In this series, I’ve tried to map out the development of the veneration of relics and more broadly the cult of the saints. I covered four areas of interest:
- The early practice of burial in the church for martyrs
- The significance of martyrdom and martyrs to the church
- Beliefs pertaining to martyrs and the influence of Greco-Roman spiritualism
- Church patronage structures and their contribution to relic veneration
Having covered all these I struggle to see the doctrine of the church pertaining to relics at the end of the 4th century as apostolic in origin. At the same time it’s hard to underestimate the role relics and the miracle stories attached to them in the 4th-century. This time is also one of prodigious growth for the church and therefore it’s impossible to ignore the fact that one of the primary apologetic arguments given by those like Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine for the prominence of relics and the miraculous claims associated with them. Claims that were not entirely absent in a pre-Christian context but undertaken to a degree that was without precedent before this period in history. Therefore I figure it best to address how I personally approach such claims.
In my conclusion on the series on image worship I had an equivalent section outlining my views there. In it I broadly had two points which were:
- Miracles no doubt took place. I say this because I believe God continues to work miracles even today and see no reason to doubt the fact that they historically occurred.
- That to turn an image or artefact of a person to ends outside its original design turns the person into a spectacle and exchanges the person with an object. The difference between the two is their ends. The telos of a holy man is not to be an object of devotion.
In the latter point, I can’t help but remember the explicit request of both Ignatius of Anitoch and Anthony of Egypt. The former wishing nothing might be left of him that “I may be no trouble to anyone” and the latter “that this thing was neither lawful nor holy at all” to leave bodies unburied. Anthony in particular drawing on the example of Jewish conduct toward the patriarchs and the apostles of Christ himself. It seems to me that to see a natural continuity in the conduct of the Church between the 1st and 4th century is to impose something upon history which only makes sense if one bears a predetermined narrative in the forefront of one’s mind. If one takes accounts sequentially, however, and allow them to determine precedent then the changes over the centuries seem more readily apparent.
Relics and miracles
There is, however, a broader point that the miracles of the 4th century constituted an apologia for the church in this age. These miracles were specifically brought about by the relics themselves, or have at least believed as much. A good example of this could the discovery of the relics of Gervasius and Protasius by Ambrose mentioned in the last entry. Especially given the fact that the discovery of such relics worked to combat the heresy of the day. Augustine recalls…
For it was about a year, or not much more, since Justina, the mother of the boy-Emperor Valentinian, persecuted Your servant Ambrose in the interest of her heresy, to which she had been seduced by the Arians. … Then Thou by a vision made known to Your renowned bishop the spot where lay the bodies of Gervasius and Protasius, the martyrs (whom You had in Your secret storehouse preserved uncorrupted for so many years), whence You might at the fitting time produce them to repress the feminine but royal fury. For when they were revealed and dug up and with due honour transferred to the Ambrosian Basilica, not only they who were troubled with unclean spirits (the devils confessing themselves) were healed, but a certain man also, who had been blind many years, a well-known citizen of that city, having asked and been told the reason of the people’s tumultuous joy, rushed forth, asking his guide to lead him there. Arrived there, he begged to be permitted to touch with his handkerchief the bier of Your saints, whose death is precious in Your sight. When he had done this, and put it to his eyes, they were immediately opened. Thence did the fame spread; thence did Your praises burn – shine; thence was the mind of that enemy, though not yet enlarged to the wholeness of believing, restrained from the fury of persecuting.Augustine, Confessions, Book 9.7.15,16
The miraculous stories associated with the orthodox relics constituted a form of validation of the parties doctrine that created popular support making it untenable for Justina to persecute them. Were Gervasius and Protasius renown for being defenders of orthodoxy on the issue in question in life? Martyrs yes but theologians? No. Yet their housing in the orthodox basilica and the subsequent miraculous accounts were taken as a form of divine endorsement of Ambrose and his position. The figures of Gervasius and Protasius in a sense were acting as an umbrella then for the orthodox party for who could justify persecuting a bishop when miracles were said to occur in his churches? That clearly even gave heretical Arians pause. What good are theological objects in the face of miracle stories and public devotion?
