|St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai Peninsula|
But it was the charnal house at St Catherine’s that fascinated me most. A small building outside the walls of the monastery, the charnal house contains the bones of deceased monks (it is apparently difficult to bury the dead permanently in the sand of the Sinai desert; easier instead to bury them shallowly and exhume the bones later). Skulls are piled neatly along one wall behind a chain-link enclosure, arm bones in another area, leg bones in another, etc.
|St Stephanos the Hermit - St Catharine's Monastery|
I had no exposure to relics before this, raised as I was in an Evangelical Protestant home. When I took this trip to St Catherine’s at the age of 22, I still self-identified as an Evangelical Christian, but was really only hanging to the tradition by a thread. I was well on my way to becoming a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, and for reasons I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, would eventually become a Roman Catholic. So I knew about relics, but had never actually seen one. And here was St Stephanos right in front of me, his corpse dressed in priestly vestments.
|Sts Magnus & Bonosa at St Martin of Tours' parish|
Andre of Montreal's heart, to a finger from an Orthodox saint whose name I've forgotten, to the small fragments of cloth or bone that are to be found in the little reliquaries all over the Catholic world. Here in Louisville, St. Martin of Tours' Catholic Church has the skeletal remains of two third-century saints who are displayed in glass under side altars (the story of how these relics came to reside in Louisville is a fascinating one; this video provides some of the details).
|Merton's collection of relics in the Merton Center|
I often ask my undergraduate students to submit questions they would like to have addressed at some point during the semester, and one of the most common questions has to do with why Roman Catholics feel the need to keep relics. Most of my students find the idea of relics a bit creepy. Why, they ask, would anyone want to see the earthly remains of someone, let alone venerate those remains in some way?
It seems to me that the theology of relics has a great deal to do with affirming the worth and beauty of the human body, something Catholicism is not generally thought to do very well. I'll write more about this in another post.
Photo of St Stephanos is from agatasmaytrip.blogspot.com
Photo of Sts Magnus & Bonosa from http://therecordarchlou.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/relics-at-st-martin-of-tours-reinterred/
Photo of Merton's collection of relics by Paul Pearson, director of the Merton Center