Soliloquy in an International Cloister

Watch your step as Brother Lawrence takes you inside the monastery walls of a five hundred year-old international order. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wish you had ignored your hormones and joined the monastery.

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Location: Rome, Italy

09 March 2008

I see dead people

I have to admit that for a religion that makes eternal life the center of its sales pitch, we Catholics have a deep fascination with death, or more exactly, with dead people. What other religion proudly displays statues of their dead savior in every place of worship? Another example is the practice of collecting and displaying relics of the saints in our churches. Having possession of the corpse of a saintly person was considered so important in the Middle Ages that grave robbing was not uncommon. When Saint Francis of Assisi died, he was buried in secret for fear that residents of the nearby town of Perugia would attempt to steal his body. It wasn't until 1818 (he died in 1226) that his tomb was found. Most of Saint Catherine of Siena is buried in her hometown, but somehow her skull found its way to a church in Rome. Finally, three different churches claim to have the head of Saint John the Baptist. While this may seem impossible, the explanation is very simple: one is of John as a young man, another when he was middle-aged, and the third when he was an old man.

The religious order to which I belong even goes beyond your average, off-the-shelf Catholic when it comes to dead people. Witness the crypts of our churches in Rome, Palermo and Brno. In keeping with this tradition, I attended a ceremony on Sunday, March 2, during which the body of one of our saints was exhumed. I don't want to mention his name (to prevent random googlers from landing here), but you can read about the ceremony here if you'd like. The procedure is quite normal—in fact it is normally required before anyone is declared a saint. One reason is so that the tomb can be secured to prevent tampering (see above regarding grave robbing). It is rumored that another reason for the procedure is to prevent the embarrasment of canonizing someone who lost his/her faith just before death. There is a legend, for instance, that when the tomb of the saintly Thomas a Kempis was opened, they found a contorted body and scratch marks inside the coffin lid. Apparently, his brothers mistook a good snooze for death, and buried him alive. Or maybe they were just playing a practical joke. Anyway, upon waking up, rather than calmly accepting his situation as the will of God, as any good Christian would do, he despaired and tried to claw his way out of the grave. Wimp!

Despite exhumation being a common procedure, in typical Italian fashion, there were huge amounts of hysteria surrounding the event last Sunday. A small group of people were opposed to mucking around with the saint's body so they asked a court for a restraining order to stop the procedure. The bishop in charge of the ceremony was informed a few hours before it was to begin that the police might be called in to stop it so he was as nervous as George Bush at a spelling bee. Normally, only four or five people would be present for the procedure, but because of the controversy surrounding it and of the saint's popularity, about 100 people were invited to attend. The large crowd merely added to his anxiety. We were given strict instructions before being admitted into the crypt: we were not to leave our seats until the ceremony was over; cameras and cell phones would be confiscated and the owner escorted out of the room.

Most of the ceremony was fairly boring: several decrees about this and that were read, some speeches were given and we said a lot of prayers. Finally, we got to the part everyone had come for. The tomb was opened and the casket lifted out. At one point, a pall-bearer tripped and almost fell into the tomb along with the casket. Great amounts of oohs and aahs. Then the seals on the casket were inspected. They were intact, which was not surprising since the casket had been under three tons of granite until a few days earlier. The outer lid was removed from the casket, revealing an inner lining of zinc. The zinc was cut away and removed, revealing a glass covering over the body. A buzz of excitement. People were craning their necks trying to get a glimpse into the coffin. Unfortunately, there was so much condensation inside the glass covering that it completely obscured the body. Groans of disappointment. The casket was then whisked away into a specially-outfitted room where specialists will work at preserving the body for future generations. Later we were told that despite all the measures taken to avoid it, the top part of the body was fairly decomposed. Sic transit gloria mundi, and all that.

So, you are asking, why were people opposed to the exhumation? According to the request for a restraining order, they merely wanted to prevent a desecration of the saint's body. A look around at the number of tongues, fingers, hearts, skulls and other assorted body parts on display in churches around Italy should be enough to convince anyone that there are other motives at work. One has to do with the large shrine that was built to honor this particular saint. Some people have accused the architect of including masonic symbols throughout the church. These same people are afraid that the exhumation is only an excuse to move the body to the new church. The most likely reason for the opposition has to do with money. Through some convoluted thought process, this group of people has concluded that moving the body into the new church will allow the Vatican to take control of all the donations. Some of those donations now go to the brothers, who in turn use the money locally. The Vatican, in this scenario, will take the money and spend it elsewhere, thus depriving the locals of their livelihood.

I sense an opera coming on.


Blogger Open Grove Claudia said...

Wow. I thought only the Buddhists do this (Stupas are made from their saints relics.) Well... I guess I knew that people went to see St. Peter fairly regularly.

It's kind of amazing that a religion that is soul oriented spends so much time on the body. Why do you think that is? A powerful soul impacts the material holding the soul?

10 March, 2008 16:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your recently exhumed saint has a whole shop devoted to him on Vauxhall Bridge Road - run by mad little Irish ladies who will cheerfully sell glow-in-the-dark rosaries to gay men (I'm not at all sure said ladies realise what dens of iniquity these beads will be taken to).
I always wondered what he'd done to deserve sainthood. I am now wondering what stigmata have to do with shopping.
Pog x

12 March, 2008 17:21  
Blogger Moobs said...

I once did a drive-by confession in Padua and the gnarled hand of the confessor shoved a small card out from underneath the grill. On it was a tiny circe of cloth.

Me: "Er ... thank you ... what is this?"

FC: "It is a piece of cloth from a sheet that has been rubbed on the uncorrupted tongue of St Anthony"

Me: "Er ... nice"

14 March, 2008 04:46  
Blogger BroLo said...

OGC: I think it has to do with the idea of the "communion of saints"--that we're not alone in our struggles. Even those who have gone before us are still around to help us.

Pog: fans of our man, especially the Irish, have such great faith in him that they believe the rosaries will "cure" them. The fact that they would buy something as tasteless as a glow-in-the-dark rosary is a sign that they are already becoming less gay.

Moobs: maybe you could get something for the card on Ebay?

15 March, 2008 09:24  
Blogger Pog said...

I fear you are wrong there, BroLo. The glow-in-the-dark rosaries are, apparently, just perfect for finding your way around a darkroom. Well, that's what they told me.

19 March, 2008 19:03  

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