CathBlog - Authentic and flawed veneration of relics

BY MARK JOHNSON

Recent CathNews articles about the forthcoming tour of Australia of the forearm of St Francis Xavier (pictured) have unleashed a torrent of reaction. 

There have been expressions of disgust and revulsion, as well as concern about what atheists may think of us. 

Other reactions have included demands for the trappings of the past to be left there, worry about the offence to children, criticism of the cost, the lack of biblical justification, unnecessary focus on death, and concern about idolatry.

Do any of these reactions bear an authentic relationship with the deeper truth of relics, or is this just a common rush to suppress some of the deeper aspects of devotion that typifies the comforting malaise of contemporary religiosity?

There is no doubt that veneration of relics has been abused over the centuries, either intentionally or through ignorance. For instance, there are flawed beliefs that the relic has magical virtue, or a physical curative efficacy based within the relic itself. 

Such misguided beliefs once enabled flourishing industries of relics to peddle sanctity as if just like any other commodity, with towns and religious sites accruing prestige along the way. 

This is more insidious because what was being peddled and hawked spoke to the heart of human hopes and to that innate aspect of us that yearns for God.

Recent abuses have been just as dire. Relics have been made into little more than tribal totems and badges of defiant honour in the face of cultural difference and conjectured opposition. 

This is a perversion of what devotion to relics is meant to be. It is not at all about bolstering our tribal affiliations or shoring up our smug sectarian self-sufficiencies. In fact the relic radically undermines all of the contemporary uses they have been made to adhere to.

The past too often corrupted the relic into being a mere commodity. The present into badges and banners of cultural identity and battle.

In many ways little has changed, because in so many ways we have not changed.

And this is where relics must be allowed to speak again, because relics speak of change, the change that only Grace can bring.

Whether it be a severed forearm, an ear, a finger, a foot, a skull, or whatever part of the human body that brings howls of revulsion and embarrassment from the tepid and respectable, the relic speaks of the operation of Grace and it speaks this language via the medium that we humans have for so long felt a hostility towards: ourselves, our bodies. Relics are about Grace and they are about Resurrection, yes, but they are especially not about mere notions of Grace and Resurrection, mere realms of notional abstractions that so many of us actually live in. 

Relics are real. 

We can see and touch them, maybe even smell them. In their presence the neat and ordered categories by which we normally live our religious lives are backgrounded. Flesh is confronting, too close to us. Flesh is too imperfect and gory for our modern sanitised tastes.

Too many seem unaware that one of the main obstacles in the ancient Mediterranean world to belief that Jesus of Nazareth revealed God was, also, a heightened revulsion of the body. Much like today, notions of physical beauty and desirability filtered the pagan gaze upon the body. Just as now, the body then was idealised. Just as now, only those bodies that conformed to abstract notions of body could be seen naked and praised accordingly. Beauty was worshipped, especially that identified in youth. Heroes abounded, ever youthful Mediterranean deities frolicked with beautiful mortals and bred demigods.

So very little has changed.

The very idea that the constructed notion that Mediterranean philosophical systems had of deity could become incarnated into the baseness of an actual human being, let alone one at the periphery of empire, was not just absurd, it was revolting.

So the very visceral reactions to relics we see in print today are understandable because despite all the bleating about justice and compassion that so typify the dominant order of contemporary religiosity, or too of that which campaigns for life in its most abstract ideality, we really, as we always have, still cringe in the presence of actual lives lived, of difference; of bodies and their smells, their fluids, their weaknesses and fragilities, their brokenness and wreckage.

God is simply no longer real in our lives. We have either abstracted notions of God to such a degree that what we worship are mere categories of order, or we have all become anonymous Pelagians and endeavour to bring about justice and the realisation of Enlightenment values by our own efforts. One way or another we are in the service of order, and the God beyond ordering is nothing more than a rude and embarrassing intrusion into the pristine systems we create and impose.

And that’s what relics do. They are rude intrusions. They are embarrassing. They remind us that broken lives, much like ours, had responded to and been radically enlivened by Grace. They shame us in the eyes of those resilient elites we now in fact seek approval from. Our respectability is shaken. So we haughtily disown relics – for the good of the children of course. 

But what we in fact disown is the opportunity to see that only God brings salvation, and that no matter how much we continue to actually loathe our human condition, its actual disorder and weakness, its materiality, this is where God has definitively spoken, this is where Grace continues to speak and liberate.

Relics are this inconvenient truth.

Mark JohnsonMark Johnson teaches in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he is a PhD candidate. 



Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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