"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Holy Relics

Shortly after reading further stories on the astonishing news that more than three million Russians have come to venerate the sash/belt/cincture of the Theotokos--a relic whose veneration is already being said to have worked dozens of miracles--I received in the mail a book I briefly mentioned a while back: Sergius Bulgakov, Relics and Miracles: Two Theological Essays, trans. Boris Jakim (Eerdmans, 2011), xii+116pp.

This slender volume contains two essays by Bulgakov, who died in 1944. The first is on relics, the second on miracles. "On Holy Relics" was, Jakim tells us, written in 1918 just as the Bolshevik campaign of destruction of relics and icons was heating up. Bulgakov is neither shy nor retiring in blasting the Bolshevik barbarians whose "God-hating cynicism and blasphemy...does not have any precedents in the history of Christianity. The fury of the God-haters and the spirit of the Antichrist are fully evident in their savage profanation." Lest we miss his fury after this opening, he goes on to refer to the "satanical gangsters in the Kremlin" who seek to destroy not merely relics but, of course, the faith of believers, especially simple but pious peasants.

But before going any further in mounting a defense of relics--and their often attendant miracles--Bulgakov notes that "believers must pose anew the following questions: what exactly are holy relics, and what are the content and meaning of the dogma of the veneration of holy relics?" This is an important question because as he says next, belief in relics has never been defined "at any of the ecumenical councils. It has not been the object of any special deliberation." So Bulgakov sets out to answer just these questions, along the way realizing that part of his task will be to come up with what, at the other end of his century and in a Western context will be called, by another Slav, a "theology of the body." For relics, of course, are often bodily remnants of a Christian who gave up his life in martyrdom or heroic sanctity, and so relics are a reminder of the central truth of Christianity: the resurrection of Christ in the flesh. As Bulgakov shows, the "cultured despisers" (or in the Bolshevik case, the uncouth and uncultured despisers) of Christianity disdain relics because ultimately they disdain such a messily embodied faith in which the body dies but ultimately will be resurrected.

Disdain of, or at the very least acute discomfort around, the body has a long history, and today we are by no means exempt from it. Nearly fifty year ago, Jessica Mitford published her scathing exposé, The American Way of Death Revisited, mounting in prose a critique that the great Evelyn Waugh had two years earlier done in a fictional satire in The Loved One. She acutely observed North American squeamishness about acknowledging death. The clearest evidence of this is in the language: one does not die but “passes away”; the dead person is “the loved one”; the funeral is a “celebration of life.” And corpses (“the remains”) are plied with makeup and all sorts of horrid chemicals—carcinogenic chemicals, no less—in order to look “life-like.”

How much healthier, I think, is the custom of the Greek Orthodox villagers whom Juliet du Boulay describes in her haunting and lovely book, which I mentioned earlier. In Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village, based on anthropological research in which she lived for several years in Greece, du Boulay describes how the dead are tended at home: the body is prepared and clothed, often in an indigenous white garment understood to have baptismal and nuptial overtones, by family at home, where it remains until time for the funeral and
burial. Family and friends keep vigil, carry the body to the funeral, and then to be buried following what (as I have argued elsewhere) I regard as one of the most healthful and spiritually-psychologically helpful rites, that of the Last Kiss (seen here, starting at the 1:25 minute mark from the funeral of the late Russian Patriarch Alexy II).

After two or three years, in keeping with fairly widespread Greek practice even today, the bones are removed by the family from the grave, washed, and placed in an ossuary. This tending to the bones, as well as the whole process of grieving and burial, never allows the villagers to forget the central place of death, and the fate which awaits us all. There is nothing squeamish or disdainful here, and we could learn a great deal from that.

1 comment:

  1. I had it a long time agog with "celebration(s) of the life of (fill-in-the-blank)." That is no way to live.
    Thanks for always giving us the angle on why such good books are relevant and relating their content and point of view to other publications. Your blog is an invaluable read.


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