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A Short Post About Bones, or, Bring Me The Head Of John The Baptist

Inspired by @dovetailing's lovely post on Christianity, let me have the audacity to post on here something I wrote back in 2011 for interested Protestants on a website that I think is now defunct.

Don't anybody blame @dovetailing for this, it's all off my own bat!

To borrow a quote from Chesterton contrasting the suicide and the martyr, and the attitude of Christianity to both (“Orthodoxy”, Chapter V, ‘The Flag of the World’, emphasis mine): “The Christian feeling was furiously for one and furiously against the other: these two things that looked so much alike were at opposite ends of heaven and hell. One man flung away his life; he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence. Another man flung away life; he was so bad that his bones would pollute his brethren's. I am not saying this fierceness was right; but why was it so fierce?”

This is a look at why dry bones were and are considered to have a virtue in them that could benefit us (and I’m speaking of virtue both in the conventionally understood sense and the older sense, as when my granny told us ‘there’s great virtue in seawater’ for healing cuts and sores so we should go down and wash any injuries in the sea).

What exactly are relics? You may be interested to know that the Catholic Church classifies them by three kinds:

  1. First-Class Relics: Items directly associated with the events of Christ's life or the physical remains of a saint (a bone, a hair, skull, a limb, etc.).

  2. Second-Class Relics: An item that the saint wore (a shirt, a glove, etc.) Also included is an item that the saint owned or frequently used, for example, a crucifix, rosary, book and so on.

  3. Third-Class Relics: Any object that is touched to a first- or second-class relic. Most third-class relics are small pieces of cloth, but you can touch anything (a rosary beads, a holy picture, and so on) to the first- or second-class relic (and that includes graves and tombs, which is why, for instance, there are customs of taking away clay or pebbles from a saint’s grave for healing or other uses).

Let’s get the lyin’, cheatin’ and stealin’ over with before we move on to the edifyin’. Yes, there were and probably still are a lot of fraudulent relics out there, but it’s too simplistic to dismiss them all as power-crazed clerics inventing fake miracles to enveigle the credulous peasantry and keep them under their thumb for profit and status. An example of this is one that regularly comes up; the liquefying blood of St. Januarius. Briefly, Januarius was a 3rd century bishop of Naples supposed to have been martyred during the persecution of Diocletian. An alleged sample of his blood is kept in a glass ampoule in the cathedral of Naples, where it is brought out for veneration three times a year and undergoes a miraculous liquefaction. His relics are particularly honoured against eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Scientists and skeptics (the ones who like to spell “sceptic” with a “k” not a “c” to prove how hard-core they are) attribute this to a mediaeval fraud.

Ever heard the term “thixotropic”? It’s why you have to shake the tomato ketchup bottle before the contents will come out. Very simplistically, it’s how a solid(ish) material can become liquid(ish) and flow – and because the bishop tilts and moves the reliquary holding the blood, that is seen as evidence of “thixotropic flow”. The alternate explanation can be found here, where an experiment to replicate the alleged blood was done.

Their view? It’s scientifically reproducible, which means it isn’t a miracle, and is probably a fraud.

Quote from a now-dead link:

Today, a large percentage of the world's population believes that through transubstantiation, bread and wine physically change into the body and blood of the Son of God. Is it not possible that 650 years ago a Neapolitan cleric/alchemist, who might regularly pray to his patron saint, Januarius, accidentally discovered the thixotropic properties of the mixture of molysite and limestone? Might he not believe that the material had taken on the form of the blood of his patron saint? Better to present his discovery as the finding of Januarius's blood and receive acclaim, then present it as the result of an alchemical procedure and receive "no mercy" from Pope John XXII! Furthermore, in 1389, the Duomo of Naples was being built up and many artists from all over Italy were present. The king was then Robert of Anjou, described as an extremely religious person, and a "holy blood relic" was certain to please him.

And you know what? That’s fine. Unless the phial is opened and the contents examined (which is unlikely, but not due to fear by the clergy that their hoax will be revealed – sorry, conspiracy theorists! – but more to religious sentiment regarding desecration of a relic) nobody can say for sure one way or the other. It may have been a 13th century fraud (deliberate), it may have been a pious hoax, it may be an honest mistake, it may be the real blood of a martyr. You may be astounded, shocked and surprised to the point of your hair turning white to find out that the Catholic Church does not demand belief in the reality of relics – nope, not even the Shroud of Turin (which is a whole cottage industry on its own) or the Veronica or the Mandylion. If some experiment in the morning proved that the Shroud was indeed a 14th century fake, this does not mean that every Christian in the world would have to say “That proves the Resurrection never happened!” and have to rip up their Bibles. We don’t believe it because we have ‘proof’ in the form of the Shroud; the Shroud is venerated because (a) we believe in the Resurrection beforehand (b) it can be taken as an image of the Crucified Body of Christ, just like all those crucifixes in churches and paintings and hanging around people’s necks, which we use as a symbol and as a focus for prayer.