Whatever one thinks of such accounts its difficult to mesh without comparing it to one’s own personal experience. My own experience alone would not have given me cause to believe such things occur today. For example, when I’ve visited the bodies of incorrupt Roman Catholic saints either in Rome or elsewhere I’ve never seen a body that looks incorrupt or immaculately preserved. Yet these are frequently invoked as an example…
Yet the reality is always a bit more sobering. The saint in question, Padre Pio, has a silicone mask stretched over his actual face…
His face was covered with a silicone mask, including a short moustache and full beard, made by Gems Studio, the London-based company that makes wax figures for Madame Tussauds.Moore. “Padre Pio pilgrims flock to see saint’s body” Telegraph 25 April 2008
His skull was hidden underneath a cowl, and shoes covered his feet. The saint’s intricate stole was made by a company from Treviso that also makes special ceremonial garments for Pope Benedict XVI.
For me personally, I’ll always remember being in Rome and looking at a saints preserved body. It was covered in plaster which was cracked in several places where I could see clearly a skeletal corpse underneath. I also cannot help but be suspicious when I see fragments of the true cross available for sale on eBay. I’ve heard of miracles being brought about by relics but haven’t seen anything that personally convinces me.
The Existence of Forgeries
The other dimension of any talk of relics is the authenticity of the articles in question. An example of this is mentioned in Tom Holland’s account of Christendom during the 1st Millennium and takes place hundreds of years later from the period covered in this series…
Whereas once it had been forbidden to disturb the bones of the saints, now, in the wake of the peace councils, monks began to send their relics out on tour, to the accompaniment of clanging cymbals, soaring anthems and flickering torches. Sometimes, if the holdings of a neighbouring house made it worthwhile, they might arrange a swap. Sometimes, if they felt their own to be inadequate, they might attempt an upgrade. The most audacious example of this took place in Aquitaine, when the monks of the hitherto obscure monastery of St-Jean-d’Angély suddenly announced a truly sensational discovery: the head of John the Baptist. Quite how it had ended up there, buried within a mysterious pyramid of stone, was never fully explained. The enthusiasm of the pilgrims who soon descended upon the monastery, crowding the narrow stairways in their excitement, pushing and shoving their way down into the shrine, ensured that it did not have to be.Tom Holland, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom, p250, 251
This account culminates in elevation of a local saint into that of an apostle. Holland continues…
St Martial, it was grandly announced in the autumn of 1028, rather than the obscure missionary that everyone had previously assumed him to be, had in fact been one of the original apostles: the nephew of St Peter, no less. Though this claim was wildly implausible, it had nevertheless secured a heavyweight supporter: Aquitaine’s leading historian, Adémar himself. For eight months, displaying yet again his inimitable talent for blending erudition with wilful distortion, the famous scholar cobbled together an impressive number of works designed to prove that St Martial had indeed been an apostle.Ibid, p252
This greatly increased the significance of the local St Martial’s remains within the burgeoning cult of the saints during this region being described but raises pressing questions. If these relics weren’t authentic, and the claims associated with them were either fabricated or exaggerated wouldn’t that be worthy of sober reflection? Wouldn’t there be no miracles associated with such relics? Where is the fear of God amongst the people who made such claims?
