A ViewPoint by Dr. Mary K. Riley
There is a tradition in Western metaphysics that makes a strong distinction between the ideal and the material. Plato’s theory of forms is often held out as an example of this. A simplistic way to understand it is that there is, for example, an ideal form of “chair” of which all physical chairs are derivative copies; the ideal form “chair” explains why all different kinds of chairs are the same kind of thing. Individual chairs are derivative, less than perfect, and exist in the here and now, while the ideal form of “chair” is perfect and exists in some intangible realm. As Christianity develops out of this metaphysics, we get the juxtaposition of an all-perfect God residing in an unreachable heaven as the ideal, compared with his human creations who live unavoidably as sinners on earth. Similarly, intellectual history begins to prize the mind, reason, perfect intellect, and truth over the limited, physical body, whose senses may deceive it.
To be fair, I think these are vast oversimplifications of Western metaphysics and theology (about which I’ve spoken elsewhere), but the idea of pitting a perfect, ideal, and intangible divinity against an inherently and necessarily flawed material world continues to be extremely influential. Bodies get degraded, human beings are sinful, and the material world, the only world we have access to on earth, is necessarily imperfect. Moreover, there is a barrier that prevents us flawed humans existing in the world here and now from ever accessing that perfect divinity.
With this in mind, I’d like to introduce you to the Catholic tradition of venerating relics. Relics include such religious shrapnel as slivers of the True Cross and scraps of the Virgin Mary’s veil. I have even seen a relic purported to be a piece of the staff of Moses. Where relics truly delve into bonkers territory is in the reverence of the bones of various saints. It may be a tooth of Saint Apollonia or the blood of Saint Januarius. Or perhaps the entire skeleton of Saint Christine, neatly wrapped in silk and placed in a bejeweled box or reliquary and given a place of honor behind the altar. The general idea is that worshippers are brought closer to God through the veneration of these relics, and naturally there are a myriad of miracles purported to be connected to them.
And. It. Is. Nuts. Have you ever seen a grown woman cry with movement over the skull of one of the 11,000 maids of Saint Ursula? I have. She was wearing a sweater with a Labrador retriever on it, and she talked a lot about Satan.
Despite the strangeness of these red-headed stepchildren of Catholic practices, I actually like relics. Sure, they’re macabre, grotesque, and pretty unbelievable at face value. But they also speak to a really beautiful intersection of humanity and divinity; an intersection we sometimes miss out on in everyday life.
We all know Christ was human, but I sometimes wonder if the commonality of that knowledge prevents us from understanding it in all its implications. We forget sometimes that he would’ve cried for his mother, maybe felt insecure among his peers, that he got angry. That he was a human being with a physical existence, who cried and laughed and bled.
Relics are not the most actively promoted piece of Catholic trivia. It’s this hushed practice of veneration paired with the starkness of witnessing physical remains that shock the system into remembering that these bones, these bodies, are not just a link to the divine. They are holy in and of themselves. Bodies, my body, all of our bodies and all physical existence in the world are holy.
Bodies have power regardless of their correspondence to a set of historical facts. I’m pretty sure the bones adorning either side of the altar were not THE bones of Saint Ursula’s maids circa 383 AD. I’ll be honest; the veracity of the story of 11,000 virgin handmaids being massacred by the Huns on a pilgrimage before their princess Ursula was to be married off to a pagan king is a tough sell. Even a cursory glance at Wikipedia casts doubt on the story by illuminating the development of the myth over the course of a century. Also, it makes the bar for sainthood seem kind of low, where the price of admission consists primarily of an unintentional demise while on a girls’ trip. But, lack of grounding in historical fact does not diminish the power of these bones and bodies to move us. I don’t need to believe these bones are THE bones for the story of Saint Ursula to convey something about the power of commitment to one’s beliefs and the struggle of living in accordance with them in a world that might be hostile to who we are.
Bodies tell stories. My own body, too, tells a story, with scars and tattoos. The way my heart races when I’m anxious and how my hands shake when I am hungry express an accumulated narrative of experiences, beliefs, and intentions woven together and unfolding into an uncertain future that will, no doubt, leave more marks, both beautiful and scary. Most important, that story will be meaningful to me and to certain people with whom it is shared along the way.
It’s in the material expression of the story of Saint Ursula and her maids, in the form of bones and bodies, that holiness is conferred. Sanctity resides not in the historical veracity of a thing but in the story it expresses and how that story invites us to make sense of the challenges in our own lives. Veneration of relics and the capacity to honor our own physical existence opens a space for the Divine in the world we experience here and now.
Holiness is not an award passed out as a result of warping ourselves to reach impossible and harmful standards demanded by purity culture, prescriptions about sexual identity, the protection of sexual predators, and more. In the same way that the historical veracity of bones in a reliquary is not what gives a relic its force, holiness is not about conforming to approved ways of being in the world. Holiness is not alienation of the body; it is acceptance of our total being. We are holy not in spite of our embodied humanity but because of it. The vulnerability of being human and allowing ourselves to express our pain, sorrow, beauty, and joy and to, in turn, bear witness to those stories expressed by others makes room for spiritual satiation and to experience the divinity that resides in us all.