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In the beginning was the tongue
THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT DISMEMBERED TOES, SPLINTERS OF shinbone, stolen bits of hair, burned remnants of an anonymous rib cage, and other odds and ends of human remains, but it is not a book about death. Around every one of the macabre artifacts that, for a variety of reasons, have come to be venerated as religious relics, circles an endless orbit of believers and skeptics, bureaucrats and clergy, fathers and mothers and children, pilgrims, beggars, con artists, and just plain curious souls. This is a book about life.
Before I saw my first relic, about ten years ago, I stood for what seemed like hours in a line of tourists wrapped around the altar of an Italian basilica, under a tableau of the stations of the cross carved in wood. Each of the stations' fourteen squares depicted a scene from the crucifixion as large and menacing as a horror movie poster, but no one paid them much attention. Everyone was too busy checking their watches, folding pages in their Umbria guidebooks, laughing and grumbling and planning in a dozen languages.
Directly in front of me, a young mother with dyed black hair and a matching biker jacket watched her toddling son clap his palms on the polished floor and then warned him in German—"Nicht anfassen! " Don't touch that!—each time he put his hands on something that seemed dirty or fragile. The boy had blond hair and spitty wet fingers and was eyeing a piece of dried gum stuck to one of the basilica's marble columns. Both column and gum seemed to have been there for an eternity, but when the boy pinched the gray wad his mother hissed—"Horst! Nein!"—as if its removal would bring the whole place tumbling down.
The line shuffled forward and little Horst fell in behind his parents, tucking his face into the back of his father's knees. Latching on with one hand to a fold of green denim, inserting his other hand in his mouth for safekeeping, he let his feet drag on the ground to show how bored he was with all of this. He seemed to be about three, and I wondered if his parents had tried to explain why they had brought him to this dark church in the middle of a lovely autumn day. Had he understood what he was waiting for, he might have appeared more excited.
At the end of this line, which stretched from the entrance fifty yards behind us to a point farther ahead than we could see, there was said to be a very special tongue. A human tongue from a human head. A tongue that was believed to have the power to give speech to the dumb and eloquence to the tongue-tied. A tongue so potent—legend and guidebooks proclaim—that it was found whole, pink, and healthy after the body it had spoken for had gone to dust.
It was not just any tongue, but La lingua del Santo, "The Tongue of the Saint." In the ancient city of Padua, two hundred miles or so north of Rome, "the saint" refers always and only to Saint Anthony, whose basilica this was. Born at the end of the twelfth century in Portugal but embraced most fervently by Italian Catholics, Saint Anthony is the patron saint of lost objects. All of us, a thousand tourists on any given day, were there to see what was left of him.
I was standing on my tiptoes, craning my neck over the crowd to have a look at the end of the line, when someone made a pssst noise and others clucked in agreement, raising and pointing their chins in a gesture meant to urge me on. I turned to see that the line had moved forward. There was now ten feet of empty floor between the German family and me. I put my hand in the air as apology to the waiting throng and half-jogged to close the gap.
When I got there, Horst was stretched out on the floor. His mother glanced back and then hoisted him up by his belt, apologizing with her eyes.
The pilgrims lurched forward, around a bend now, and I followed the Germans into a narrow passage behind the altar. Five yards ahead, the line changed from relative order to a small-scale mob. Some stopped and turned to the left to take a long look while others forced their way through the traffic of bodies, impatient to move on now that the waiting was done. I couldn't yet see what was causing the commotion, but it was impossible to miss the .reworks of camera .ashes linking off the walls, despite the repeated warnings we'd all received against turning this holy place into a photo shoot.
At least our crowd wanted only pictures. Back in the heyday of Christian relic veneration—roughly the eleventh century through the sixteenth, when the Protestant Reformation brought the boom times of relics to an end—religious authorities had to keep constant guard over the sacred remains they displayed. A story is told of an English bishop who, while on pilgrimage in France, toured a monastery that had a shrine containing the full skeleton of Mary Magdalene. Impressing the monks with his piety, the bishop stooped to put his lips on the holy lady's hand. No one noticed that, by the end of his kiss, he had bitten off a piece of her finger. He held it in his mouth for the rest of the monastery tour, then returned to En gland to build a shrine of his own.
