Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus

Again, in Europe, I am struck by the number of holy things now languishing in museums. The thousands of holy relics, the thousands of abandoned altars. Were they simply profaned at some point, taken and displayed? Or was there some sort of ceremonial desacralization performed? Can you desacralize the relics of a holy man or woman from centuries past?

If angels attend to each church and altar, do they simply wander away when that church or altar is turned into a mere tourist site, with no further sacred function? Or do they linger there, guarding their posts until the end of time?

Having read that Saint Francis of Sales made a point of greeting the holy angels of the places he went and the guardian angels of the people he interacted with, I was touched. I hadn’t thought of that, but I’ve often prayed to the saints whose relics languish in museums. Perhaps many other Catholic tourists do the same, whispering prayers as they stroll through the galleries.

Relics

Here are some excerpts from a piece I wrote back in 2015, after my first trip to Rome. I’m in Italy again, and thinking about the saints, and that brought it to mind:

Rome was very moving. There was very much the sense of being in the heart of an ancient, sprawling empire. Brazil seemed quite evidently a distant outpost (albeit one which still maintains the old culture). I was amazed to encounter so many places and people I had read about. Here’s the place where Saint Paul is buried! Here is the head of John the Baptist! Here is the door to the first oratory of St. Philippe Neri! The stories that have become a part of my life came to life far more than I expected.
I traveled with a list of prayer requests, some quite specific (“pray for my oldest son at this particular Church” and that sort of thing). I adored the focus on prayer, and made a game of offering heartfelt prayers in front of every side altar in every Church, as much as time, tourists and my endurance would allow. Saints are so much fun!

Of all the many many churches I visited in Italy some were tourist attractions and some weren’t, mostly based on whether or not they contained artwork by famous artists like Bernini or Michelangelo. A few are simply popular for having important saints relics, like the basilica where Saint Rita’s body is kept in the village of Cassia. This impacts the religious use of the churches in one of two ways, mostly. One effect it can have is that the church infrastructure has been designed (or redesigned) to deal with thick crowds. At Cassia, for instance, you can’t really see Saint Rita, and there is no place to sit, kneel or even really stand near her body. The space (of recent design) has been set up to cope with a thick and constant flow of devout visitors, moving them along past a large window through which one can briefly see Saint Rita a few meters away. Some time spent in quiet prayer – or even just the intimacy of stopping, kneeling and having a chat – is not possible.

In contrast, Saint Catherine of Siena’s body, in Rome, is under an altar in a major church (if I recall correctly her head is elsewhere!). You can walk right up, kneel down, and spend all the time you like, assuming there is no Mass, wedding or other religious function going on. St. Paul’s tomb, likewise, has a few stairs down, some kneelers in front, a half dozen people coming and going (on a weekday morning), and is designed to allow you time and space for a private chat with the saint. The lesser known saints are often highly accessible, though in some cases they are in side chapels that are closed by decorative gratings, opened only on special occasions.

In any case, the other factor can simply be the activities of tourism and prayer themselves. The churches which attract large numbers of secular tourists usually have some specific chapels where photos are not permitted, reserved for prayer. Where that is not the case, there is little chance for intimacy or silence. It matters less if you are good at ignoring distractions. It makes some people crazy.

The quirky, unexpected disruptions that I encountered were a bit amusing. I went one Saturday morning to a church where I had gone before, recalling a particularly beautiful little side chapel to St. Philippe Neri that I wanted to pray in. I went into the church and saw there was a morning Mass in progress. The priest was in the middle of the homily. After making a brief reverence in the back pew I walked up along the side to the very front, where the chapel of St. Philippe Neri was. I was a bit surprised to see such a crowded Mass, though it was the weekend.

I settled into the cozy chapel, which is barely bigger than a typical large American bathroom. The homily went on and on. I barely understood it, in any case, so it was fairly easy to tune out. And then there was some shuffling and silence and I heard “I, Bruno, do take thee, Esther….” and realized it was a wedding. Doh. The bride and groom must have been obscured from view up front when I came in. How was I ever going to leave? I had blithely walked in in front of everyone, but going out I’d be facing the crowd. I decided to just finish my prayers in a leisurely way and play it by ear.

Fortunately after the vows there was a musical interlude and several people with fussy babies came and stood right outside the chapel where I was now hiding, so it was easy to casually slip out without being too obvious.

On another day, a weekday evening, I wandered past a church on a tiny side street, saw it was open, and slipped inside. It was small, and once inside I was immediately in the pews not far from the altar. There were two dozen men – part of some sort of devotional group – praying together. I felt like a bit of an intruder – there was an intimacy to the group and to the small space that didn’t invite random strangers to wander around. The body of a saint was displayed behind glass under the altar. I stayed briefly in back and then left, going back on another day when there wasn’t anyone there.

And later in the trip I got caught in yet another wedding, this one in the church of St. Cecilia. In an amusing twist my friend and I hid behind some pillars to watch the bride come in and saw two of the religious sisters who run the Church lurking off to the sides doing the same thing.

Nuns behaving badly

A theme that recurs in some stories of saints is how their peers resented them for their piety, or for their efforts to reform the convent when they were in a position of leadership. I’ve run across another example today, from the story of Our Lady of Good Success, in Quito, Ecuador. One of the foundresses of the convent, Mother Mariana, was opposed early on by a group of nuns who wanted an easier religious life instead of the strict Franciscan rule that was kept at the time (this is in 1500-something). The ‘nonobservant’ nuns plot to get the bishop to take over rule of the convent, and to demote and imprison the prioress, Mother Mariana.

What was fascinating was that the convent had (and presumably still has, since the convent still exists and is still the home of the same religious order) a prison within it, a large room (nearly 400 feet long), complete with sleeping platforms, stocks, prayer books, and shackles. And so the imprisoned mystic – and eventually many of the nuns who supported her – were shut in there for some weeks or months on several occasions, where they carried on in piety and charity while the mean girl nuns taunted them.

This rang a bell, as it were, remembering dozens of similar tales: St. John of the Cross (imprisoned and tortured), St. Joseph of Cupertino (imprisoned); Saint Benedict (attempted poisoning)… I thought I’d try googling for a list of saints who were threatened with harm by their own brethren or superiors, but it was too hard to define well for the search engine. The attempt did reveal that “saints who were sinners” is one of the most popular saints-related searches.

Sometimes when I talk to people about this kind of story they are happy to hear that not all people aspiring to holiness are doing very well; others are inspired by the perseverance in charity of those being afflicted by their ill-intentioned peers. Perhaps perseverance in charity is only inspiring if it seems like something possible for oneself, even if one isn’t there yet?

Saint Joseph of Cupertino levitating in ecstasy.

All this put me in mind of a ponder: what makes a saint admirable to someone? Or even, taking away the detail of sanctity, what makes another person admirable? Thinking of my own experience, I can’t think of any examples that clarify what I think. So I’ll let that simmer until something comes up.