You're nuthin' but an old relic!
Feeling old? To call someone a relic (in the figurative sense) means they are old and antiquated. At least that's the modern connotation. But the Catholic meaning is very different.
Brace yourself, this is a hard one to understand at first.
A relic, in the Catholic sense, is something that has been touched by a saint, owned by a saint (such as clothing, for instance) or - yes - IS the saint - physically, at least. This was the weirdest thing about the Catholic church that I came across, because it's well - weird. It's like those people who have their dogs stuffed so they can still have them around, (physcially, anyway). It's separation anxiety at least. But there really is more to the idea of relics than meets the eye at first, and although I admit this is one of my least favorite aspects of the church, it is the most perplexing when you hear the miracles assocatiated with relics.
The origin of relics
In my humble opinion, the origin of relics is biblically based like all of Catholic beliefs. But also like all Catholic beliefs, there is a long history shrouding the original practice that we must peel away like an onion to fully understand the belief.
Familiarize yourself with the New Testament. Remember the part with the old woman who had a hemorrage for years which would not heal? Seeing Jesus in the crowds, she told herself "I only need to touch the hem of his garment, then I will be healed" and Jesus, who felt the power leave from him, turned to the woman and told her that her faith had healed her.
Now think for a minute. Why would the hem of his clothes be so important? They werern't. It was her faith. But still - why didn't she say, "if I would only touch his hand..." "if I could only have him look at me..." Certainly, any of us who would have Jesus look us in the eye would be changed forever.
Then, conversely, picture this huge crowd surrounding Jesus. Why was she so ambitious (although very ill and probably weak) that she hoped to get close enough to touch his hem? If you've ever seen a political parade, would you ever imagine that you would brush against the suit of the famous politician? How could an old, sick woman dream so big?
Her big dreaming, and her insistance to get close enough to Jesus demonstrates two things: her faith and her will.
Her desire to touch "only his hem" demonstrates: humility (that perhaps she was not worthy to require all of his attention) and the fact that as a physical being, she needed a physical remedy.
This is the basis of relics.
At first, what I did not like about relics
was not that the idea was macabre, but that it reaffirmed our
belief in the physical
Aside from the idea that relics are what they are, I did not like the idea of relics because it seemed to re-affirm the fact that we are physical beings. It seemed to me that we should be polishing our more spiritual qualities in order to become more spirit-like. Do we need physical trinkets?
Well, we may not as an individual. But the fact is, dear reader, that we are living on a physical plane, intermingled with spiritual life, expressed in every day, hard, tangible living. And some of us - even all of us at some time - doubt or struggle with belief. The allowance of relics is a kind way to offer reassurance from the spiritual to the physcial plane. If you think I'm kidding, try some Holy Water, and see how you feel. Though symbolic, God grants blessings of this sort because he understands our struggles as physical beings. We don't begin enlightened, in other words. We work in that direction.
If someone had the tunic Jesus wore, preserved
all of theses years, would you want a small cutting?
I would. I think that would be awesome to have. And I do believe it would be a blessed article. Why? Because of my faith. Would I pray to the tunic if I owned it? No. That would be stupid, wouldn't it? I would pray to Jesus, and be very glad I actually had something which he carried with him everyday. I would feel closer to him, as if time was not so distant and I could meditate easier on when he was walking on earth every day. I draw a clear line between worshipping God, and taking care of his tunic. His tunic didn't create the universe, after all.
My feeling about collecting saint's bones and hair, etc. is that many often run the risk of offering a great deal of honor to the creature, not the Creator. After all, even though the saint might have had an extraordinary will, the saint would not be a saint if it were not for the grace of God. The Doctrine of the Church freely embraces the use of saint's relics. Therefore, having a saint's relics must be with the understanding that to be a saint, one must have great humility, knowing that their salvation was a gift from God, and that without God's mercy none of us would be saved. Saints do not deserve glory in their own right. But we can glorify God because of them.
To have a relic, then, should serve as a reminder that we must all rely on God's Grace, and that none of us, no matter how resolute our will, can enter into Heaven without God's great, infinite mercy. My feeling is that no veneration of a physical item belonging to a saint should be without this focus on humility. When honoring a saint, we must do so as a desire to imitate the saint in their desire to be holy and to avoid sin, while at the same time, worshipping God for his kindness and mercy. The worship of God, of course, is by far the more important act.
The most interesting relics.
I'm sure if you search the web, with little effort you will find articles about relics. But some of the most interesting are the "Incorruptibles". These are the actual bodies of saints, some of whom have died over 500 years ago, who have not decayed. In fact, many of them have limbs which bend freely (no rickets) and skin which still is elastic, although the body may be over 100 years old. All of these occur without any artificial means to preserve the body. In some cases, after the passage of time, the church may do some things to help the appearance some, but most alterations are very minor.
Is it a hoax? Remember, you're talking about the Catholic church. Catholics write EVERYTHING down, then they have witnesses sign things. These are tried and true, and in churches where you can see them with your own eyes.
How does one find an incorruptable body? Mostly this has to do with the church moving or rebuilding over the years. Many nuns, priests, etc. are frequently buried within the building grounds, either in cemetaries or in catacombs beneath the structure. (Remember the graveyard scene in the movie "The Sound of Music", similar to that.) When the church needs to rebuild for some reason, it has become necessary to inter the bodies in order to move them to a different burial place.
It is important to note that the vow of poverty many religious orders take, also provide that the religious do not get buried in a casket (in dirt, perhaps with the body wrapped in linens). One incorruptible saint I remember was buried in dirt which was found drenched with water after 10 years, and the body of the nun was found in perfect condition. The burial conditions of these saints serve as a further reminder that this is a miraculous state.
Why incorruptibles? Maybe the saints have attained the perfection we seek. Maybe this is a foreshadowing of rising again, as Jesus promised. Maybe this shows a particular kind of perfection, for example, perfecting one's love for God.
If you'd like to know more about Incorruptibles, go to Tan Publishing's web site. They offer a great book on the subject.
Also, see "Eucharistic Miracles" while you're there. I'll do a report on that one soon.