling a couple of Catholic women how, in parts of the Church in earlier times, olive oil would be poured through holes in the tops of a saint’s tomb. The liquid would filter through the saint’s body or dust and then be collected as it dripped through holes in the bottom of the tomb. Sick persons would then apply the oil to their skin, or drink it — that’s when they stopped me: clearly a germ-conscious, hygienic age like ours can’t literally swallow some traditional Catholic practices!
But, as Joe showed me, to dismiss relics as a joke, an embarrassment, or with a contemporary “Eeeew!” is to give short shrift to one of the main elements of Catholic spirituality for over 1500 years. Our theology may have been shaped by popes, councils, and heavy hitters like Augustine and Aquinas, but a great deal of Catholic culture and the spiritual lives of generation upon generation of Catholics have been shaped by holy bones.
It’s a complicated story. It began as the battle between the Roman Empire and the early Church was played out on the tortured, maimed, twisted, roasted, and flayed bodies of the martyrs. As these martyrs became heroic models of following Christ, their tombs became holy places where Mass would be celebrated and prayers offered.
In our age, where it seems increasingly difficult just to get Catholics to accept the bedrock dogma of the resurrection of the body, it hard for us to understand the holiness that people saw connected to the bones of the martyrs. Today we go to the Smithsonian to gaze on Mr. Rogers’s sweater or visit a sports museum where we can reach through the Plexiglas and touch one of Babe Ruth’s bats, but this is a pale imitation of what our Christian forebears felt in the presence of the holy bones. These bones were so steeped in holiness that people saw them as somehow already in the process of being transformed into resurrected bodies. These saints and martyrs — including their bones — were still alive in God. Reverencing and being close to their bodies meant being close to the living saints themselves. And it wasn’t long before miracles were being witnessed and experienced.
A few church voices were raised against relics, but the Church ignored them, and the cult of relics spread. Even the great St. Augustine, uncomfortable about relics at first, eventually came around. Soon relics were everywhere. Bodies were divided up so that others could share in the holy experience.
For lords and kings, abbots and bishops, for cities and cathedrals, shrines and monasteries, possessing relics — and thus having direct access to the saints whose power could be felt through them — was a sign of great prestige. Who would oppose them when they had St. Peter or Paul or Stephen on their side? In the fourth century St. Ambrose gained the support of the people of Milan against an Arian emperor in part because of the bones of two early martyrs that Ambrose discovered and paraded through the streets. What bishop or pope would dare challenge Charlemagne when he possessed not only a piece of the true cross but the foreskin of Jesus as well?
Soon having relics was so desirable that the Church had to legislate against buying and selling them — a law not always well obeyed. Often a sizeable donation would get you a relic, or a piece of one, and if you couldn’t afford it, you could always steal a body or a bone (as we lamented when a beloved relic of St. Anthony was stolen from a California parish in June — and we rejoiced when it was recovered a few days later). A few examples:
• Egeria, a Spanish woman visiting Jerusalem in the 4th century, tells us people came forward during Holy Week to venerate the true cross (discovered some 60 years earlier by St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine). The deacons watched very closely to protect the cross during this public veneration, she tells us, because, sometime in the recent past, someone coming up to kiss the cross had bitten a piece out of it and run away with it.
• In the seventh century the abbot of a French monastery led his monks on a relic raid into Italy, and stole the body of the great St. Benedict from Monte Cassino.
• Charlemagne’s grandson strong-armed the pope into giving up the body of St. Stephen, the first martyr.
•Merchants from Venice stole the body of St. Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, Egypt, and in the process gave their independent Italian city-state a self-identity all its own. (You can read the story in the July/August issue of Catholic Digest.)
• In the 11th century the body of St. Nicholas was stolen from Turkey and relocated to Bari, Italy.
• The Great Schism of 1054 meant Eastern Christians were heretics, and thus unworthy of their great treasury of relics. The Crusader sack of Constantinople 150 years later looted thousands of relics for the West.
