Relics

An old-fashioned objection to the revived cult of relics.

Relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite nun who died in 1897 at the age of 24, are touring Britain. They are even making a stop in Her Majesty’s Prison, Wormwood Scrubs. The stops in Catholic cathedrals are very popular.
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First (Protestant) reaction: yuck.

Second reaction: this is very peculiar. Wasn’t the trade in relics part of the superstitious excesses of late mediaeval Christianity that led to the Reformation? And hasn’t Catholicism kept a low profile on relics ever since? Why revive their veneration now? And why in post-Christian England of all places? I’ve no suggestions on the last two questions.

Third reaction: if it works for believers, why not? Some need incense to help them pray, others yoga, some music, others soaring buildings, so what’s wrong with a few bones? Their former tenants won’t mind.

Fourth reaction: this is a considered version of the first. Start with saints. Many, perhaps all, religions have saints; even those that are theoretically against them, like Islam, with Berber pilgrimages to tombs of marabouts, and Judaism with the cults founded by the Baal Shem Tov and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The peculiar confusion introduced by early Christianity was the failure to distinguish saints and martyrs, since the early disciples were often both, and the first shrines to saints commemorated executions. But martyrdom results from a single choice, sainthood from a lifetime practice. All the 1500 Jehovah’s Witnesses killed by the Nazis were martyrs, since they had the possibility of escaping; there’s no reason to think that many were saints.

The ultra-Catholic position seems to be that saints are people touched with an exceptional divine grace that makes them unlike us, a caste of X-men superhumans who can usefully intermediate between God and the common herd. The scheme is also an instrument of control for the Catholic hierarchy, since the Papacy has arrogated to itself the right to award the label, protecting official Catholicism from antisemitic fantasies like “Saint William of Norwich“, but giving it political “saints” like Thomas More and Escrivá de Balaguer. The Reformers rejected this view, I think rightly. So we should see saints just as exceptionally good and godly men and women, the tail of a continuous distribution: and therefore exemplars of what we could all be.

If you define saints as people who deserve unstinting moral admiration, it’s tautologically proper to admire them. How about veneration? Since I still occasionally talk to my departed wife, and I’m sure the practice is common, I can’t object to your talking to Thérèse of Lisieux if you admire her especially. Personally I prefer get-up-and-go types like Saint Dominic of the Causeway, patron saint of Spanish roadmenders, or Dame Cicely Saunders, the English creator of the modern hospice movement, though as an Anglican she’ll never get the Vatican’s seal.

I reckon the test on relics is this. If a parent, child, or sibling of yours were a saint in my sense, and died before you, would you be prepared to have their bones boxed up and travel to Wormwood Scrubs to encourage the prisoners to emulate your relative?

You probably would not, I think. We bury bones and scatter ashes for two reasons: to provide a place for memory, and by fencing it off, a world for forgetting. Perambulating bones and ashes around, even in the interests of piety, violates an ancient and adaptive taboo against allowing the dead too much sway over the living. So my advice to English Catholics is: get a death.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

17 thoughts on “Relics”

  1. Peripatetic relics are strange, but at least they (1) are already in the box, so the Pope isn't digging up people and making little boxes for them and (2) serve a spiritual purpose of veneration and opposed to a merely commemorative purpose of admiration.

    Also, waah it's aribitrary to decide that a saint can't be based on a single act and there are many ways to understand the role of the Pope even if his partisans disagree.

  2. Don't most saints supposedly serve a specific group or category, like travelers in distress or the like?

    I always pegged them as basically being thinly veiled "minor gods", essentially deities with powers over certain things that people appease in exchange for good fortune (like having a shrine in your house in Roman Times).

  3. The ultra-Catholic position seems to be that saints are people touched with an exceptional divine grace that makes them unlike us, a caste of X-men superhumans who can usefully intermediate between God and the common herd.

    I always pegged them as basically being thinly-veiled "minor gods", deities with powers over various aspects of life (like travelers in distress, and so forth) which people could pray to directly as opposed to praying to an abstract "God" or "Jesus".