So it's no surprise the basilica guards were content to let the tongue photos slide. Not that they could have done much about it. The number and speed of the .ashes in the passageway suggested that the crowd of Australians, Germans, Koreans, and at least half a dozen other nationalities was intent on spending its time in Padua as paparazzi of the holy dead.
In the middle of the hubbub, a family of four had dropped to their knees in front of the entrance to a small chapel, which I could now see was to blame for the gridlock.
"La Cappella delle Reliquie," an Italian whispered behind me. From others in line I heard it identified in French and Spanish as La Chapelle des Reliques and La Capilla de las Reliquias, "The Chapel of the Relics," though a sign in English identified it with less poetry as "The Treasury." It contained Saint Anthony's tongue, jawbone, and a small piece of cartilage believed to be part of his larynx.
The kneeling family had been mostly silent through the forty minutes I'd been in line, so I couldn't guess their nationality, but their manner and dress suggested they were some variety of Europeans. When they rose, they crossed themselves with the absentminded ease of Crusaders' distant kin. Wherever they were from in what remains of Christendom, kneeling before pieces of a saint was a part of them, as it had been for generations beyond memory, a tradition unchanged for a thousand years.
The Germans fought their way through the throng, and I followed close behind, moving easily through the wake created by the stroller the father pushed before him. When the mother reached the reliquary, her mouth dropped open. She called out to her son, "Horst! Guch mal! Eine Zunge! "
But Horst didn't seem to hear her. He turned and ran into the crowd, disappearing among the tourists' legs as their cameras flashed like strobe lights. When his mother raced to catch him, it was finally my turn to approach the tongue.
Reaching the pedestal on which it stood, I was surprised to see that the reliquary looked like nothing so much as a model light house: a tall, thin column supporting a crystal cylinder—though in this case the cylinder contained not a lantern but a cone-shaped chunk of human flesh, a tiny scrap of body behind glass.
As the story goes, at the time of its discovery in the saint's tomb eight hundred years before, the tongue had been so moist and plump it looked ready to deliver a sermon all on its own. Now, the ornamentation of the gold around it seemed more appropriate for the Hope diamond than for the chewed piece of licorice the tongue had come to resemble. The pedestal was spotted with fingerprints, and more than a few pilgrims went so far as to stand on their toes to plant kisses directly on the marble around the reliquary's base. Centuries of such contact had added a greasy bit of color to the gray stone, a soft pink mix of lipstick, finger oil, and spit, evidence that as many people as there were smudges had stood on this spot and tried to make contact with Il Santo and, through him, with God.
I put my fingers to my mouth and then as close to the relic as I could reach. The stone was cold to the touch but slightly slick, like a sweating beer bottle on a summer day.
On the way out, I saw little lost Horst out of the corner of my eye. He had wandered alone into the corner of the chapel and now stood puzzling over what all the fuss was about. One hand down his pants, the other up his nose, he looked on the traffic jam of adults crowding the holy tongue like he was the only one with his priorities straight.
THOUGH IT HAS now been a decade since I saw Saint Anthony's tongue, the weirdness of waiting in line with the citizens of the world to view an extravagantly displayed piece of human flesh has never left me. I had been raised Catholic and so I was familiar with the idea of relics but, having never before traveled to Europe, that was the first time I had seen one that looked like anything other than a bug under glass. Outside Catholic circles, it is a little-known fact that every Roman Catholic church has a relic. In the United States, they are usually hidden discreetly within the altar at the front of the church. These relics are rarely viewed, however, and when they are, on feast days, or at shrines built specifically for that purpose, they more closely resemble a gnat or a thread or a pebble than anything holy. For the majority of relics in the Americas, holiness comes only through association: often they really are just threads or pebbles, tiny scraps of clothing or objects believed to have once made physical contact with a saint.
Throughout my Catholic youth it had been easy to ignore relics. Standing before Saint Anthony was the first time I had looked on a religious artifact and realized that the object I was looking at was not just a what but a who. The equal parts shock and fascination this realization inspired were experienced anew with each relic I saw in the years that followed: the head of Saint Catherine, a finger of John the Baptist, a pebble of enamel chipped from the Buddha's tooth. I've spent the better part of the past decade thinking and writing about the fringes of religion, and even as other oddities of spiritual practice become old hat, this particular strangeness continues to fascinate me. I am moved not only by the miraculous powers many relics are said to have, nor merely by questions of their authenticity, but also simply by the fact of them, the fleshy actuality of what they are.
