To squelch any rumors or fears that might arise: no, I didn’t get arrested. The lack of posts in the past two weeks have not been due to any temporary incarcerations…school has FINALLY started (which some might argue to be a more permanent incarceration). In anticipation of the beginning of said school year, a couple of us took a trip to Siena, home town to – you guessed it – St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bernardine of Siena. Didn’t see that one coming, did you?
This beautiful pilgrimage / excursion / end-of-the-summer bash proved to be another treat…not quite on the level with the Assisi trip, but still quite good by almost everyone’s standards.
As hoped, the city of Siena, to a degree, lives off the fame of it’s citizens, most especially, St. Catherine. Those who have visited Siena will also point out “il Campo“, the famous square where the twice-yearly horse races (aka. the “Palio“) take place that fuel neighborhood rivalries and parties for much of the year. Unfortunately, we missed the last Palio which took place on August 16th, but the neighborhood parties for the victors were still taking place by October 6th!
We came for St. Catherine, and we found her! While you can’t see it very clearly, St. Catherine’s head, which was famously – or perhaps infamously – stolen by the bishop of Siena (and former spiritual director of St. Catherine) just a few years after her death, is on display. There’s a long story about the Dominicans in Rome who apparently didn’t treat St. Catherine’s remains the way the Sienese thought she should be treated, so the bishop came to bring their beloved citizen home to be treated properly, but all they got off with was the head…lines might have been crossed! While her head, nor the rest of her body for that matter, is not incorrupt, there’s a wax death mask which covers her face. In case you were beginning to think more lines might have been crossed, then there’s the Museum at il Duomo (Italian term for the Cathedral). By the way, before we move on, a cool little detail: we celebrated Mass at the altar on the other side of this wall, which is considered a continuation of the “Altar of St. Catherine.”
Back to the Duomo…this Church is an incredible piece of catechesis in stone. The floor has carvings that begin (at the entrance of the Church) with depictions of the oracles of the Sibyls, Greek figures said to have foretold in shadowed ways the coming of Christ. It continues with the Old Testament foreshadowings, and the final carving in the floor of the Cathedral, at the base of the altar, is the (near-) sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, one of the favorite Old Testament foreshadowings used by the Fathers of the Church to explain in greater detail the Sacrifice of Christ. It’s AWESOME!
So…the museum, which as I’m sure you can imagine contains lots of cool treasures. There was a room with case after case of Medieval chalices, vestments, and hand-written prayer books (Missals, breviaries, etc.). In addition, there were stunning works of art which belong to the Cathedral, including one depicting the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus in about 20 scenes, all in incredibly beautiful detail. You’re probably thinking to yourself: Father, this would be a good time to post a picture of said work of art. Sorry, the Italians get really protective about their artwork, and taking pictures can get you kicked out of places!
Among the remarkable things in this museum were several glass cases with some … interesting contents. I was walking through the Museum armed with my Catholic faith, but there were some who were not so prepared. Thus, when these guests came upon a glass display case – about the size of two milk crates set side-by-side – filled with human bones beautifully-arranged, they were obviously startled. I think they were French, but their body language betrayed the fact that this might have been crossing a line. (Again, I apologize for a lack of photo evidence…remember: I don’t want to get kicked out!).
For the life of me, I can’t remember who’s remains they were, but I remember it being a name I recognized, so I paused for a moment to pray to that saint, asking for his intercession. It goes without saying that this was a markedly different response from that of the French visitors beside us. At this point, you might find yourself favoring the reaction of the Frenchmen, but before you go any further, remember that you’re siding with the French…always a bad choice! Couldn’t help the French jab, but seriously…why would we do this? Why is there this connection/attachment/obsession with the physical remains of the saints to the degree that we display their bones, sometimes with cracked skulls from the death blow (St. Agnes), sometimes with jagged-edged bones from the lion’s teeth that ate the other half of the bone (St. Ignatius of Antioch), sometimes with the hand bones gone because they were discarded by the executioners after the dead body was cut off the cross after crucifixion (St. Peter)?
There’s a basic principle in philosophy: knowledge starts with the body, and more particularly, the senses. Watch the infant who has to touch (and sometimes eat) everything in sight. Why? Because it’s learning about things. How do I know the thing in front of me is a computer? I’ve first seen a number of computers and by concluding that they all share common traits that connect them together in a group, have come to understand in some way the nature of a “computer.” This object which I sense in front of me shares those same features; therefore: COMPUTER. We relate with the world around us, and other people in that world, via our sight, touch, hearing, etc., and we encounter other people in this world precisely through our bodies AND their bodies.
Even when death separates the soul from the body, we as humans can still have a certain human connection with the bodies of the dead and the physical things (clothes, pictures, everyday-items, etc.), through which we related to them in this life. In part, this is the reason why Christianity radically changed the funeral practices of the world by burying the dead – the body is important. Just as the body was the way through which we encountered the person when he or she was alive, so now, we can still encounter them in a spiritual way (the Communion of the Saints) through their bodies. As the Church teaches us, death is not something for the faithful to fear, but the gateway to eternal life. In the words of the young St. Teresa of Avila, “I want to see God and in order to see Him, I must die.” Death temporarily separates us from the ones we love, but there’s still that connection that did and continues to exist in their earthly remains. Let us rejoice in their love and in God’s love for us, made visible in our world of flesh and bone and matter.
PS. For the record, no lines were crossed in the researching or writing of this post.