Thursday, 6 October 2011

Treasures of Heaven

Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. And as a man was being buried, behold, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet. (2 Kings 13:20-21) 
A woman had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, "If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well." And immediately the haemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her illness. (Mark 5: 27-29; cf Luke 8: 43-48)
God did extraordinary miracles by he hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. (Acts 19: 11-12)

Reliquary containing a Holy Thorn,
and depicting the Last Judgement.
14th century French
As it is good to get far away from the seminary on our days off, yesterday, I went to London to visit the Treasures of Heaven exhibition in the British Museum, just before it closes this weekend. There displayed are a variety of reliquaries, and associated items, from the early Church to the Reformation, tracing the ancient cultic devotion of the early martyrs, to the discovery of the true Cross by St Helena in the 4th century, to the excesses of the late mediaeval period. As we can see through these three passages from scripture, however, our understanding in 'relics' goes back much further than that.

Many of the reliquaries were empty, but all, of course, are still holy objects, made so by their use (including a whole ancient stone altar, with little stone-carved rouched curtains to allow the faithful to venerate the relics underneath it!), but some of the reliquaries still contained their original contents, including many pieces of the True Cross, and splinters from Christ's crown of thorns, a piece of St Thomas of Canterbury's skull, and clothing taken from St Cuthbert's tomb in the 19th century. I didn't know whether I should be viewing them as museum pieces, or incensing them with a smuggled-in thurible! Needless to say, I'm glad I didn't go on the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, as my scruples would have required me to genuflect at every-other display-case!

The museum was quite sensitive to the reality that some of those viewing the exhibition would regard these items as sacred objects: there were conveniently placed benches in front of particularly important displays, such as a cabinet of True Crosses and the Mandylion of Christ on loan from the Vatican. I was moved to notice several people clearly spending a few moments in prayer before these precious things, and I said a few prayers myself, including asking for St Thomas' intercession for our seminary year. Just think of all those millions of holy souls who have found comfort and received graces through these items, and it continues still! The museum also gave a (brief) mention to the visit of St Therese's relics to this country in 2009; the outpouring of faith and devotion surprised many secularists, if you remember. It's important to remember that our faith, the faith of our fathers, is a living faith, not one of the history books. All these people we learn about in history are real people, like us, not fiction. We dump our heritage at a great price, a peril to our souls, just for the sake of pursing the zeitgeist; there is nothing new under the sun, after all.

Fittingly, for this blog at least, there was also an account of the life of St Edmund, 12th century, written in English, with little illustrations, though, being a book, only two pages were open at one time; I saw a little scene of a monk in prayer at his tomb in Bury St Edmunds, a shrine now lost thanks to vandals and their error. I wonder whether our descendants will think similar such things at the violence which has been committed in some of our own sacred spaces.

Unfortunately, the exhibition closes this weekend, so you may have missed it already, but those who have visited, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. As is usually my wont for such exhibitions and galleries, I bought the big picture book for my coffee-table in my cell to keep me and my lucky guests entertained for a few minutes.

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