What they are, of course, are remnants of saints, prophets, and sages: the keepsakes and castoffs of consecrated women and men, and most of all their bodies. The word itself—at the root, the Latin reliquus—refers to "something left over or kept behind." Considered this way, relics are also one of the very few things that truly connect the religions of the world. Every religion is a banquet of holy lives; these are the leftovers. Another possible translation of reliquus sums up the objects' meaning and power succinctly: relics are simply "what remains."
Relics have been revered by believers all over the world because all over the world the people who believers believe in die. This may be a tautology, but it's also true: in any belief system in which humans play a role (all of them, that is), the death of those who speak of life beyond death is bound to become a problem. Some die peacefully of natural causes (such as the Buddha, who delivered so many different sets of last words his followers might have wondered if he would ever really leave), some die of disease (the battle-hardened Muhammad is thought to have been finally done in by malaria), some are victims of violence (name any early Christian martyr), and others are believed to have simply been taken up to heaven (the Virgin Mary, for one, as well as a variety of Hindu sages). What all these different religious figures have in common is worship focused on, and the occasional battle over, their physical remains. The breastbone of the Buddha, the breast milk of the Virgin, the tooth of the Prophet, the uncut hair of Hindu ascetics believed to have passed on to another realm: all have been at the center of religious conviction and conflict.
And relics have been there, more or less, since the beginning. Though they have become embarrassing reminders of the dark ages of faith to many progressive believers, the fact is that no religion, no matter how forward thinking its members consider themselves today, has been untouched by some sort of relic veneration in its past. Every religious tradition that has survived the centuries has done so through a near-constant expansion into new territory, finding new adherents wherever it roamed. To do so successfully, a new faith required some kind of calling card, a portable form of sanctity for its far-flung outposts to rally around. In the cases of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism especially, these calling cards—not quite seeds of community but certainly fertilizer—were relics. Even traditions such as Judaism and Hinduism, which have shunned prolonged handling of the dead, have had relics of a sort: priceless mementos of the earliest or most trying days of the faith, reminders that even traditions that seem to have always existed were, once upon a time, as awkward and fragile as newborns.
To look on a relic is to see an artifact of this creation Even if an object is not genuinely what believers profess it to be—such as Chaucer's feather of the angel Gabriel—it becomes the locus of belief for centuries. And it is in this belief that faith is made. For the faithful, to pray to a relic displayed in its reliquary—even to a blackened and shriveled tongue—is like shining sunlight through a magnifying glass. A relic concentrates the beliefs surrounding it until they can be seen; it is a faith so intense it has, at times, set the world on fire.
THIS IS NOT just ancient history. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in the spring of 2005, one of his first acts of private devotion as pope was to close himself in his Vatican apartment with the heart of the patron saint of priests, Saint Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, who was famous in life for being able to "read the hearts" of those who came to him to confess their sins. Saint Jean-Baptiste reportedly heard confessions eighteen hours a day during the last year of his life. Usually kept in a shrine in France, his heart had been brought to Rome in honor of the dying Pope John Paul II, and as a symbol that the new pope should likewise strive to be a reader of the hearts of the faithful.
A few years before, the heart of a recently deceased Tibetan lama is believed to have selected the lama's own successor. As a gathering of monks was ritually preparing the lama's body for cremation, the heart is said to have jumped off the altar. It landed on the floor, squished here and there as the monks tried to grab it and continue their ceremony, and .-finally somehow found its way out the door and into the crowd awaiting the cremation. By the time the heart came to a stop, it was at the feet of a ten-year-old boy. After some deliberation as to what this might mean, the monks declared that the dead lama's reincarnation had been found. Today the boy, now in his early twenties, is a young but much respected Buddhist teacher.
Did the dead heart really jump? I tend to think not. But I also wonder if the truth of such a story matters, or rather how it matters. While questions of relics' origins and provenance fascinate me, to see a finger believed to be that of John the Baptist is to see an object that people have come to kneel before and pray to for centuries. I am as interested in the stories it has inspired as in the story of the object itself. Indeed, if it is not actually John the Baptist's finger, it is potentially all the more interesting. I can still see that particular relic in my mind's eye: discolored and bent but with a well-manicured nail; thanks to the shriveling of years it is almost child-sized—think of the tiny digit Horst slid up his nose—but nonetheless it is clearly a human finger. Which raises the question: if not the prophet John's, then whose?
