Of saints and senses

This month I spent 17 days on holiday in Europe, mostly in Italy. Like most cultural tourists I spent a great deal of the few daylight hours in churches and galleries, soaking up the fine arts.

This trip, however, was different to earlier ones. Unintentionally, it came to resemble a pilgrimage, not from Leonardo to Raphael and back again, but from the shrine of one saint to the next.

I remember on my first trip to Venice in 2008 thoroughly enjoying the education I received in the symbols and motifs attached to saints in medieval and Renaissance images, enabling them to be identified and their theological and other virtues to be brought together into a narrative about a patron, a story, a scripture. Lucy, Jerome, Catherine, and of course Mark, as well as the now-forgotten Luke of Toloso or the displaced Theodore, could be seen and some truth dimly perceived in their relationships to the infant Jesus or the crucified Christ or the enthroned Virgin and Child.

This time, the saints came to life, their relics and shrines demanding attention, requiring touch, calling forth prayer.

It began in London where I had intended to stop for three days free from work or research. Yet I couldn’t help myself, and when I checked in at Westminster Abbey, I discovered there was an 8am service for the anniversary of the death of the Abbey’s resident saint, Edward the Confessor. I went along, and had the precious privilege of celebrating the Lord’s Supper with a dozen other workers and pilgrims at the Confessor’s shrine, with the opportunity to kneel alongside him and pray. Those who were there were remarkably unfettered by British restraint to touch the tomb, to kiss the saint, to talk to him, and with him, to pray to God.

It was an extraordinary experience. The spiral, twisting decoration on the shrine that had survived reformation, antiquaries, vandals, and time itself seemed to dance and spin with the dim light of seven hundred and fifty years.  I felt the dizzily real presence of the communion of saints, mostly hundreds and thousands of ordinary Christians with doubts as well as faith, who had come to this place of prayer and petition seeking the intercession of an holy man.

I left somewhat stunned, returning to the Abbey a couple of hours later as a tourist, trying to relate this intense prayer, this tearing of the veil between the natural and supernatural, with the unintentionally dumb hordes who thudded through the Abbey in search of a forgotten memory of cultural significance.

Perhaps I should have guessed that this was not the climax of my holidays (or perhaps, holydays), but only a beginning.

I went next to Rome where saints and their remains are embedded in the fabric of the city, presented as the rejects of the Roman empire who became cornerstones and bearers of Catholic tradition. This time, I had been organised enough to book in for the scavi tour which takes small groups of visitors into the remains of a second-century Roman cemetery under the Basilica of St Peter, and as close as possible to the original tomb of Peter himself.

I wanted to return to this site to understand better the strange world that theologians know as the early church, but that most others would see as a tale of Roman cultures of death and memory. Perhaps I should not have been surprised that the tour again led me to a saint, whose relics lie shrouded by a second-century wall, sixth-century and twelfth-century altars, a Renaissance basilica and Michelangelo’s dome. Here there was no opportunity for communion, at least not to participate fully, as the barriers which divide the Church remain too firmly in place in my conscience. But there was a moment of shared prayer, in which the twofold reality emerged. How did a fisherman from Palestine end up in this most grandiose of edifices, surrounded by the forgotten remnants of other memories, other traditions? And what does it say that the distance between Peter and Edward is as great as the time between the Confessor and me?

A visit to Rome is worthless to this former student of Ian Robertson without a day in Trastevere. Here again I had an unexpected living encounter with a saint. Cecilia, the Roman martyr, lies buried in Trastevere in a rather plain church that is distinguished by the historical interest of its crypt and the religious community which surrounds it. Maderno’s wonderful statue speaks against the power and authority associated with most saints, instead providing a classicist, spare narrative of death and burial, shrouded in saintly white. But best of all on this visit was the sound of music emanating from the woman practising the organ throughout my time in the building. Cecilia, patron saint of music, was present through sound as well as space and sight.

Next came Venice, which is a delight to visit in January when it is cold, damp, and relatively devoid of tourists. This allowed time to wander in San Marco, to breathe in the blurry glory of the golden mosaics, and to take time at the altar to remember St Mark. There’s no justifying what the body-snatching Venetians did in the ninth century, and there’s no attempt to do so with mosaics and pictures and tourist guides alike telling the story of how the saint’s body was robbed from Alexandria and smuggled out in the original pork-barrelling exercise of medieval ritual politics. But January gave more room for prayer, and the masses that were said with regularity spoke more strongly into the cavernous spaces of the church in the Italian version of Mark’s gospel account.

Finally I visited Munich, where the twin pillars of the Reformation and the War seemed to have destroyed the physical presence of the saints, and where I was caught off-guard all the more.  It was cold and snowing heavily, and pristine churches were a refuge from the weather as much as places of beauty and worship. Yet in St Michael’s, the Jesuit church, I stumbled upon the reliquary of Cosmas and Damian, almost as old as the Confessor, and linking the apostolic age of miracles with the high medieval world of commemoration and connection. And in St Peter’s, I walked into a well-attended mid-week mass where the priest’s eloquent reading of the tale of the rich young man’s central question of Christ, ‘what must I do to be saved’, was as comprehensible in German to my dumb Australian ears as it would have been in English.

How strange it is to return to Melbourne, where prayer is private, and where pilgrimage means ANZAC or Kokoda, and where dead bodies are buried deep in the earth or burned into dust and set well apart from the living, lest we sense the fragile separation of natural and supernatural and lose our modern ways.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Of saints and senses

  1. Leigh Mackay

    Although it was fun to journey with you via Facebook this is a much richer record. Thanks for stopping and reflecting -and sharing. Now I just envy you more. Leigh

  2. Jill Renison

    Westminster Abbey had a similar effect on me – reeling from the building, stunned by what is only half perceived. It is a thin place.

  3. Thanks Peter for these accounts of memorials of saints. It is sometimes further reinforcement at worship in shrines to know that the person next to you at prayer may also be a saint. I find it cause for dismay that at St Peter’s Basilica it was not possible to partake of the memorial that is the essential one. To my mind it has always been the case that the most important command is very simply ‘Take, eat’. The English Church near the Spanish Steps, the 19th c. All Saints’, is worth attending. My only other quibble is the claim that for Australians pilgrimage means visits to war memorials. My sense is that many Australians practise forms of pilgrimage to places of connection and meaning, but that we don’t talk about these pilgrimages enough. Too often people excuse it as Travel, when in fact it’s one of the most important things they’ve ever done. Australians going en masse on the Camino to Santiago in recent years is another observable phenomenon that does not get as much attention as it should. What is going on there, exactly?

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