“Christ has no body now on earth but yours/No hands but yours … .”
Teresa of Ávila
Yesterday morning in Alba de Tormes, the town in which she died in 1582, we saw Saint Teresa of Ávila’s heart and one of her arms, or more precisely the bones of one of her arms. The heart, shrunken over the centuries to a slender, wooden-like husk, is encased in an urn-shaped glass reliquiary and the arm bones in a tube-shaped glass reliquiary bent in the middle to accommodate the elbow joint. Most of the rest of the saint is in Ávila, although Franco kept her right hand in a reliquary on his bedside table during the decades he ruled Spain.
You access the relics from the Carmen Museum of the Carmelite Order. They are displayed in a kind of pass-through shrine on the museum’s top floor; beyond the shrine you look down into a small basilica. Thus you can venerate them either at eye-level or by looking up above you from the floor of the basilica.
Most of our group did not grow up Roman Catholic so the concept of relics seemed comically ghoulish. I suspect that even for Catholics, relics have become a strange and even slightly embarrassing aspect of their tradition. Much has been written about the American avoidance of death, and nowhere in the developed world do we confront disease, death and decay as people did in Teresa’s time. For them the idea of severing a saint’s arm or removing her heart was not a dissection but more akin to a reverential scattering of holy matter, or so I imagine.
For us the idea that matter could be holy is unaccustomed. At most we would concede the possibility of holy places, but not of single objects, much less the flesh of a dead person. True, Christians reverence the elements of Communion and the cross, Roman Catholics certain statues of the Madonna, Anglicans the ornately bound Gospels carried each Sunday into the center of the sanctuary. But these are symbols and liturgical objects, or representations of Jesus or his mother. They are not flagrantly, obstinately matter in the way that the body is.
How can anything destined for decay and dissolution become holy? More to the point, how could we possibly regard it as such today? Teresa’s body is said to have been “incorrupt,” undecayed weeks after her death, a sign that she was a saint. But even so we empiricists would prefer to sort the sacred out from how things work in the physical world, the real world, the fallen world.
We know that Teresa really lived once because her writings have come down to us and because the religious order she founded, the Discalced Carmelites, still exists. We know this as historical fact. But the relic is a kind of message in a bottle from the days when the saint still walked the earth. The message is the saint, or part of her. The reliquiaries insist that holiness is not somewhere in the ether of our imaginations but embodied in flesh and bone.