14 October 2009

Haunted by the Reformation

Well, the European qualifiers for next year's World Cup are over, and I doubt there are many people out there who would have predicted at the start of this campaign that when the qualifiers came to an end, only five of the 53 countries would remain unbeaten, those five being Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and, um, Ireland. Of course, this doesn't give us a huge amount to crow about: of the eight second-place teams that go through to the play-offs, Ireland earned the fewest points over the campaign. Still, fingers crossed for the next match...

So yes, yesterday I was talking about the visit of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux to England and Wales, and about how one Sophia Deboick, writing in The Guardian, seems to think it remarkable that the Catholic Church should use a saint to promote Catholicism. I know, astonishing, eh? In this day and age...

Anyway, the gist of the article is as follows: when Thérèse died in 1897, her sisters set about moulding her image and building a cult around her, and were supported in this by Rome, where Thérèse was seen as a useful modern example of meek female purity. She was canonised in 1925, and in the 1960s was presented as a great theologian and as a proto-feminist. Nowadays, when the Church supposedly regards virginity and motherhood as the only acceptable female conditions, she is a perfect example of the former, while her mother, whose cult is growing, stands as a useful example of the latter.

I'd like to have seen a lot more of this, because as it stands it's just a handful of sweeping statements, hardly substantiated at all. The stuff about her autobiograph having been creatively edited by her sisters is fascinating, and I'd like to learn more about that. The idea that photos of her were suppressed in favour of sentimentalised paintings is almost as interesting, but it rather clashes with what I've read elsewhere about how much of her early popularity was due to the novelty of a saint - and long before canonisation we was widely regarded as a saint - having been photographed. Claims about virginity and motherhood being the only acceptable female conditions in the eyes of the Church are utter bunkum, as I said yesterday, and indeed I don't think I've ever heard Thérèse being singled out as a virgin: as a thinker, yes, as a saint, certainly, as someone who struggled on a daily basis to live for Christ, absolutely,but as a virgin? No. It's always kind of gone without saying, as a rule, her having been a nun. It was never something to specifically focus on. Until reading Ms Deboick's article, I'd never heard of St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Holy Virgin, though I'd heard time and again of St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower.

Still, the comments on the article are well worth a read, not least for how they gxpress a discomfort with this kind of stuff. I don't mean the usual tribalism of most of my fellow Guardian readers - or at least most of those who leave comments - which tends to manifest itself as a kind of unthinking pack atheism; I'm talking about a straightforward unease, of the kind that Basil Hume was so concerned about in 1997, when the idea was first proposed that the relics should be brought to England. He felt the time wasn't yet right, as the old English view of Catholicism as superstitious, idolatrous, and 'other' was still too powerful.

Taking some of the comments, and stitching them together, you get the following:
'I do find the whole spectacle rather gruesome. I thought the dead were supposed to be allowed to rest in peace not go on world tours... All seems rather medieval and macabre. Can't they just let Thérèse rest in peace... I love Ellis Peters' Cadfael books. I just never thought that people would take them so seriously and decide to promenade St Winifried's - sorry, that should be St Therese's - bones all over the place in such a bizarre Dark Ages fashion... Cardinal Hume, an intellectual giant compared to his infantile British successors, refused to allow what he saw as a display of superstitious idolatry... I have to say that I just do not get this relics thing... This Dead People's Bones Worship Cult thing seems to me to bear no resemblance to the Christianity described in the Bible or practiced by other mainstream faiths... Can anybody explain to me why these pitiful tubercular bones are being hawked round the country rather than been given a decent Christian burial. It couldn't be a cynical ploy to make loads of dosh for the Catholic church could it? I thought we had a reformation in this country... Anyone starting today to dig up the body of a dead person, cut it up and cart it round for other weirdos to goggle at would have a net thrown over them and be invited to some heavyweight counselling... It is really hard to understand the hold that a few bones from, at the time of her death, an unknown Carmelite nun can still have over so many people (I guess more women that men, which is rather strange in itself) And they all have the vote!
There's standard anti-Christian stuff as well, of course, but this is more specific. It is, in effect, Calvin's anti-Catholic legacy in its current incarnation, a strand in modern English anti-religious thinking which tends not merely to identify religion in general as a mental disorder, but to pick out Catholicism as a particularly pernicious and sinister variety of such, drawing on all the old clichés and myths to do so.

Relics, I think it has to be said, are probably one of the things about Catholicism that most non-Catholics are uncomfortable with. Even when they're not dismissed as fakes they're seen as weird, grotesque, superstitious, idolatrous, and even pagan. What's more, they even leave a lot of Catholics cold, or at any rate engender mixed feelings. One of the more considered and informative comments on the Deboick article is from a fellow who identifies himself as 'a Catholic who does not do relics and was never particularly keen on St Theresa's style of spirituality'; he's far from alone in this, though it's interesting that even so he found himself going up to Aylesford out of curiosity last weekend, where he was particularly taken by the homily at the mass.

I tend to think of myself as not being a relics person, but if I'm totally honest with myself, that's nonsense. While I may laugh at the dubious provenance of such oddities as, say, St Thomas's finger, and while I stop short of kissing the feet of statues, that hasn't stopped me from kneeling in the Church at Calvary or by the tombs of St Peter and of St Francis of Assisi. I think the fact that whenever I'm in London I pray by the grave of Basil Hume is largely accidental, though; he just happens to be interred in a chapel that I love.

But still, if I think about it's pretty obvious that I've a thing for relics, and secular ones as much as religious ones. I've thrilled to see in Olympia the helmet that Miltiades wore at Marathon, and stood with a lump in my throat at the hill of Thermopylae, drank in one of Dickens and Chesterton's favourite haunts, ate in the Place du Forum in Arles, and been speechless at Dachau and Auschwitz. Arrayed along my shelves are a medley of keepsakes - a pebble from the Dead Sea and another from the Wadi Rum, a meaningless shard from Petra, a lump of rock from Mount Vesuvius, a chunk of bog oak from Mayo, the plastercast of a Carthaginian coin. Most of all, I keep all sorts of things because people who've meant something to me have touched them: letters written and cards made by friends, a ribbon that was once wrapped round a birthday present, old photographs, books signed by favourite authors. I'm hardly queasy about human remains, either: a few years back I spent a summer in Greece digging up ancient graves and carefully cleaning skeletons with toothbrushes and souvlaki sticks, and even now a medieval human skull grins down at my from my bookshelves.

The veneration of relics -- and it's veneration, not worship, so just respect and honour rather than adoration -- is a perfectly normal human instinct, drawing on the same characteristics that lead us to visit graves and museums. It's more than this, though; it's not just a combination of curiosity and sentiment. I'll explain tomorrow. For now, my bed calls.

No comments: