The idea of Holy Relics - bones, blood, thorns and pieces of the True Cross, may seem like an idea from another time, a relic belief from the Middle Ages, something old and forgotten and gathering dust, but last weekend in Italy there was a major relic theft - gauze soaked in the blood of Pope John Paul 2 after he was wounded during an assassination attempt was stolen from a small church in the Abruzzi. There are only 3 blood relics of John Paul 2, who will soon be beatified, and on his way to becoming a saint. In Italy, this is major news, and once John Paul 2 becomes a saint, this will be a priceless relic. Relics are with us, alive and powerful, today.
As I begin this talk today, I want to assure you that my purpose is not to demean or poke fun at relic belief. These are powerful beliefs, and I am very interested in the power of faith, the possibility of healing, the possibility of the miraculous, the living power of the relic, as well as the importance of holy sites and pilgrimage. This is not a scholarly text, but a story, a story of my own journey, my own sense of relic and pilgrimage, but a story with relics at the heart.
Approximately 15 years ago I was invited to travel to Italy to give a series of poetry readings, and to meet the Italian poets, farmers and environmentalists who had been translating and publishing my poems. I had never been to Europe before, and my first stop was Naples, Italy. In Naples the dead are everywhere, - skulls, bones, catacombs ...the feast day of their local saint San Gennaro, was a day on which his blood was hoped to miraculously liquefy. If the blood turned liquid, the city would have good fortune for the next year. If not, things could go badly.
From Naples we traveled to Rome, the center of relic worship in Europe - the tomb of St. Peter, the tomb of St. Paul, the catacombs, the church of St Peter in chains, with chains from his arrests in Jerusalem and Rome, mixed with links of chain used on St. Paul as well (relic chain filings were big for some time) and of course the vast Relic collection at the Vatican. I was beginning to get interested.
We traveled on to Assisi, to say hello to Saint Francis. Francis' body was buried to make sure that there were no body relics, but in his cathedral, near the tomb, there is a display of gauze soaked in the blood from his stigmata, as well as his clothing and documents in his handwriting. Across town, you can visit Saint Clare, who is seen in her own chapel, with fresh flowers at her place at the meal table, and flowers in the sleeping area, where she slept. Beth and I have been now to Assisi several times, and on our last visit we walked the last two days of the 200 mile pilgrimage route to Assisi, the section from Gubbio (where Francis had his encounter with the wild wolf of Gubbio, who is now buried in the churchyard) to Assisi. Everything in Assisi feels very powerful, very holy, and very peaceful. I was starting to look at relics with interest, and wondering what they were, how they came to have the power that they have, and what were their stories.
Relics are believed to be traces of the Divine. In the world each relic is a fingerprint of the Creator, and a chance for contact with God through the saints. Each Relic is the Word made flesh. Each relic is alive, is a living saint. "In these relics there is perfect grace, and perfect power." Relics were the main channel through which supernatural power was available for the needs of ordinary life. Ordinary people could see and handle them. They were (and are) both visible and full of beneficent intelligence. I started thinking that if each relic was the word made flesh, was alive, then maybe everything contained the possibility of healing, and the miraculous. Maybe everything was holy...
Unlike a manuscript or an ikon, a relic has no value until it is a part of a community of agreement, of belief. It needs an outside source to give it value. If relics performed as relics, if they worked miracles, made healing possible, inspired the faithful and increased the prestige of the community, then they must be genuine.
There are various classes of relics. First there are the actual bodies or body parts of the saints and martyrs. Then there are the tombs, shrines and holy places associated with them, and then there are contact relics - things that have touched the saints, or been used by them, or are important because of their location: shrouds, clothing, chains, earth where they stood, dust from tombs, the True Cross, the crown of thorns... Divine power works through things which have been consecrated through use and contact with the saints. Many religions have their relics, holy sites and pilgrimages - there are teeth and footsteps of Buddha, hair from the Prophet's beard, but in this talk I will concentrate on Christian relics in Europe.
The most powerful relics are those associated with Jesus and his life. Because it is believed that he was taken bodily into heaven, there are few body relics, but there are many relics of his blood, as well as relics of his hair, his breath, and, because he was Jewish, there is the relic foreskin. David Farley has written a wonderful book looking into the claimed existence of this relic (An Irreverent Curiosity). I gave a poetry reading in the little town of Calcata, the center of the foreskin controversy. There is a wonderful painting from the Renaissance of Jesus ascending bodily into heaven, and in a lower corner of the painting there is a foreskin with wings, flying up as well. (one early pope was quoted as saying that this miracle was necessary because they couldn't have Jesus in Heaven with a Jewish penis)
Associated with Jesus are the two most ubiquitous contact relics: pieces of the True Cross and thorns from the crown of thorns. These were brought back from the Holy Land primarily by Crusaders, but also by pilgrims and those traveling to search for relics there.
One of the earliest poems in the Anglo Saxon poetic tradition, dating to possibly the 7th century, is a poem in which the poet dreams of the True Cross, and the True Cross speaks to him:
"I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,
the Lord of Heaven; I did not dare to bend.