For myself, the rationalisation of the skeptic (some anonymous alchemist stumbled upon this reaction in an experiment and took it as a divine sign and decided to make fake martyr’s blood and present it to a notably devout King – who we must take, simply on the grounds that he was devout, as being a credulous idiot and not someone who managed to hang on to a throne in a time and place where politics was hot and bloody and therefore by necessity had to have a brain in his head – for the new cathedral, all done in the best possible taste and who also managed to invent a process that would work for six hundred years while he was at it) is just as much an article of his faith as the Neapolitan peasant who looks to the relic as an omen of the coming year.

That’s not to say that every relic should be considered the real deal; Chaucer’s Pardoner is an example of how they knew, back in the 14th century, that there were frauds and cheats going around:

First I pronounce where I come from, and then I show my bulls, one and all, but first the seal of our liege lord the king on my patent. I show that first to secure my body, lest any man, priest, or clerk would be so bold as to disturb me in Christ's holy labours. After that I then proceed with my tales, and show bulls of popes and cardinals and patriarchs and bishops, and I speak a few words in Latin to give a flavour to my preaching and to stir men to devotion. Then I show forth my long glass cases, crammed full of cloths and bones: all the people believe that they are holy relics. I have a shoulder-bone set in brass which came from a holy Jew's sheep.

Apart from deliberate fraud, there was a fierce spirit of emulation, when churches competed with one another as to which had the best and biggest collection of relics, which meant that we get such examples as the three (at least) heads of John the Baptist, as recounted in this Wikipedia article; after the desecration of his shrine by Julian the Apostate, the remaining relics were scattered and several places laid claim to having the ‘real’ head:

John's skull it is located at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in Scetes, Egypt, at Gandzasar Monastery's Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, in Nagorno Karabakh, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, and the Residenz Museum in Munich, Germany, (official residence of the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria from 1385 to 1918). Further heads, no longer available, were once held by the Knights Templar, Amiens Cathedral in France (brought home by Wallon de Sarton from the Fourth Crusade in Constantinople), Antioch in Turkey (fate uncertain), and the parish church at Tenterden in Kent, where it was preserved up until the Reformation.

One of the alleged heads for your edification.

Such competition (what Ellis Peters called in the title of one of her Brother Cadfael mysteries, “A Morbid Taste for Bones”) led to things like the Venetians stealing Santa Claus’s body from Myra in Turkey (or rather, what was left after an expedition from Bari got there first).

You may also have heard or read some form of the jeer about the relics of the True Cross, along the lines that if gathered together, these alleged relics would make forty crosses or a ship or the likes. It seems to have its origin with Jean Calvin who made the comment in his “Traité Des Reliques” that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship, though it has lost no popularity to this day not alone with Protestants but free-thinkers, materialists, skeptics and atheists of all stripes. Well, we can thank an obsessive Frenchman for a rebuttal of this mockery; Charles Rohault de Fleury, an architect who devoted himself in later years to religious archaeology, and in 1870 published a book (“Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion”) on the fruits of his labours tracking down all authenticated relics of the True Cross, estimating the volume of a cross likely used in the execution of criminals by the Romans, and totting up the sizes of all the relics for comparison. He came up with a result that the claimed relics came to a weight of under 2 kilograms, which isn’t enough to make any kind of a boat, really. From the “Catholic Encylopedia” of 1913:

The work of Rohault de Fleury, "Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion" (Paris, 1870), deserves more prolonged attention; its author has sought out with great care and learning all the relics of the True Cross, drawn up a catalogue of them, and, thanks to this labour, he has succeeded in showing that, in spite of what various Protestant or Rationalistic authors have pretended, the fragments of the Cross brought together again would not only not "be comparable in bulk to a battleship", but would not reach one-third that of a cross which has been supposed to have been three or four metres in height, with transverse branch of two metres, proportions not at all abnormal (op. cit., 97-179). Here is the calculation of this savant: Supposing the Cross to have been of pine-wood, as is believed by the savants who have made a special study of the subject, and giving it a weight of about seventy-five kilograms, we find that the volume of this cross was 178,000,000 cubic millimetres. Now the total known volume of the True Cross, according to the finding of M. Rohault de Fleury, amounts to above 4,000,000 cubic millimetres, allowing the missing part to be as big as we will, the lost parts or the parts the existence of which has been overlooked, we still find ourselves far short of 178,000,000 cubic millimetres, which should make up the True Cross.”

