Spirit of the matter: relics and the mysteries of materiality

By | January 16, 2024

Guest post by Ed Simon, author of Relic

“And since at such time miracles are sought,
I would have that age by this paper taught
What miracles we harmless lovers wrought.”

– John Donne, “The Relic”

Behind a glass window and atop silk brocade lies the corpse of Zita in a gold-trimmed, blue habit. She is no longer the exhausted domestic servant in red from the Baroque painter Bernardo Stozzi’s seventeenth-century depiction of her transubstantiating a loaf of our daily bread into a miraculous bouquet of flowers or the pretty, haloed maiden offering a drink of cool water to a beggar as in Leon Biedronski’s late nineteenth-century portrait of the saint, but Zita is still recognizably a person. The lips of her toothless mouth have pulled back, the now walnut-brown flesh of her weathered face as taut as a tamburello, and the gnarled, arthritic hands crossed over her waist look as much like tree branches as appendages. But the aquiline curve of her nose is still obvious; her trimmed finger nails as incorruptible as the tiara of fresh roses which is placed on her head every morning. Standing before the mystery and majesty of Saint Zita, looking into those sockets now devoid of eyes, the pilgrim must ask “Is this the face that consoled a thousand desperate souls and whose prayers topped the towers of Tuscany?”

The body of Saint Zita in Basilica di San Frediano (Wikipedia)

Ghoulish, macabre, grotesque, and morbid – relics lend themselves to broad dismissal amongst those who consider themselves to be good, rational, secular liberals. Zita’s body is a scandal, evocative of a supposedly barbaric Middle Ages when the faithful prostrated themselves and prayed before the inert matter of the formerly-human. Belief in the intercessory power of relics evoke either the fanaticism of men like thirteenth-century bishop Hugh of Lincoln who bit off a piece of Mary Magdalen’s hand at the Abbey of Fecamp or the cynicism of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pardoner in The Canterbury Tales whose collection of “rags and of bones… [are] only to make profit.” Relics are disreputable, they reek of either superstition or fraud as much as the ambrosial scent that’s said to accompany an incorruptible saint’s body. Yet what relics also are, more fundamentally and more importantly, even if you’re a good, rational, secular liberal such as myself, is something that is common, prosaic, universal.

When we hear the word “relic” it’s easy to think of Zita beneath her glass case, but we’d easily do well to think of Pablo Picasso’s original of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon hanging on a white-gallery wall at the Museum of Modern Art or of a printing of Shakespeare’s first folio in Stratford-upon-Avon, of Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed visage at the Kremlin and the earliest copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence preserved beneath thick glass and a gas of inert helium at the National Archives. Whether body of saint or Bolshevik, paper printed with the words of Shakespeare or Jefferson, all such objects are unified by being, well, objects. We have endowed them with a significance transcendent of their profane reality; whether prized for reasons religious, cultural, or pollical, these proverbial and literal rags and bones have been elevated from matter into spirit.

Cast aspersions on sacred objects all you want, the same emotional register that makes a penitent visit a first degree relic of an incorruptible saint like Zita is parallel to that which inspires tourists to visit museums and battlefields, author’s homes and memorials. As I wrote in my new book on the subject which is part of Bloomsbury Academic’s Object Lessons series, “there is a type of relic logic which animates our sense of how materiality can mean more than itself, whether in a church or a museum, a monument or a graveyard.” Relics aren’t a vestige of some sublimated Medieval past, they are an aspect of how human beings in all places and for all times imbue inert materiality with meaning. Relic logic is why we visit art museums to stand before the original compositions of old masters and go on road trips to visit halls of fame, why we leave flowers at war memorials and marvel at the prosaic objects once possessed by cultural heroes, from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar picks to Emily Dickinson’s envelopes.

Dismissed by Protestant reformers and then by Enlightenment positivists, nevertheless the intrinsic and enchanted importance of the relic can’t be exorcized from our collective unconscious. Relics – like religion itself – are dismissed as irrational, but that’s an interpretive error. They’re not irrational, they’re transrational; by insisting on the authentic primacy of an original painting or the solemn importance of examining first printings we court relic logic every bit as much as the faithful waiting for their turn to gaze upon the visage at the Basilica of San Frediano. In comparing visitors to the Smithsonian and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to those making pilgrimages at Santiago de Compostela and Lourdes my intent isn’t to impugn the former, but rather to contextualize the later. That which I’ve termed as relic logic is – for both good and bad – an unavoidable and ineliminable aspect of what it means to be a human being. Crucially, I argue that not only is relic logic an omnipresent aspect of our cultural experience and inheritance, but that it’s the abject, quotidian, familiar fleshiness of relics that evidences a profound spirituality, what the poet Robert Haas describes when he says that there are “moments when the body is as numinous/as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.”

In Western metaphysics there can be a tendency to divide matter and spirit, flesh and soul, into binary oppositions, into warring contradictions. Secularism has done little to reconcile that dichotomy, for the denial of the spirit doesn’t necessarily elevate the material. What I argue in Relic, however, is that “materialism pushed to its logical conclusion arrives back at mysticism… After all, there is nothing intrinsically less mysterious about an electron than there is about the soul and there is something far more real about flesh and blood than mere spirit, though just as unusual.” Far from being a denial of the spiritual, paradoxically a philosophical materialism can be the fullest expression of a deeply embodied sense of the soul, the numinous hidden within the atomic, the molecular, the cellular, the anatomical, the geological, the astronomical, the galactic, the cosmic. The fullest and truest expression of faith must begin with the physical, must begin with the body, for as I write, a “theology of materiality strikes me as the only theology of which we can say anything definite.”

Radical praxis has long defined itself in terms of materialism, but I see nothing counterintuitive in also embracing the spiritual core of the matter. This is the only sense of the sacred which can’t be denied, where there is more truth in the strain of a back and the creak of a knee when supplicating in prayer than there is in prayer itself. The cult of Zita may strike some as mere epiphenomenon, but when looking into the weathered, leathery face of the saint, we see the woman who worked decades as a maid, who sprained her wrist and twisted her shoulder, whose hands blistered with burning water and calloused after scrubbing floors. Her mind is gone and perhaps her soul is at best an allegory and at worst a fiction, but the body which performed such works so ordinary and nonetheless incredible is preserved and can still be honored. What relics provide is a sense of just how strange it is to have a body, just how uncanny and bizarre and miraculous matter itself might be. There is no prayer without the mouth and hands, no sacrifice without the body, no spirit without matter, and no faith without the flesh. Relics are not just evidence of the intersection of the sacred and the profane – they are the reminder of the mysteries of materiality, of the sublimity of simply being.

Ed Simon is editor of Belt Magazine and emeritus staff writer at The Millions. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Public Domain Review, The Hedgehog Review, JSTOR Daily, McSweeney’s, Jacobin, The New Republic, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, and The Washington Post, among dozens of others. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Pandemonium: A Visual History of Demonology.

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