What Do You Think About Relics?
Recently an impressive array of relics was displayed throughout the Twin Cities. It was part of a traveling display sponsored by the Vatican. I missed it. But I made up for it by going to Croatia.
Croatia is something of a relic, especially its capital city of Zagreb, where I spent several days, almost my entire time during my first visit to Eastern Europe. One of my hosts told me that the name Zagreb may come from the Croatian verb that means “to grab,” as the city has certainly been grabbed by others again and again. It has survived centuries of war, of foreign rule, of assaults on the bodies, souls, and spirits of its citizens. It was ruled by the Communists for almost 50 years. Before that it had been conquered by the Nazis. And before that by the Hungarians, the Turks, and whatever empire happened to covet that territory, not for itself, but because it was connected to or on the way to someplace else. In every era the locals have had to fight off invaders, and the heroic stories are breathtaking. “There is too much history here for such a small place,” is their saying. Today they are enjoying a rare moment of relative freedom, but there is a new menace that threatens to take over. Croatia, which is over 85% Catholic, faces the danger that threatens the rest of the West and East: Secularism. The attack on faith can be overt, as it was under the communists, who murdered Blessed Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac by poisoning him, or it can be subtle, as it is today when the enemy slowly seduces Catholics into a casual, comfortable and complacent mindset that soon slips into skepticism, drawing them away from doing the diligent and deliberate deeds of faith.
The body of Blessed Cardinal Stepinac lies in a glass tomb behind the high altar in the cathedral as a reminder of what it means to follow Christ. It is a sacred relic, and it is highly revered by those who enter the cathedral. But there are thousands who don't bother entering.
And as for relics, I was given a very privileged private tour of the cathedral treasury. I had to climb a very claustrophobic winding stone staircase in one of the towers. We were led by a very old nun whose name I could not pronounce and who spoke no English. The interpreter was almost as young as the nun was old, but he did a marvelous job. The first thing the nun explained, very matter-of-factly, is that Zagreb means St. Gabriel. That was more pleasing than “to grab,” and it struck me that you can't go back any farther in Christianity than the Annunciation. Among the treasures in this holy hiding place was a chasuble that was over a thousand years old (and an ancient deacon's vestment which is called a Dalmatica, after the Dalmatian region of Croatia), a bejeweled mitre that was some 900 years old, the oldest written document in Croatia (never caught the date), and unique and elaborate embroideries that defy description. And there were relics...and more relics. Most of the saints you could name were there and many that you could not name, or at least not pronounce. And the reliquaries were exquisite. One was sculpted by Bernini. One was covered by ivory that had delicately and intricately carved scenes from the Life of Christ. All wonderful.
But there was one show-stopper.
It was a small sarcophagus. Through the grill on top, we could see the mummified body of a baby. Then the nun told us what it was. When the interpreter translated her words, I felt my hair stand on end and goosebumps rise all over my body. I went a little weak in the knees and was immediately compelled to kneel.
“It is one of the Holy Innocents from Bethlehem.”
Now what was your reaction to those words? There are only two reactions. You believed it or you did not believe it. If you believed it, you probably felt the same thrill and awe that I felt. If you did not believe it, if you thought, “That can't be!” or “How do they know that?” then your doubt, however justified you feel it is, takes you nowhere. You remain where you are because you are not going to be “taken in.”
G.K. Chesterton says that whenever you ask skeptics to believe anything, whether it be a legend of a hero, or a ghost story, or a transfiguration on a mountain, they reply that they are not going to be “taken in.” But what does that mean? As usual, Chesterton gives a surprising and incisive answer: “To refuse to be taken in is to refuse to see the inside of anything... The skeptic is left in this position in regard to everything. You show him a great palace and tell him that inside it are great councils and splendid judgments of State. But he never sees the councils or hears the judgments, for the simple reason that he will not be 'taken in' to see or hear them. You show him a mighty cathedral and tell him that inside it are ceremonies that exalt the spirit and music that makes it mad with frantic goodness; but he never hears the service or the music, simply because he will not be 'taken in' to hear them. He has an abiding horror of the inside of everything, for to him the inside of everything is a trap, with jaws of steel. He would rather be outside everything than inside Heaven...”
The man who will not believe is sure that it is a trap. And by not believing, he is sure that he will not be a fool. But in the end, who is the fool? The doubter or the believer? Who gets into heaven?
Even though Chesterton seems to have made the ultimate point, he is not finished with the skeptics. “These people, though thoroughly justified, intellectually speaking, in their whole position, must be bad judges of almost everything there is. The great majority of things have externally a doubtful air: they may be either traps or cathedrals, and of the great majority of men is demanded the furious, the fantastic, but still the practically necessary valor of assuming that the thing is a cathedral. All the most practical and recurrent human attitudes consist chiefly of being 'taken in,' that is, of being introduced (whenever we are 'introduced' we are taken in) to some new and dangerous matter—falling in love, motherhood, and even going to sleep are all very dangerous...Only the credulous succeed...”
We start with belief, that is how we enter the Church. If we start with doubt, we are left out. You can doubt the authenticity of a certain saintly relic. You can also doubt the importance of any relic. You can doubt everything. Let me know how that works out for you.
As for me, when I was told that I was in the presence of a baby born alongside the Christ child, slaughtered in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, the earliest of all Christian martyrs, a baby whose feast day we celebrate with holy horror, who is the unlikely patron of millions of butchered babies, the embodiment of the war on the innocent that has continued mercilessly for two thousand years, one of the purest of all the saints, I believed. My whole body believed it. There was not a shred of doubt in my soul. And I bowed before something sacred.