I’ve seen a relic of the True Cross (alleged); it’s in Holy Cross Abbey in County Tipperary (a restored Cistercian monastery and church which had a relic of the True Cross from the 13th century but which was destroyed in the 17th century after Cromwell; the relic currently there was presented in 1977 by the Vatican upon its restoration) and it’s more a splinter than a huge chunk of wood. If the other relics are on the same scale, then we’re definitely not talking “enough pieces to make a ship”.

There are even “relics” of very dubious provenance. Yes, the (in)famous Holy Prepuce, which yes, is exactly what the name implies and if you want to know more, you’ll have to look it up yourself here.

Apparently, there was one contender which survived up to 1983 when thieves supposedly made off with it. Further comment is superfluous.

It would seem to be human nature that we can’t resist “improving” upon things, such as the tilma with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There is some insistence that this image is not miraculous but was painted by a native painter; it is certain that there were some embellishments made (e.g. the figure of the angel, the golden rays, the stars on her cloak, other elements added and removed). On the other hand, this is well within the tradition of the “icons not made by hands” (acheiropoieta) in Orthodoxy. However, since there is room for honest error and the effects of enthusiasm as well as fraud and deceit when dealing with relics from the early ages of the church, this is why you’re on safer ground with relics from a more modern era, where they can be historically verified. Like the head of St. Catherine of Siena, smuggled out of Rome by the Siennese in 1380 when the Romans wouldn’t give back her body to be buried in her home town.

Or the head of St. Oliver Plunkett, 17th century Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, hanged, drawn and quartered in England for treason as part of the fallout from Titus Oates’ “Horrid Popish Plot”, now in the church at Drogheda.

Or the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (the “Little Flower” which is a sugary sentimental name for a young woman who was as tough as old boots), exhumed due to popular devotion and nearly always on tour world-wide (they’ve been to England as recently as 2009, and visited Ireland both in 2001 – where one of the places they stayed was in Mountjoy Prison – and again in 2009). She even visited America in 1999.

Unfortunately, we moderns are much more squeamish than our sturdy forefathers in the Faith. When they put Padre Pio’s body on display, they had the face covered by a “a life-like silicone mask” (apparently so that he would look like his photographs, which is how the pilgrims expect him to look) which I think (a) misses the whole point of relics (b) could cause confusion with the bodies of the incorruptibles (and “incorruptible” doesn’t mean “looking as if still alive”, anyhow), if people think this is his real face and (c) panders too much to our need for prettification of death.

They did the same thing for St. Bernadette’s body (face and hands), only they had to use wax back in 1925:

A precise imprint of the face was molded so that the firm of Pierre Imans in Paris could make a wax mask based on the imprints and on some genuine photos. This was common practice for relics in France, as it was feared that the blackish tinge to the face and the sunken eyes and nose would make an unpleasant impression on the public.

Darn it, dead saint’s bodies should look like this! (Crypt of Ss. Ambrose – the bishop who baptised St. Augustine – Gervase and Protase).

Okay, we’ve had the fun, now comes the educative bit.

Early altars were built over the bones of the martyrs in catacombs; when the churches came up to the surface, the custom remained, which is why altars have relics in their bases or within the body of the altar itself (in an “altar stone”).

(Part One of Two, remainder below)

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Informative, esoteric, fun to read. Keep up the good work!

Bones: Part Deux!

Now for the favourite question you’re all dying to ask: “Where is that in the Bible?” What evidence do I have that dried-out old bones, scraps of worn-out clothing, splotches of blood on rags or other impedimenta are any good to anyone?

Well, rejoice with me, my brethren, because I can actually answer this one for once! (Excuse me a moment while I do the Dance of Joy).

2 Kings: 13-21 “And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha, and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.” [By Catholic ordering, these would be first-class relics]

Mark 5:25-30 “25 And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, 26 and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, "If I touch even his garments, I will be made well." 29 And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my garments?"” [Either first-class – item associated with Jesus – or second-class relics; item worn or used by the saint]

Acts 5: 14-15 “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.” [A shadow has to count as a third-class relic, since it can’t be said to be worn or used by the person, unless you count your shadow as part of your body, which would make it a first-class relic – but really it’s too intangible for that]

Acts 19: 11-12 “11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” [Second-class – item worn or used by the saint - or Third-class relics, items touched to a first- or second-class relic, in this case cloths touched to his body].

Okay, so God can do great things – and that’s the prime thing to remember here. Although – like so many other things in human life – this can degenerate into superstition, there are two major points to remember: firstly, that there is no obligation on you to believe that anything whatsoever, no matter how well-attested or provenanced, is a relic, or that even if it is, that it is anything necessary to your spiritual life. The Roman Catholic Church does not demand this of you; what she says is that relics are worthy of veneration because of their association with the saints of God and secondly, that any power, virtue or blessing comes through God. Relics are not magic.