The stories told about relics—both their origins and their effects—immediately become the stuff of legend, and yet because they are fully grounded in the body, they are also the stuff of real life. They serve at once as storyteller, observer, object, history, myth, and, of course, all that remains of someone who, way back when, was perhaps mistaken for a saint.
And the stories of relics are not just about how particular traditions learn from their past; they are also about how they define themselves within, and often against, the rest of the world.
In the sixteenth century, John Calvin and his cohorts in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation delivered their most scornful attacks against the papacy by hitting where many Roman Catholics considered below the belt, with a few quick and cutting jabs at relics. Of the Virgin Mary's breast milk, Calvin wrote, "It cannot be necessary to enumerate all the places where it is shown. Indeed, the task would be endless, for there is no town, however small, no monastery or nunnery, however insignificant, which does not possess it, some in less, and others in greater quantities." He further commented that all questions of preservation for fifteen hundred years aside, it was physically impossible for so much milk to have ever been in existence. "Had Mary been a cow all her life," he concluded, "she could not have produced such a quantity."
In the decades of unrest that followed, relics became a wedge that drove the church even further apart. Anti-Catholic tracts such as The Pope's Ware house, or The Inventory of the Whore of Rome (published and widely read in London in 1679) followed Calvin's lead and elaborated his implication: that, as far as they were concerned, the greed of Rome was so boundless it would hoard even the corpses of its most beloved. Not that the Calvinists remained without sin. In 1572, they captured nineteen Catholic priests in the Dutch coastal town of Gorkum. Refusing to renounce practices such as the veneration of relics, the priests were hanged from the rafters of a turf shed. It was a bit of poetic justice, if cold comfort to the dead men, that the murder scene became a Catholic pilgrimage destination and the bodies of the "Martyrs of Gorkum" were spirited away to be enshrined in a church in Brussels.
Such was the way the drama of relics dominated and directed the times. The Reformation was in many ways a defining event for Western civilization; it triggered domino effects of schisms within schisms that eventually divided Europe and sent splinter groups looking for new lands—including the one colonized by the people we now call the Pilgrims. Look below the surface of the conflicts that followed the Reformation and you can find relics buried deep down within these histories, like bits of shrapnel that remain even after the wounds have healed.
The same can be said of an intrareligious rift that is shaping the world today. In the news every night we hear of the difficulty of finding peace in the Middle East and Central Asia, regions both at war with outside forces and bitterly divided between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Broadly speaking, the Shiites revere relics; the Sunnis despise them. In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi government of fundamentalist Sunnis has bulldozed relic-containing mosques and shrines they see as examples of idolatry. At another spot in the Muslim world, when the Taliban first attempted to take control of Afghanistan in 1996, they knew where to begin. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar demanded to be let into a shrine containing relics of the Prophet Muhammad: hair from his beard and a cloak he is said to have worn. Seizing the cloak, Mullah Omar went to the roof of the shrine and slid his hands into the sleeves, holding the garment before him for everyone to see. To the crowd watching, it looked like he had gone into the relic chamber and come out transformed into the Prophet himself.
As in the Christian world five centuries before, the power of relics, whether unleashed through their destruction or their glorification, is today being used in the Muslim world to send a message about worldly and otherworldly control. Seen this way, the "clash of civilizations" in which our cultures are sometimes said to be engaged includes the clatter of some very old bones.
To look upon the world's religious differences through the lens of relics sheds light on why such differences are often so difficult to understand. Relics are as complicated and varied as the human beings they once were. Whether a tooth, a heart, a whisker, or a calcified tear, these items have exerted a remarkable and complicated influence in the world for such tiny, often frankly repulsive, things. It is no surprise that we sometimes recognize the stories told about relics as having to do with matters of life or death: they are always about both.
NOT TOO LONG ago, I was reminded of my visit with Saint Anthony when I stood looking at another body through glass. I was standing not in a church but in a medical examination room. As I waited to see the figure, there was no crowd to fight—just the doctor, my wife, and me.
A blurry white blob is all we saw. The doctor typed on the keyboard below the monitor and an arrow appeared near the blob's center. He moved his finger across a small touch pad and directed the arrow to the blob's rounded end.
"Head," he said. The arrow slid down the blob's perimeter. "Arms . . . legs . . ."