• When St. Hugh, the 12th-century bishop of Lincoln, England, visited a monastery in France, he was shown an arm of St. Mary Magdalene; he pulled out his dagger (yes, bishops carried daggers in the 12th century) and cut away at a finger on the relic while the French monks looked on in stupefied horror. To finish the job Hugh pulled the relic to his mouth, bit the finger off (12th century bishops were far less squeamish than most of us are today), and tossed the finger to his assistant (who tells us this story). When asked why he would bite a saint’s relic, Hugh replied: I put my mouth on the body of Christ every day; why would I treat his saints differently?
• When St. Teresa of Avila died in a small convent near Salamanca in 1582, the nuns there buried her very deep in their chapel floor and covered the tomb with heavy stones to keep the nuns from Avila from coming to take the body.
• And as late as the 19th century, a relic of St. Anne on its way to Canada made a stop to be reverenced by the people of New York, who surrounded the church and refused to let it leave until a piece was broken off it to remain with them. And it is still there today.
I ended off purposely with a example of average Catholics joining together to acquire a relic, because all the talk of kings, abbots, cathedrals, and monasteries and their jockeying for prestige tells us little about how the average Catholic felt about relics. From everything we know, they seemed deeply attached to them. A saints, to them, was more than a model of holiness, or someone who could help find misplaced keys. People often felt as close to their saints as they did to members of their own family. And the saints were friends and family members with power.
We live in a different era — an era where modern medicine has very recently made huge strides, and where (as with the dogma of the resurrection of the body) it’s increasingly difficult to convince people of the reality of hell, never mind to get them to realize that each human being can make choices to end up there. In earlier times doctors usually did far more harm than good, sudden death was always nearby (something as common as appendicitis killed almost everyone afflicted with it until the late 19th century), and all you had to do was look at the frieze above your church doors to see the vivid and terrible reality of hell.
In such a world, the saints provided strength, aid, comfort, and sometimes miracles. Present in the reality of their holy relic, and simultaneously present before the throne of God, saints were (and, of course, still are) powerful intercessors. They were vitally important to the spiritual and emotional health of the people. Pilgrimages to the local shrines and perhaps to Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, or Jerusalem fed the people’s prayer, and processions of relics through a city or to bless fields or to ask for the saint’s blessing and protection were regular parts of Catholic life. Average Catholics knew little about their bishop, and even less about the pope. Jesus was often presented as an aloof, forbidding figure — seated in majesty above the door of the cathedral. But the toe or finger of Mary Magdalene, the head of John the Baptist, or the shift Mary was wearing when she gave birth to Jesus put you in direct contact with the Holy. It didn’t matter to most Catholic that there were at least three different heads of John the Baptist in European shrines, and several competing foreskins of the Lord. What mattered was how these relics connected them to God, to the saint, to their community.
Relics eventually became less important to Catholics. We were embarrassed by obvious frauds — John the Baptist had only one head, after all; did somebody really find Jesus’ fingernail clippings?; there were lots of vials of Mary’s milk; in a few cases, examinations proved that the bones in reliquaries weren’t even human. And in a scientific age, venerating bones seems one small step away from superstition.
But in spite of all this, relics may be making a comeback. I’ve seen three recent books on the subject. The Shroud of Turin continues to attract interest. A lot of Catholic observers expressed surprise when the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux went on an extended tour a few years ago and attracted huge numbers of the faithful wherever they went.
Though our world today is very different, we still have many of the same needs as our forebears: the need to move beyond dry doctrine to feel an emotional closeness to the holy; the need to feel connected to the saints, and through them to the whole community; the need for tangible signs of God’s presence among us. Most of us find these needs met in our parishes, in the Eucharist, among our families, and through prayer and reaching out to the poor and sick and troubled. And that, of course, is how it should be. But relics are still an accepted part of our faith: with proper skepticism, and care to avoid superstition, they can still have meaning for us today. I’m still not sure how I feel about them, but we needn’t ever be embarrassed to fall on our knees in prayer.