They pierced me with dark nails; on me are the wounds visible,
the open wounds of malice; I did not dare to injure any of them.
They mocked us both together. I was all drenched with blood
poured out from that man's side after he had sent forth his spirit.
I have experienced on that hillside many cruelties of fate."
from Dream of the Rood
Here the cross is pierced, as well as Jesus, and is also mocked and tortured. Later in the poem the cross is buried, but then resurrected, covered with jewels, and honored above all trees. The relic of the True Cross held Jesus in his final hour, suffered with him, and now has the power of his spirit.
After the relics of Jesus, the most powerful relics are those of the Virgin Mary. Her breast milk can be found all over Europe, as well as pieces from clothing and other items associated with her. Ephesus claims to be her final home and resting place. Ephesus also claims to be the resting place of Mary Magdalene, but southern France lays a claim to her as well, with sites at Vezeley, Baume, the Church of the Three Marys in the Camargue, and of course Rennes le Chateau. Her presence in southern France has been made much more visible now by the author Dan Brown and his novel The Da Vinci Code, which involves a quest for the Holy Grail, and the belief that Magdalene was pregnant with a child by Jesus when she came to France, and that their bloodline is the actual Holy Grail.
Early in the Christian Era pilgrims began to travel to the graves and tombs of the saints and martyrs. Again, holy sites and pilgrimages were not new ideas. There were many holy sites in the pre-Christian past, many of them springs, wells, mountains, homes of certain animals or plants, the sacred sites of the natural world. Skeletons and single bones became important objects of devotion and pilgrimage in the Christian Era. This begins with the Holy Innocents - the children killed by Herod's forces in an attempt to stop the birth of a prophesied "King of the Jews".
Historically, the Fifth Council of Carthage, in 401, passed a law requiring all sanctified Catholic altars to contain a relic. The Catholic Code of Canon Law defines an altar as " a tomb containing the relics of a saint". This definition was in place until 1969. This set off a great search for bones, for relics for every Catholic church in Europe. The catacombs of Rome proved to be a great source for the original surge of relic needs. Germanic churches especially favored Roman relics. French churches liked their local saints with ties to the past. The Christian saints and holy places replaced the local divinities of woods and water. Jerusalem was another great source of relics, as the Holy Land, and many of these relics came home with Crusaders. There was a great move to save relics from the hands of Muslims (and later from Vikings and other "barbarian" invaders)
By the 8th century there were less saints, and less martyrs, so new trends in relic discovery came to take place. The rediscovery or relocation of relics - relics might appear in a dream or a vision and reveal their locations. Lost and forgotten burial sites were miraculously discovered. For example, Saint James was miraculously discovered on the coast of Spain, although he died in Herod's kingdom, far to the east. A cathedral was created to house his miraculous relics, and pilgrims began to walk there from all over Europe, creating one of the greatest pilgrimage routes of all time. Some believe that the Camino to Santiago runs parallel to the Milky Way. The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela did well, as did the surrounding city, and all of the small towns along the various feeder routes. (This is not a saint to whom I am encouraged to make a pilgrimage. He is frequently portrayed in Spain as Saint James the Moor slayer, riding a horse, carrying a large sword, beheading Muslims, leading the forces to chase them out of Spain, and leading crusades to chase the out of Jerusalem. The Moor slayer - more a saint for Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld)
Relics were relocated from neighboring towns when priests would have dreams of the saints telling the dreamer that they were not being treated with enough respect at their present locations. Priests would go to move the relics to a new location, called "translation". Saints would be prayed to, asking for permission for the move. The relics were seen as being alive, moving about as they wished, helping those whom they chose to help, and could not be moved against their will There are a number of stories of failed relic translation, where the relic prevents its own relocation.
A trade in stolen relics soon grew. Sacred theft was seen as something other than theft, where the good intentions of the relic thief gave them absolution from guilt. As an example: the Venetians believed that St. Mark had been sent to the lagoon by St. Peter to begin his Christian mission. In 827 or 828 the Venetians went to Alexandria to bring St. Mark's body back to Venice. To sneak him by the Muslim port authorities they placed his body in a barrel of pork and smuggled him onto a ship.
The greatest large scale relic theft would be the Crusades, but another great example would be the looting of Constantinople by the Crusaders and the Venetians. Constantine had wanted to create a second Rome, Constantinople, and his mother, St. Helen, was a great collector of relics from the Holy Land. In 1204 the Crusaders sacked Constantinople and made off with a rich and diverse collection of relics, including blood of Jesus, pieces of the True Cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, milk of the Virgin Mary,, hair and cloth from Mary, parts of the skull, teeth and fingers of John the Baptist, and Old Testament relics of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Another famous relic theft was committed by Frederic Barbarossa, a German leader who overran Italy in 1168, and brought the bodies of the Three Kings (Wise Men) to the cathedral in Cologne, from Turin. St. Helen had brought them from the Holy Land to Constantinople, and they had come from there to Turin , and thus on the Cologne, where they are today.
