On Ripping Off Relics

March 4th, 2012 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

I confess, but only as a figure of speech, that relics and reliquaries seem ghoulish to me, a non-Roman Catholic. As matter of faith, I likely shouldn’t find them so. I was a devote little Christian, one who believed in transubstantiation during communion, which I took many times.

Along with hormonal floods, puberty brought dousing of knowledge and analytic thought. I got better.

Today the news from Dublin includes the discovery that somebody made off with the heart of Saint Lorcan Ua Tuathail, later known as Laurence (or Lawrence) O’Toole. That’s a big deal, as he is the patron saint of Dublin.

The relic had been in a wooden box in a square iron cage in the cathedral. It was no impulse pilfer either, the thief/thieves sawed through the bars and  forced the cage free to get the treasure. The church dean said, “It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father.”

Yet we also have to wonder, as parts of saints have been bought/sold/swapped/stolen for centuries. Some allegedly are duplicated in multiple locations. Other religious artifacts, such as pieces of “the True Cross” whereon Jesus died, appear in so many churches that wags have said there are enough around to build Noah’s ark.

To  believers, even beyond Ireland, such tangible links to holy folk are sacred in their own right. Many supposedly have innate powers — healing the sick if prayed to and beside, and other such miracles. Nearly six years ago, many gathered in Boston to peek at the visiting heart of a saint lent by a French church and briefly displayed here. I joined them.

To us less faithful, we are wont to insult folk by speaking of worshiping a finger bone in a filigree tube (available at the Cloisters in NYC, for one) and such. Catholics are quick to point out that there’s a huge difference between praying through a saint to God and worshiping a body part.

For the best treatment to the relic world concentrated on the whole bodies, I recommend Magnificent Corpses: Searching Through Europe for St. Peter’s Head, St. Claire’s Heart, St. Stephen’s Hand, and Other Saintly Relics by Anneli Rufus. She was fascinated by relics, particularly whole bodies of the incorruptibles — corpses on display allegedly never decomposing, thus proving their holiness. She visited numerous shrines to observe both the saints’ remains and the visitors.

St. Lorcan lived in the 12th Century. There are trails and tales of his body parts too, including buried, disinterred and stolen bones. Even before his relics were shared and disappeared, he was on a fast track to sainthood. Many claimed miracles by praying to him in the months and years following his death (natural causes and not martyrdom) both at his tomb and through his intercession.

He apparently led a saintly life of humility and abstinence, replete with hair shirt, prolonged fasting, forgoing meat and stimulants and such that other prelates enjoyed. Now whether a figurative pure heart translated into a literal holy one, I suppose, is that matter of faith. Regardless, ripping off a religion’s palpable symbol is a terrible act.

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One Response

  1. Uncle says:

    I speak as a recovered Catholic and historian. I wonder whether any relics have the provenance that would withstand scrutiny of, say, Christie’s. The medieval trade in relics was both the mother of con jobs and an important precursor to international commerce. The church was doing well when it moved relic veneration to the background. It seems part of the general spirit of reaction that its back up front.

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