Sunday, June 11, 2006

Saint Serena

I am not sure how many of you have been to the Roman Catholic pilgrim church of Triberg—I mean that little German village in the middle part of the Black Forest. My wife and child and I have returned to Freiburg from a bit of a trek—facilitated by a train here and there—to Triberg. And although we did buy a clock or two, the church was the first thing we went to see, climbing endlessly uphill with sleeping baby and empty stroller.

Thankfully, the church was open to pilgrims, and we were able to go inside to pray and reflect a bit (a Friday). The impressive interior seemed a tad rococo or late baroque to me—lots of gold ornament contrasting with the rustic wood pews, statuary of various saints overlooking us in relatively vivid color, a magnificent altar. Overwhelming, especially when the interior quiet was contrasted to the invasive blurtings of modernity staggering in from outside (I mean car and motorcycle noises, but the description includes us, alas, with our halting high German).

Then my wife whispered: there is a skeletal girl behind glass to the side and in front of the altar. Yes—Serena, reclining like a Roman matron on her couch, resting her head on a hand (if I recall correctly) and holding what I think was a goblet in the other hand: she was a martyr to the Virgin, wearing what seemed to me to be an extremely ornate dress. And yes, she was skeletal, though what remained of her mundane body was discreetly outside plain view.

We were impressed indeed, even intimidated. Imagine human remains on display at your local parish church: Saint Q...could it happen? Would it “fit”? Not just a knuckle or part of the skull (though go ahead and imagine that if you can) but the whole body. Would your congregation file in weekly before the saint’s remains, kneeling, say, only a few feet away for Holy Eucharist? Mind you, this church is still in use; there is a congregation doing just that.

What manner of Christianity, what parish spirituality supports or would support such a display of a saint’s remains? It is worth thinking about. We are a notoriously corporeal religion, from our emphasis on bodily resurrection to the weekly Eucharist. We are given to know Christ in the flesh—and what about this flesh, the saint’s bones displayed? Might the Spirit work in a congregation through that display to not merely remind them of death, but of life, the life that they are to live even now, already?

Well, what about it? I can picture an angel saying something like “If this could not move you to return to your Father, what would? This is not violent, but only the naturally appointed end awaiting all brought out of hiding into plain view.” Why am I repelled? What am I hiding in the interest of propriety and tidiness that needs to be brought to plain view if I am to return to our Father? And what about you?


At 9:38 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Relics are fascinating. They really caught on in the West but not so much (as far as I can tell) in the East. I wonder if the word salus has anything to do with it... Neither English nor Greek have a word that brings together the notions of "salvation" and "health" so clearly. The closest in English would be something like "wholeness" which dosn't quite do it. ecause we lack the linguistic logic I think it's sometimes difficult to see relics functioning in our religious economy the way they did in Late Anquity and the Medieval periods.

The other part of it, of couse, is the Enlightenment mind's unease with the notion of holiness as tangible power...

At 4:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we need to find a balance: not running away from death (as we Western Enlightenment-types do).

But not fetishing/idolizing dead-bodies/dead saints either (as Medieval Roman Catholicism did, and some neo-Papists are still wont to).

It might be a "teachable moment", for parish priest's to do a Lenten updated version of "The Four Last Things" (per Yours Truly the universalist, w/o the "Hell" unit, of course!). A good way to, um, embody such a course, would be to do a walk-through of the Burial liturgy (explaining why the PB rubrics say that in the liturgy, the casket is closed/preferably covered by a nice egalitarian pall).

But at the same time, discuss the REALITY of that corpse-in-the-casket: that'll be each one of us, someday. No freezers, rocket-ship cremains-launches, or other funereal fads can change that fact. Can we actually SAY "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away: blessed be the Name of the Lord"? If not, such a class would be a very good opportunity to find out WHY (and maybe, grow out of it... ;-/)

At 4:41 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

I confess St. Serena caught me completely by surprise. Of course I had read about relics before, but I had never come upon one in a context of living worship, as opposed to mere historical interest. I think it is fair to say that it struck like lightning.

Now, at some distance, I agree with you that maybe the display of St. Serena was, in fact, too much--over the top in the sense of potentially misleading Christians into fetshizing the dead body, which was not--I presume--the intent.

Here maybe it depends on the congregation: how will they understand this reminder of death and the eschaton? I am almost certain a similar display would backfire in Central Florida.

At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi! My name is Serena and I'm looking, since many time, for more informations about Saint Serena. Could you tell me more about the relics you have seen? (And maybe some pics... if you don't mind).
Thank you very much.

(I'm catholic and for me venerating saints isn't strange or wrong :-))

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yesterday our bible study (episcopalian) discussed the importance of the body, which is usually ignored in favor of the spirit. But several things point to its importance in the Bible. First, when Jesus was resurrected the tomb was empty, so the body was part of it. And second, in the eucharist, the sacrement is the body of Christ. And third, somewhere the Bible says we will be made whole, with bodies upon the return of Jesus. The body is not a shell, but created by God.

Our priest also reminded us that there is no worry with cremation or other disfigurements of the body that occur through accidents, organ transplants, etc. because Jesus' body was so ravaged yet was made whole. And that embalming or otherwise preserving the body is a modern practice -- historically bodies naturally decomposed in burial. 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust'

I'm not a scholar. Peace, Cheryl Ann

At 12:50 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hey! my name is Serena and I have to do a report on a saint for my (catholic preparatory) school... I decided to choose St.Serena, but I know NOTHING. Pleaaasssseee help me. It's due tomorrow.


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