As our old friend St. Jerome put it in his usual mild and dove-like fashion in his treatise “Against Vigilantius”:

Among other blasphemies, he may be heard to say, “What need is there for you not only to pay such honour, not to say adoration, to the thing, whatever it may be, which you carry about in a little vessel and worship?” And again, in the same book, “Why do you kiss and adore a bit of powder wrapped up in a cloth?” And again, in the same book, “Under the cloak of religion we see what is all but a heathen ceremony introduced into the churches: while the sun is still shining, heaps of tapers are lighted, and everywhere a paltry bit of powder, wrapped up in a costly cloth, is kissed and worshipped. Great honour do men of this sort pay to the blessed martyrs, who, they think, are to be made glorious by trumpery tapers, when the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne, with all the brightness of His majesty, gives them light?”

Madman, who in the world ever adored the martyrs? Who ever thought man was God? Did not Paul and Barnabas, when the people of Lycaonia thought them to be Jupiter and Mercury, and would have offered sacrifices to them, rend their clothes and declare they were men? Not that they were not better than Jupiter and Mercury, who were but men long ago dead, but because, under the mistaken ideas of the Gentiles, the honour due to God was being paid to them. And we read the same respecting Peter, who, when Cornelius wished to adore him, raised him by the hand, and said, “Stand up, for I also am a man.” And have you the audacity to speak of “the mysterious something or other which you carry about in a little vessel and worship?” I want to know what it is that you call “something or other.” Tell us more clearly (that there may be no restraint on your blasphemy) what you mean by the phrase “a bit of powder wrapped up in a costly cloth in a tiny vessel.” It is nothing less than the relics of the martyrs which he is vexed to see covered with a costly veil, and not bound up with rags or hair-cloth, or thrown on the midden, so that Vigilantius alone in his drunken slumber may be worshipped. Are we, therefore guilty of sacrilege when we enter the basilicas of the Apostles? Was the Emperor Constantius I. guilty of sacrilege when he transferred the sacred relics of Andrew, Luke, and Timothy to Constantinople? In their presence the demons cry out, and the devils who dwell in Vigilantius confess that they feel the influence of the saints. And at the present day is the Emperor Arcadius guilty of sacrilege, who after so long a time has conveyed the bones of the blessed Samuel from Judea to Thrace? Are all the bishops to be considered not only sacrilegious, but silly into the bargain, because they carried that most worthless thing, dust and ashes, wrapped in silk in golden vessel? Are the people of all the Churches fools, because they went to meet the sacred relics, and welcomed them with as much joy as if they beheld a living prophet in the midst of them, so that there was one great swarm of people from Palestine to Chalcedon with one voice re-echoing the praises of Christ? They were forsooth, adoring Samuel and not Christ, whose Levite and prophet Samuel was. You show mistrust because you think only of the dead body, and therefore blaspheme. Read the Gospel – “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob: He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” If then they are alive, they are not, to use your expression, kept in honourable confinement.”

Think of the modern craze for zombies – and these are not your traditional Jacques Tourneur zombies, these are the new recension, who are mindless and soulless and frightening precisely because they are what should not be – the walking dead, who have no memory or thought but are driven by hunger alone to devour and destroy and convert us into what they are. The relics – the dust and ashes and bones of the dead who fell asleep in Christ – have this power: they are not zombies, not lemures or lares or hungry ghosts, who have to be appeased so that their malevolence at the living who have the good things of the earth will not fall upon us. Death has been overcome when Christ defeated death by dying and rising again.

The question has been put to us:

And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.

And it has been answered:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

So now too, the dead are not a curse or a fear, but a blessing. We are an incarnated religion, and this dead body is not a thing to be cast away, not even something that we are now finished and done with once we have died; as we say in the Nicene Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” So that the bones and bits we see, that ultimate fate awaiting us all, is not the end and as a sign to this, the power of God comes through even these remnants; as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it in his poem “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”:

I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ' patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.”

To finish where I began, the contrast between the holy and the unholy dead: “One man flung away his life; he was so good that his dry bones could heal cities in pestilence” (for he that loseth his life shall save it, and not his life alone, but those of his brethren). Or, the poem by my countryman, William Butler Yeats:

Oil and Blood

In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli
Bodies of holy men and women exude
Miraculous oil, odour of violet.

But under heavy loads of trampled clay
Lie bodies of the vampires full of blood;
Their shrouds are bloody and their lips are wet.

they are not zombies, not lemurs or lares or hungry ghosts, who have to be appeased so that their malevolence at the living who have the good things of the earth will not fall upon us.

Lemures. A very old joke among MtG players.


Correction made, and thanks for helping the stupid (me) out!

Here is the story now I am on a computer which doesn't block "entertainment" websites.