Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Relics and Affirming the Body (Part II)

One of the worst homilies I ever heard began with this line:

"The body is evil."

I waited for the punchline to what I thought must surely be a joke.  It wasn't a joke.  In unequivocal terms, the elderly priest outlined in his homily all the ways that the body is a hindrance to our soul, all the ways the body holds us back from what God wants us to be, all the ways the body continually fights against the good impulses of the soul.  Oh, this damned evil body!

What I thought was a caricature of really terrible Catholic theology came to life in this priest's words.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, I've a thing for relics, and there are others like me, too.  Thomas Merton received numerous relics from friends over the years, and even carried a number of these relics with him in his shaving bag on his last trip to Asia.  By the way, the relics he carried with him were those of St. Charbel (Syrian hermit), St. Peter Damian, St. Romuald (founder of the Camaldolese), St. Thomas of Canterbury, St. Bede (Venerable Bede), St. Bruno, St Nicholas of Flue (a Swiss hermit), and St. Therese of Lisieux (thanks to Mark Meade, assistant director of the Merton Center for this information).  I also have a colleague in the English department here at Bellarmine University who has a substantial relic collection in his house; he often brings samples to show his classes.

When I talk to my students about the Catholic and Orthodox penchant for keeping and displaying bones or other parts of the body of various saints, most - including my Catholic students - express total incomprehension and even disgust.  They tend to view this practice as being morbid and weird, particularly when they see images such as the body of the recently canonized Pope St John XXIII (see right), on display in St Peter's Basilica.

I have a different take.  It seems to me, as I noted briefly in my previous post on relics, that our practice of keeping and venerating relics has a great deal to do with affirming the worth and beauty of the human body.  Far from denigrating the body as evil or as a fleshly prison for a soul that can't wait to burst its earthly bonds, the theology of relics affirms one of the central truths of the Incarnation of the Son of God; that God took on human flesh and in so doing, made it a full participant in the life of the Spirit.  This life is not one that consists in us shirking our bodies to attain something more.  The life of the Spirit, rather, is one that necessarily incorporates all that which is constitutive of our very beings, such that we really do participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) through the Holy Spirit both bodily and spiritually.  Our transformation is one that takes place in and through our bodily existence, not despite it.  As Rowan Williams writes in Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, "Christian faith says that since God has come to encounter us in this world of material bodies, as a material body, and since God continues to use material things and persons to communicate who and what he is, we can't suppose that life with him will ever simply sidestep our material life" (140). 

The veneration of relics is really a natural outgrowth of the theology of the Incarnation. To venerate relics is to affirm that God became human and that, therefore, the body participates fully in our transformation to Christ-likeness, to the point that we recognize the continued divine presence in the mortal remains of our saints.

Christians have long suffered from, and frequently succumbed to, the temptation to radical dualism.  To believe in the Incarnation is to reject such a dualism, and our veneration of relics is the continued recognition that God transforms holistically and that our life in God is one that fully encompasses our bodily existence.

Photo of Pope St John XXIII by Eve Anderson:

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. However, while I love relics myself, I do have a problem with them being moved around so much. I feel it is a lack of respect for the body of the dead person, no matter if she was a saint. Still, it is one of the most ancient Christian practices, and it's also in other religions, particularly Buddhism (in Sri Lanka, for instance, there's a temple dedicated solely to housing the tooth of the Buddha) though I also believe it is in Islam, too.