During the Reformation, the Cult of the Saints came under great attack and perhaps the best-known criticism of it was from Calvin in his treatise on the subject. At one point he writes…
In this town (Geneva) there was formerly, it is said, an arm of St Anthony; it was kissed and worshipped as long as it remained in its shrine; but when it was turned out and examined, it was found to be the bone of a stag. There was on the high altar the brain of St Peter; so long as it rested in its shrine, nobody ever doubted its genuineness, for it would have been blasphemy to do so; but when it was subjected to a close inspection, it proved to be a piece of pumice-stone.Calvin, Treatise on Relics
Calvin goes on to make extensive mention of the forgeries, and duplicates of his day. The extent and range of objects mentioned highlight the degree to which the cult had become progressively disconnected from martyrs themselves, and their miracles, to provide a commodity that would draw the devoted to a given church or shrine. The Reformer also speculates as to how such a thing could have happened, why did so many forgeries proliferate? He answers…
For my own part, I have no doubt that this has been a great punishment inflicted by God. Because, as the world was craving after relics, and turning them to a wicked and superstitious use, it was very likely that God would permit one lie to follow another; for this is the way in which he punishes the dishonour done to his name, when the glory due to him is transferred elsewhere. Indeed, the only reason why there are so many false and imaginary relics is, that God has permitted the world to be doubly deceived and fallen, since it has so loved deceit and lies.Ibid
Which when I think about the claims made for popular relics and some of the examples I’ve seen for myself, I think Calvin’s reasoning is likely true. When Calvin gives his reasoning for why such practices are worthy on condemnation it’s also interesting that he seems to invoke the same rationale that Anthony of Egypt did…
Do we ever read in that book that these saints were taken from their sepulchres as idols? Was Abraham, the father of the faithful, ever thus raised? Was Sarah ever removed from her grave? Were they not left in peace, with the remains of all other saints? But what is more conclusive, was not the body of Moses concealed by God’s will, in such a manner that it never has been or can be discovered? Has not the devil contended concerning it with the angels, as St Jude says? Now, what was our Lord’s reason for removing that body from the sight of men, and why should the devil desire to have it exhibited to them? It is generally admitted that God wished to put away from his people of Israel all temptation to commit idolatry, and that Satan desired its introduction amongst them.Ibid
Here is Athanasius’s recollection of Anthony’s objection to the practice of local Christians to put their dead on display as a means on honouring them…
Antony often urged the bishops to give commandment to the people on this matter. In like manner he taught the laity and reproved the women, saying, ‘that this thing was neither lawful nor holy at all. For the bodies of the patriarchs and prophets are until now preserved in tombs, and the very body of the Lord was laid in a tomb, and a stone was laid upon it, and hid it until He rose on the third day.’ And thus saying, he showed that he who did not bury the bodies of the dead after death transgressed the law, even though they were sacred. For what is greater or more sacred than the body of the Lord? Many therefore having heard, henceforth buried the dead underground, and gave thanks to the Lord that they had been taught rightly.Athansius the Great, Life of Anthony, paragraph 90
I hadn’t read Calvin’s full treatise on this topic until deciding to look into this more fully and specifically in advance of this entry but I find myself agreeing with his position in it. Another area he covers is his positive mention of Vigilantius who he suggests had a more complex relationship with Jerome than the latter’s character assassination suggests. Calvin points to Jerome’s 58th Epistle showing the man had previously commended Vigilantius who had acted as a messenger for the letter to bishop Paulinus of Nola. The true nature of the man is lost to history but if anything this highlights the slim separation between people who came down either side of the issue in the 4th-century. Even if history condemned Vigilantius he was only considered a heretic post facto and not in his own lifetime, even if Jerome did despise him for it.
Another aspect of this, in which some semblance of an apologia might be made even for miracles being attached to forgeries, is to draw on platonic notions of forms. The mere resemblance or association with an object to a receptacle of religious devotion is all that is needed if we invoke Basil’s “the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype”. Icon’s are the most overt expression of this although in such cases they are transparently not a primary or secondary relic. One could presumably even invoke a passage like Genesis 50:20 (you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good) to suggest that God can and does work through relics that are either disingenuous or mistaken.
