by Anna Belfrage
It is said that when Francisco Franco lay dying back in 1975, he had the desiccated hand of St Teresa right beside him on his pillow. No doubt the dying dictator was hoping Spain’s patron saint would guide him all the way to heaven – personally I have serious doubts as to whether he qualifies.
Franco was by his own reckoning a most devout person, motivated not only by power but also by a need to defend the Catholic church when he took up arms against the Spanish Republic. As an aside, the Republic did go overboard on several occasions vis-à-vis the religious organisations, but that is totally unrelated to this post – as is Franco, apart from him clutching St Teresa’s hand when he died.
This post, you see, is about the hands, the finger joints, the bits and pieces of various saints and martyrs that have travelled the world, carried from one dusty monastery to the other in the hope of bringing with them some part of the saintliness that imbued their original owner.
|The reliquary containing St Teresa's hand|
And still, despite these obvious drawbacks – I mean, a woman saying she was talking to God? Come on! After all, Spain had San Juan de la Cruz doing the chatting with Jesus, and the country didn’t need one more direct line to God, did it? – Teresa was recognised already in her own lifetime as being something very, very special. She levitated, she was overcome by visions, and she wrote inspired books about all these her experiences, books that were viewed with much suspicion by the Inquisition – so much, in fact, that Teresa herself was hauled before the Inquisition two years before her death.
The body was taken to Ávila, it was disinterred several times more as various parties squabbled over her final resting place, and at every such disinterment poor Teresa lost a part of her fantastically preserved remains. An arm ended up at the convent where she died, her jawbone and her right foot reside in Rome, part of her cheek is in Madrid, her heart is carefully preserved in a reliquary in Alba. There is a finger with a ring on it in Ávila, and other bodily parts now live in Brussels, México and Paris. Poor woman: come Resurrection, she will have a hard time collecting all her bits and pieces.
This is where it all becomes quite interesting. As per the Christian faith, the dead will rise again upon the Day of Resurrection; they will stand up intact from their graves and be returned to some sort of life. (Nowadays, Christian faiths don’t worry overmuch about an intact body – cremation is an accepted practise – but they definitely did back then!) I assume this only goes for the good ones, the ones deserving to live forever in Paradise, and reasonably this should include all the saints. Unfortunately, all the saints will have problems similar to St Teresa’s, namely that they won’t be able to locate all their parts – or even worse, they will locate too many parts.
So far, Swithin had remained whole. His bodily remains were still rattling around in the same coffin, but this state of affairs was not to last. His head was sent off to Canterbury, an arm went to Peterborough, and bit by bit the poor man’s bones went on a reluctant walkabout.
In some cases, potential saints had their bodily parts separated from the rest of their bodies prior to death – or upon being executed. (After all, by severing someone’s head and hanging it on a pole for some years before dropping it to sink in the Thames, the authorities were symbolically ensuring that person would never make it through the Resurrection – denying the unfortunate the possibility of eternal life.)
Such a saint is St Oliver Plunkett, the last person to die as a Catholic martyr in England. Oliver Plunkett was the Archbishop of Armagh, an Irish Catholic who had the misfortune of being a contemporary with the extremely anti-Catholic fanatics that dominated English political life in the 1670’s.
To further add fuel to this infected fire, along came Titus Oates, a slimy character gifted with a very vivid imagination and a glib tongue. He “revealed” the infamous Popish plot whereby even the queen was accused of intending to murder her husband. It was all lies, but the lies were craftily constructed, and the people – Parliament especially – wanted to believe the Catholics were up to no good, and as a consequence more than twenty people lost their lives before Oates was revealed as being a perjurer.
As part of this Popish plot, Plunkett was accused of conspiring with the French, aiming to invade England. There was not a shred of evidence supporting this, but Plunkett was brought to England, placed on trial and convicted of treason – despite “everyone” knowing that he was innocent of anything but being Catholic.
He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1681, originally buried in two (?) tin boxes, but his remains were exhumed in 1683 and his head was sent off to Rome, most of his body was buried in England while bits and pieces ended up in France, the Americas, Germany and Australia. The head has since then been returned to Ireland, and is now displayed in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda. Just like St Teresa, poor Oliver will have to do quite some globetrotting to find himself…
Nowadays, the Vatican takes a negative stance on relics – and especially on the trade in relics. For those wannabe saints that are presently living out their lives amongst us, all those who work so hard at being good, at being charitable and doing good deeds, this means that they need not worry that they will be chopped up after death.
No, modern day saints will be buried whole, they will remain in the ground whole, and whatever shrines are built in their names will instead include real time footage of miracles and speeches, no doubt available for download if you have the right app. Sadly, I think the biggest problem in this world of ours is that there are too few of us who aspire to saintliness. After all, being good to others is so “last year” in a society that more and more embraces the simplified cult of “ME”.
Anna Belfrage is the author of three published books, A Rip in the Veil , Like Chaff in the Wind and The Prodigal Son. The fourth book in The Graham Saga, A Newfound Land, will be published in the autumn of 2013. Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia, the books tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him.