Relics from the Past


[Three reliquary busts from the Cloisters museum in New York City. These are each believed to have once held a skull of one of 11,000 handmaidens who were martyred with St. Ursula.]

In honor of the upcoming Dia de los Muertos holiday, I thought I’d write a bit about relics and the incorrupt bodies of saints — a macabre subject to some perhaps, but hey, it is that time of year.

Dictionary.com defines relics as, “the body, a part of the body, or some personal memorial of a saint, martyr, or other sacred person, preserved as worthy of veneration.” That’s pretty much my understanding as well. And then a reliquary is “a repository or receptacle for relics.”

As for the incorrupt bodies of saints, Wikipedia defines incorruptibility as “a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief that divine intervention allows some human bodies (specifically saints and beati) to avoid the normal process of decomposition after death as a sign of their holiness. Bodies that undergo little or no decomposition, or delayed decomposition, are sometimes referred to as incorrupt or incorruptible.”

When I was young, the idea of venerating relics seemed superstitious. But events in my life over the years, witnessing death, and perhaps just aging itself, have caused me to have a more open mind. And I have even used the subject of relics and the idea of incorruptibility in my writing, deferring to the possibility and the mystery of such things.

[SPOILER ALERT!]

In my forthcoming novel, The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue, there is a scene where the body of the prophet Daniel is discovered in a tomb beneath the Syrian Desert…

The four of them all looked down on the body of a man. He was clothed in ornate robes and adorned with rings, bracelets, and necklaces. A gold band was placed around the top of his head like a crown. His hair was long and flowing. He had a scant beard. His skin was mummified but wasn’t emaciated like a museum mummy. His eyelids and lips were closed and he looked at peace.

“The preservation is amazing,” said Victoria.

She held the light to his face and studied it. She then noticed engraved writing around the inside rim of the sarcophagus.

“What is it?” asked her brother.

“It’s in Hebrew,” answered Victoria. “Here lies Daniel – God is my judge – the prophet. Most beloved of the angels. May they carry him to YAWEH in paradise.”

She looked up to the others and said, “Well, according to this, it’s him.”

They all stared at the body for a long moment, as if revering some dignitary, lying in state.

In the original version of the story – a screenplay entitled The Tomb of the Prophet – I spent a lot more time dwelling on the physical condition of the body. I also had people experiencing unexplainable emotional changes when they were near the body. However, this got to be a distraction that really didn’t fit with the main story, so I dropped it.

[END SPOILER]

The idea of a saint’s body being incorrupt is a little spurious, in my opinion. If you Google the words “incorrupt relics” and then click on images, you’ll see lots of photos of the long-dead bodies of saints. None of them look as though they are sleeping. Their skin is dehydrated, Their eye sockets are sunken … you the the drift. Many of the bodies have been covered with death masks made of wax (which, to me, seems a bit of a cheat.) Nevertheless, I find it fascinating.

I’ve only had one close encounter with relics myself. When I went to view the relics of St. John Maximovitch in San Francisco (also known as Saint John the Wonderworker). Saint John was a Russian Orthodox bishop who came to San Francisco as part of the Russian diaspora. He had a reputation for being a very wise and compassionate leader, often taking more populist stances on issues and shining light on hypocrisy. St. John died in 1966. In 1993, his body was exhumed and his relics were found incorrupt. He was made a saint in 1994.


[An Orthodox priest looking over the relics of St. John Maximovitch at at the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral, San Francisco, CA.]

The experience of venerating St. John’s relics was odd. Being a product of small town American Protestantism, I wasn’t sure what to do. I stood and looked down into the case they had him in. I said a few familiar prayers. And then I waited. And in my silence, I felt moved. I felt a peace that I didn’t feel before. Here’s a poem I once wrote about the experience. Perhaps it best summarizes how I now feel about such things…

The big priest
Came and unlocked the door.

Walking in,
The darkness
And the stillness
And the light
Bathed me.

The heavy glass wall
Separated us
Like in an aquarium.

The big priest
Opened a second door.

I went in to view you
To see your bones.

You were in a place
Off to the right
In a small case of wood
Your vestments were clean, white, and gold
Ornamented with pearls and silver

Your shriveled hands were raised from your chest
As if from beyond death
You had one last thing to say
To me
Your visitor
A pilgrim towards eternity


For further reading:

On relics and incorrupt corpses…

  1. Relics and Reliquaries in Medieval Christianity
  2. The (Not Really So Very) Incorrupt Corpses

On saints mentioned…

  1. Saint Ursula and the 11,000 British Virgins
  2. St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco

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