I was rereading “Heavenly Bodies” by Paul Koudounaris tonight –it’s a beautiful book — and now I’m just sitting here doubled over in pain crying and crying (or I was until I began writing this).
The book is about “Catacomb Saints” – bodies found in Roman catacombs in the sixteenth century, presumed to be Christian martyrs, decorated and conveyed (translated they call it) to churches and basilicas and shrines all over Europe. The book seems to focus on Germany and Switzerland. They were revered as symbols of faith and hope and devotion and given powerful cultus for generations….until the mid-nineteenth century when suddenly honoring the dead came to be viewed as superstition, relics as macabre, and the elaborately decorated bodies of bone as embarrassments.
Suddenly they were seized from churches (sometimes against the parishioners’ will), sold to medical schools, museums, hidden away, sometimes destroyed. I just want to howl with pain when I think about this, when I focus in on exactly what that meant. There are accounts of priests hiding the relics to keep them safe. Sometimes they were moved from church to church. My dead have opened me up to so much pain around this. This, more than anything else for me right now seems a turning point in religious life, a sign of the loss of enchantment, the destruction of the sacred, the numbing out of the spirit, its sacrifice on the altar of supposed progress.
The story that really undid me tonight, made me cry until I was nearly sick was that of St. Faustine of Porrentruy. A woman who was once deeply and lovingly venerated, when her people turned their backs on her, she was shuffled from church to church and believed destroyed by the author of the book. Then he discovered that the body, this holy relic still remained (thank the Gods) but was not displayed, not reverenced, not even treated with the care that any of our dead deserve. It was instead shoved into a storage room, with chairs and unused ecclesiastical items and left to molder. You can read her story here.
I wish with all my heart there were something that I could do here. I may indeed write to the church. It will probably be for naught but at least I will have done something. What will i say? For the love of God, clean her off, repair her regalia, return her to the light, to the sight of her people, bring her out of hiding and back into the church so that she can again be part of its celebrations. This is a supposed saint who once inspired generations of your people in devotion. Allow her to do that again. We need that re-enchantment — Polytheists, Pagans, Catholics, Protestants, all of us, of every religion. We need every ounce of enchantment we can get in this world. We need every wisp and vestige of the sacred. We need our bones, our relics, our sacred people and holy places. We need embodied devotion and we need that connection to our past. She holds stories that need to be told. Hidden away with her bones is the record of generations of your ancestors’ devotion, their hopes and fears and loves and longings. Give that back to your people. Give that back in the body of this “saint,” because those are good things and if her bones inspire us now to reverence, then they are indeed blessed. That is what i would say. It is what I may in fact write. At least then I can say that I tried, that i spoke for the dead.
Why this saint? Why Faustine? Because I am an ancestor worker and there is no dead not my own. There is no dead who should be denied a voice. Because those once decorated dead like Faustine teach us reverence in ways that go beyond words. Because her story made me cry painful, bitter tears. Because she moved me and made me want to be better at my own ancestor work, to more fiercely tend and protect my dead; because her story made me realize with aching clarity how much i love my own ancestors and how precious every slender thread of connection and memory is. Because I can do this small, insignificant thing and perhaps this one spirit will know that her story still has power, that her bones still inspire, that she is not forgotten and that reverence and devotion still exist somewhere in the world and she has done her part in making it so. Because when I read about the destruction of her cultus, I feel it in my very bones as physical blows and I think of how much has been destroyed and how long and viciously difficult the way back has been and continues to be. Because one needs no justification for reverence. Because I can.
That is what i will say and then I will seek the solace of my own dead and i will light candles and pour out offerings and mourn what we as a people have lost.
(This image is of the bones of st. Faustine. Both images are by P. Koudonaris from this site. Many of them are used in “Heavenly Bodies).