This creates a win-win situation wherein the relic and the body that houses it can argue that a relic need not be authentic for the devotion shown towards it to be accepted by God or his saints, nor indeed for miracles to potentially be associated with it. The long-standing argument for icons breaks down any objection to devotion being shown towards forgeries. One may object to the act of creating a forgery of course, but an individual cannot be guilty in any way of showing devotion to the object. I do not presume to think this an argument I’ve actually seen people employ but such is the thinking on the topic that I can imagine it being employed to defend the practice in the face of improper conduct. The thinking that surrounds such practice is constructed in such a way that it constituents a ratchet that gives no possible avenue of serious doubt and can only encourage superstition. There is no potential downside of being mistaken it seems in the Roman, Greek, or Russian acceptance of relics. The aforementioned example of people claiming Padre Pio’s body is miraculously preserved despite that not being the case is an example of this. To adopt such thinking suggests only good things can come from uncritically embracing or doing nothing dissuade such claims and only negatives from being critical or cautious.
Conservatism in doctrine
In thinking on this I can’t help but be reminded of a friend’s argument against abortion that can apply to relics based on a principle of caution.
One of the arguments invoked on the abortion debate is the question of when life begins exactly. Given there is no one universally accepted answer we should just assume it begins from its earliest point. A related analogy is to be driving down a road on a dark and foggy night when you see a shape that looks like a body lying in the road. It could be a pile of leaves but you can’t be sure. What do you do? Caution would suggest either slowing down to check or atleast driving around the shape. You wouldn’t drive over the shape assuming no downside from a lack of caution.
The same principle would extend to relics in my mind. Do we believe God can work without relics or the saints? We have good cause and precedent to believe as such providing we accept the claims of scripture. By taking up relics we run the risk of syncretism and idolatry so it seems the cautious option would discourage their uptake. I can imagine some might ask why do we take relics as an innovation to be taken up? Why not their abandonment? Yet I believe the series has shown clearly that they were taken up, this wasn’t a practice of the church from the outset. In this light relics and the cult of the saints are an innovation much like the progressive causes of our own day. An example of Neuhaus’s law.
Objects and Things
Another area I’ve been wondering about is what is the appeal of relics. Because there is something at a basic level which is appealing to the practice. I was prompted to think of this after perusing Evelyn Waugh’s novel ‘Helena’ which focuses on her discovery of the True Cross. One of the propositions that comes out in it is the materiality of relics that speaks to the incarnational nature of God. God became flesh in order to redeem it, not forsake it like the Gnostics. Another dimension of this seems to be touched on in Heidegger’s distinction between objects and things.
Even if I don’t appreciate everything of Heidegger’s work I find this distinction useful. A relic is an example of an object (human remains) that becomes a thing (relics). The thing holds potential and paradoxically the remains, whilst indicator of a person’s absence, draws one closer to them. Whilst remains are unrelational in the sense that they are inert matter they become relational when co-opted into the cult of the saints. They become greater than the sum of their parts, full of promise. This is a powerful pull but one that isn’t Christian in origin and says nothing as to reality of the beliefs associated with them. To co-opt a refrain from my series on Icons these remains exchange reality for representation and conflate the two. Representation can blind us to reality. The emphasis is not on the article (the remains), but on its reception by the beholder. How it is received makes it a relic because of its inherently relational dimension. In this the ‘thingness’ of a relic has an inescapably subjective, dogmatic, and fideist dimension to it.
Things seem an inescapable part of being human and a significant outlet for it is found in the devotion shown to relics. So even if one cannot condone the practice one can be empathetic towards how such a practice emerged and the dedication shown towards it. That of course does not ultimately excuse it but I think gives cause for reflection on the occasional lack of ‘thing-ness’ in the Protestant tradition and apparently the early church before the adoption of relic veneration. Things aren’t bad in and of themselves but when they take a disproportionate role in one’s religious devotions they become idols. This a story we see repeatedly played out in the old testament. In my own experience as an Evangelical thing-ness manifests itself most clearly in the approach displayed to one’s personal bible. I don’t think that’s bad and see something very human about that, what other ways could this be worked out?
The other thing that has stood out to me in doing this series was the very early place of privilege associated with the Martyrs of the early church. I see no reason to object to that and whilst this has some informal expression in Protestant circles. Like the desire to tell the stories of Confessors like Brother Yun or the lasting appeal and draw of Martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer this is neglected to our detriment. We do it, but it’s almost incidental and we should be more intentional and explicit about this I believe.
