September 23rd, 2009

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.
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.

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