Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Relics and Affirming the Body (Part I)

St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai Peninsula
The first relic I ever saw was at St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai peninsula.  As an undergraduate student I was part of a class trip to Israel and Egypt to study early Christianity, and one of the highlights was a two day trip to the foot of Mt Sinai where the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world sits.  Monks have been living at St. Catherine's since the fourth century; the walls surrounding the monastery and many of the buildings, including the Church of the Transfiguration, date from the sixth century.

One of the monks, an American from Boston, gave us a tour of the monastery; my professor-had-a-professor-who-knew-the-abbot, and somehow this garnered us special treatment.  He showed us the priceless collection of icons, the sixth-century mosaic of the Transfiguration covering the apse of the church, and the famous library where Codex Sinaiticus - an important fourth-century manuscript of the entire New Testament - was found, and promptly stolen in the nineteenth-century.

But it was the charnal house at St Catherine’s that fascinated me most.  A small building outside the walls of the monastery, the charnal house contains the bones of deceased monks (it is apparently difficult to bury the dead permanently in the sand of the Sinai desert; easier instead to bury them shallowly and exhume the bones later).  Skulls are piled neatly along one wall behind a chain-link enclosure, arm bones in another area, leg bones in another, etc.

St Stephanos the Hermit - St Catharine's Monastery
And sitting directly in front of one of the enclosures is St Stephanos the Hermit, a sixth-century monk mentioned by St John Climacus in The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

I had no exposure to relics before this, raised as I was in an Evangelical Protestant home.  When I took this trip to St Catherine’s at the age of 22, I still self-identified as an Evangelical Christian, but was really only hanging to the tradition by a thread.  I was well on my way to becoming a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, and for reasons I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, would eventually become a Roman Catholic.  So I knew about relics, but had never actually seen one.  And here was St Stephanos right in front of me, his corpse dressed in priestly vestments.

Sts Magnus & Bonosa at St Martin of Tours' parish
My ongoing fascination with relics started that day.  Since that time I've seen an assortment of relics - everything from (soon to be St) John XXIII's body in a glass casket at St. Peter's in Rome, to St.
Andre of Montreal's heart, to a finger from an Orthodox saint whose name I've forgotten, to the small fragments of cloth or bone that are to be found in the little reliquaries all over the Catholic world. Here in Louisville, St. Martin of Tours' Catholic Church has the skeletal remains of two third-century saints who are displayed in glass under side altars (the story of how these relics came to reside in Louisville is a fascinating one; this video provides some of the details).

Merton's collection of relics in the Merton Center
Even more interesting to me was something I learned only very recently about Thomas Merton.  Over beers at one of the Abbey of Gethsemani's hermitages, Br. Paul Quenon - who was a novice under Merton - told me that Merton was himself a "relic man" who had a collection of relics he acquired over the years from various people.  Turns out that Merton carried these relics with him on his final trip to his shaving bag.  (On a side note, the Merton Center here at Bellarmine University has these relics. Someone at the Abbey put them in a lovely wooden case before it was donated to the Center. One of my projects in the next year is to write an article about Merton's collection and to delve more deeply into why he appeared to value relics so much).

I often ask my undergraduate students to submit questions they would like to have addressed at some point during the semester, and one of the most common questions has to do with why Roman Catholics feel the need to keep relics.  Most of my students find the idea of relics a bit creepy.  Why, they ask, would anyone want to see the earthly remains of someone, let alone venerate those remains in some way?

It seems to me that the theology of relics has a great deal to do with affirming the worth and beauty of the human body, something Catholicism is not generally thought to do very well.  I'll write more about this in another post.

Photo of St Stephanos is from
Photo of Sts Magnus & Bonosa from
Photo of Merton's collection of relics by Paul Pearson, director of the Merton Center

No comments:

Post a Comment