In writing this I’ve been frequenting a Church dedicated to the Martyrs of the Reformation. The most notable of which Daniel Rogers who was burnt to death for the Protestant faith a mere 10 minute walk from my work. In reading about the early martyrs I can’t help but feel that we should make a bigger deal of for the same reasons the martyrdom of Polycarp describes “in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.” One can do this without the idolatry of later centuries.
The Cost of Discipleship or Christian Life as Martyrdom
I also can’t help but reflect on how much the Christian life itself is best typified by something like martyrdom. In the West few of us will be killed for our faith, but we need to be more willing to put ourselves at risk for the sake of the Church and the Gospel. The Martyr is an example of someone who is primarily Christian at the expense of all else and not just a believer amongst many other things. They are a believer at the expense of all other things. This is an archetype or pattern for all Christians to follow. This is something I think T.S Eliot touches on in his poem ‘East Coker’ when he writes…
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hopeT.S Eliot, East Coker, 3
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Here Eliot is saying that faith is the seed of which love and hope are the subsequent fruit that will ultimately be realised. It is analogous of CS Lewis’s saying “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither“. To be a martyr, to be a Christian is a spiritual warrior, an iconoclast of all things in human life that draw us away from God. Things in the words of Eliot “Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony of death and birth.”
The linking of the suffering of Christ with that of the Martyr, of the prestige that accompanied those that suffered for their confessions, seems inescapably one of the engines of Church growth in the earliest centuries. Those who are willing to suffer or even be inconvenienced for their faith in the world today should enjoy places of privilege within our institutions. If nothing else it is indicative of those individuals possessing skin in the game. Unfortunately, I do not think this is the case at all in any Western Church. It is not expected for God alone to say ‘well done my good and faithful servant’ but the Church to simultaneously recognise the faithfulness of his servants whilst here in this life and to remember them perennially once departed. “Memory Eternal” as the Eastern Orthodox exclaim.
It took me a while to get my feet under me with this topic but having done so I find it difficult to accept the tradition account of how the cult of the saints came to be. Aspects of the claims surrounding it are true, people did prize the martyrs, but the shape this took changed substantially in style and substance over the centuries. It seems impossible to my mind to argue for continuity of apostolic practice and precedent when it comes to sacerdotalist claims surrounding relics and more broadly the cult of the saints. The reason for this is the proclivity of the human heart towards idolatry. Calvin even offered it as a reason Archangel Michael and Satan fought over the body of Moses.
What is more conclusive, was not the body of Moses concealed by God’s will, in such a manner that it never has been or can be discovered? Has not the devil contended concerning it with the angels, as St Jude says? Now, what was our Lord’s reason for removing that body from the sight of men, and why should the devil desire to have it exhibited to them? It is generally admitted that God wished to put away from his people of Israel all temptation to commit idolatry, and that Satan desired its introduction amongst them.
Calvin, Treatise on Relics
It may be said, however, that the Israelites were inclined to superstition. I ask, how stands the case now with ourselves? Is there not, without comparison, more perversity in this respect amongst Christians than there ever was amongst the Jews of old?
Yet when reading the practice of the earliest Christians I couldn’t help but be challenged by the deference given to both Confessors and Martyrs. Calvin immediately continues…
Let us call to mind the practice of the early church. It is true that the first Christians were always anxious to get possession of the bodies of the martyrs, lest they might be devoured by beasts or birds of prey, and decently to bury them, as we read was the case with the bodies of St John the Baptist and St Stephen. This solicitude was shown, however, in order to inter them in their graves, and there to leave them until the day of the resurrection; but they did not expose these remains to the sight of men for their adoration.Ibid
So whilst we can’t affirm later developments I think we should be both challenged and inspired by the acts of those willing to sacrifice everything for the cause of Christ and moved to ultimately follow in their footsteps.