  4. Sorry about the double- comment. For some reason, it wasn't showing up, so I thought there was an error. My bad.

  5. "If you define saints as people who deserve unstinting moral admiration, it’s tautologically proper to admire them."

    This is surely a confusing of two issues? Saints are defined by excessive faith, not by excessive morality. They may do very moral things, but it is the religious behavior that makes them saints, not the good deeds. As such. there is no reason whatsoever for anyone who does not believe in their religion to admire them.

    For example, it is certainly remarkable, even impressive, that Saint Simeon Stylites spent his life atop a pillar; it is not (to this non-christian) admirable.

  6. To answer question 1: No, relics weren't really a part of the Protestant Reformation. Check out Martin Luther's criticisms of the Church. In a way, the Protestant Reformation was a product of the time and its technology. Before the printing press books were incredibly expensive. Many poor parishes couldn't afford the complete bible, let alone have a copy for every single person to read. Isn't this a funny economics issue? As far as "post-Christian England", there are now more Catholics in England than Anglicans, so why not serve the faithful?

    You are perhaps a bit confused on Catholic theology. All Christians are said to be saints. However a few are canonized due to their virtues or merits. See: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02364b.htm

    I think you also forget the changing nature of the dead. For example, to ancient Romans the dead were a source of foul smells and disease, therefore the dead were usually cremated. The first Christians rejected cremation because they believed that they would be resurrected bodily in a few years. Certainly the epistles of Paul give one that impression. Therefore a cadaver changed and became something to venerate because it will once again spring to life. Since then cadavers have changed their importance to "symbolic", but I'm sure you see how even today, many people view the dead the same as the living.

  7. Wormwood Scrubs! Man, the British sure know how to name a prison. It just sounds unpleasant. I imagine a bunch of unerfed, pale men busily scrubbing worms off of rotting lumber. Much better than San Quentin, which could be a resort.

  8. Maybe relics offer a tangible, physical human "focus"?

    I don't see a lot of difference between veneration of saints (or non-Christian equivalents) and Contemporary Culture's veneration of celebrities. (St. Elvis? The Venerable Marilyn?) Saints and martyrs and popes (and televangelists) are religion's celebrities.

  9. I remember when I visited Rome a decade or two ago that one of the major Catholic sites there has on display, as a holy Christian relic, the purported mortal remains of the Maccabees. That is to say, they display the bones of figures who are of tremendous importance to the Jewish national identity but have essentially no religious significance even in Judaism, and who are of of precisely no significance within Christianity. All in all, the Church's continued retention (and, especially, public display) of those bones is really quite tremendously offensive; I've been trying to think of a hypothetical parallel to use, but I haven't been able to come up with one that I could make without risk of causing tremendous offense.

  10. Warren Terra is apparently ignorant of 1st and 2nd Maccabees in the bible, and therefore erroneously offended. Not really sure why.

  11. Indeed I was unaware that some versions of Christianity, but not all, chose to include a book about another people's history in their sacred text. This odd decision hardly makes the history their own.

  12. Ahh–Warren–almost all Christians see the Jews living before Christ as their ancestors. It's like a US institution having a copy of the Magna Carta.

  13. No, it's like the US spending 1500 years persecuting the Brits, then having the only copy of the Magna Carta on display, with the added insult that instead of parchment it's former human beings.

  14. Oh, and for those peoples whom the US did persecute and supplant and whose legacy it falsely claimed, we now have a policy of returning their ceremonial artifacts and especially their mortal remains.

  15. Benny Lava – 1st and 2nd Maccabbees are not included in the Jewish Bible. And the cause of offense is that the (purported) bones of observant Jews, which should be lying in a graveyard, are on public display for a purpose that Jews consider idolatrous.

  16. Mr Wimberley —

    Every religious tradition's got some weirdness. There's really strange stuff on offer amongst the various flavors of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Vedanta, Shinto, etc., ranging from the outright horrorific to the simply bizarre. With such a rich menu before you, why you find this rather mundane little devotional noteworthy?

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