By the Middle Ages relics were everywhere, and were changing hands through gifting, theft, sale, and dream recognition. People were traveling to sites of specific events, or sites linked to specific saints, for specific kinds of healing or saintly intervention. Saints were connected individually with specific kinds of healing or miraculous powers. (For instance, if you had speech problems you could go to Padua, Italy, to the relic of St. Anthony's jaw and tongue). This relic veneration caused the rise of pilgrimage routes, relic tourism (and relic theft) and healthy economies for the churches and town having the right relics. Churches would also take the relics on tours around the countryside as fundraisers for the church, as well as having special days of celebration, saints days, for their particular saints. The four busiest pilgrimage sites during the middle ages were Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, and Vezeley.
During this time there was a gradual move away from the local saints to a wider celebration of the more "important" saints - Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene.
The Eucharist came more and more to the forefront. You didn't need as many relics, or the intervention of relics, when you had the miracle of the Eucharist available to you. The Eucharist contains "the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, together with His soul and divinity, indeed the whole Christ", the body and the blood - the spiritual food of the Church.
Several young female saints tried to live on the Eucharist alone, starving themselves and having visions, many of them involving becoming the bride of Christ. One of them claimed that Jesus gave her his foreskin, which she wore as a wedding ring. Catherine of Siena claimed a mystical marriage with Jesus. (her head is now on view in a cathedral in Siena, while the rest of her body is in Rome)
Here is a poem that I wrote for one of these women:
If, in Montefalco, I
that I have you in my heart,
do not be alarmed.
Here Santa Chiara announced that
she had manifested the
True Cross in her heart.
The Church, not taken with
metaphor, cut open her
body, searching her heart
for evidence of the Cross.
They now display,
600 years later, her dark
and fragile body.
Above it, cut open and
dried, her heart, and
the three gallstones,
announced as representing
The Holy Trinity -
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In this town
I dare not speak
what is in my heart."
There was of course pushback to relic worship from other branches of Christianity. Here is John Calvin, from his "Treatise On Relics":
"The desire for relics is never without superstition, and what is worse, is usually the parent of idolatry.
If we were to collect all of these pieces of the True Cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship's cargo.
With regard to the milk (of Mary) there is not perhaps a town, a convent, or a nunnery where it is not shown in large or small quantities. Indeed, had the Virgin been a wet nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more than is shown as hers in various parts. How they obtained all this milk they do not say."
And here is Mark Twain, from "Innocents Abroad"
"But isn't this relic matter a little overdone? We find a piece of the True Cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together. I would not like to be positive - but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails."
But the relics hold power today, and the pilgrimages continue, to Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Assisi, Vezeley, Lourdes, Chimayo, Sainte Anne de Beaupre in Quebec. There is a Catholic Relic Rescue organization watching for relics as they come onto the market, purchasing them and returning them to the safety of their own communities of belief.
We continue to have our own relics, our holy spots and pilgrimages. Many of us see our lives as a journey, a pilgrimage, with our own holy places along the way.
As a poet in Italy I have yes been to see Saint Francis, Saint Clare, Saint Catherine and Saint Anthony, but I have also been to the tomb of Dante and the birthplace of Virgil. I have gone to John Keats' apartment facing the Spanish Steps in Rome, where they keep locks of hair from Keats, Shelley and Milton, as well as a piece of Shelley's jaw.
Working with the environmentalists, farmers, poets and musicians in Italy who are a part of my travels there, we have together come up with a new approach to environmental activism. We want to reinterpret the ideas of relic, sacred site, and pilgrimage from a Catholic Christian view to one which considers the sacredness of the whole planet. We talk about relic species of plant and animal, places of healing, pilgrimage to the places where the last wolves or bears or certain types of forest remain
so I will close with this poem, from that experience of Italy
Once it was Saint Anthony's
tongue in Padua, Clare's body in
Assisi, bone fragments and
pieces of the True Cross.
Now there are remnant
lowland forest relic
coastal wetlands, turtles
in sunlight, egrets, coots,
pines. beech, mushrooms
and the last few bears -
the blood turned liquid,
rich green moving water,
saints and holy places,
listening to the voice of the owl
in the dark night
(ascoltando la voce del gufo
nella notta buia.)
Reading list for this talk:
Bartlett, Robert - Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things - saints and worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation
Farley, David - An Irreverent Curiosity - in search of the Church's strangest relic in Italy's oddest town
Freeman, Charles - Holy Bones, Holy Dust - how relics shaped the history of medieval Europe
Geary, Patrick - Furta Sacra - theft of relics in the central Middle Ages
Manseau, Peter - Rag and Bone - a journey among the world's holy dead
Nickell, Joe - Looking for a Miracle - weeping icons, relics, stigmata, visions and healing cures
Nickell, Joe - Relics of the Christ
Rufus, Anneli - Magnificent Corpses - searching through Europe for St. Peter's head, St. Chiara's heart, St. Stephen's hand, and other saints' relics
Vardey, Lucinda - Traveling With the Saints in Italy - Contemporary pilgrimages on ancient paths
Weigel, George - Roman Pilgrimage - The station churches
Wharton, Annabel Jane - Selling Jerusalem - relics, replicas, theme parks