I squinted and moved closer to the image. I had assumed that at this first glimpse of our first child I would be overwhelmed by the fetus's wholeness, the primordial personhood visible on the screen. Instead, I was struck by the assemblage of parts, present and pending, in various states of completeness. In a few weeks I would get used to calling this assemblage she, a daughter.
The doctor moved the sensor slightly, and we watched as the baby rolled, as if turning to face us, though, of course, she could not see anything at all. When our view of her changed, so, it seemed, did her substance; with our new perspective, the tiny twigs that were becoming her bones became visible, spine and ribs and skull.
Later, when I thought back on this first image of my daughter through the dark glass, I was as surprised as anyone would have been that it called to mind Saint Anthony and all the other pieces of saints I had seen. Perhaps it was a renewed interest in all that is implied by the word miracle; or perhaps it was the experience of seeing the component parts of a human being in a state of existence that was somewhere in between, not fully in the world and not fully out of it. Either way, I thought of relics and all the living souls who had lined up to be in their presence. People are drawn to relics, I realized, because they make explicit what we all know in our own bones: that bodies tell stories; that the transformation offered by faith is not just about, as the Gospels put it, the "word made flesh," but the flesh made word. Behind the glass of every reliquary is a life story told in still frame. That was what I saw on the ultrasound screen as well. What we were, what we will become, all there behind the glass.
I looked again at the fragile lines that represented the bones of my daughter, the frame of all she will be and know. These bones, I thought, these bones are where belief begins.
What my wife and I will teach our children about faith is a series of open questions. Yet, as I studied my first child for the first time, I already knew that I wanted her to know about the great variety of beliefs in the world she would soon enter. I wanted her to know how lucky she is to be born at a time when a vast spiritual vocabulary is open to her. I wanted to teach her that faith is strange and beautiful and sometimes scary.
Of course, in order to teach one must first learn. And so, just as I was preparing for fatherhood—a time when one is particularly concerned with life—I conceived of undertaking a journey that to my friends and family must have seemed oddly obsessed with death. One week here, two weeks there, I set off to explore the universe of relics, making sure to be home far more often than I was away, always thinking about the intersections of bodies and faith in our lives and in the world. As much as one can ever make sense of one's own preoccupations, I suppose I found in this period of expectation, waiting for the arrival of a child, something similar to what I felt when faced with pieces of saints, a feeling that life and death are not always black and white. The stubborn vitality of relics, like the awful fragility of the earliest moments of life, suggests that between all we know of living and all we fear of dying there is vast gray space in which we can hope only to make sense of it all.
TO BE DECLARED a saint or holy person in almost any religious tradition has elements of a curse as well as a blessing: it is to guarantee that your body—or a body said to be yours—will be cut apart, inspected, bickered over, and sent around the world. Yet, in every case, these parts—toes, hands, ribs, hair—are important precisely because of the whole person they had been. I wanted to understand the phenomenon of religious relics by undoing what history has done to them. I wanted to piece them back together, to build a composite of the range of relic veneration by assembling a full image of the body, from toes to whiskers with a jumble of bones in between.
During my travels I was particularly drawn to those artifacts that have maintained their relevance, often in unexpected ways. What relevance can mean, unfortunately, is that people often fight and die over many of the relics discussed in this book. To grapple with relics is to know the worst, and maybe also the best, that religion offers the world.
If I was a praying man, I might beseech Saint Anthony, patron saint of both lost things and those in search of eloquence, to help me find the words to make this so. My use for prayer comes and goes, however. When it comes to looking for inspiration, I turn instead to stories. One that I heard while waiting to see the holy tongue all those years ago has stayed with me: It seems Saint Anthony was hearing confessions one day when a man came and told him that he'd had an argument with his mother and kicked her before storming out of the house. Saint Anthony said to him, "Any foot that would kick the mother who made it should be cut off!" The power of the tongue that spoke these words was so great that the man went home, grabbed his ax, and chopped off his foot. When Anthony heard about this he knew he had to be more careful with his words. The tongue God had given him—the relic I would one day see behind glass in Saint Anthony's basilica—was capable of doing as much harm as good. He went to the man immediately and talked the foot into rejoining the leg, by faith repairing the damage that faith had done.
Excerpted from RAG AND BONE by PETER MANSEAU
Copyright © 2009 by Peter Manseau
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.