Holy Objects

Turin shroud

Having recently watched yet another programme on The Turin Shroud, I am prompted to wonder what all these experts think they are up to. Why does it matter? This is a length of cloth which may – or may not – have been in actual contact with the body of Christ. Amazing! – But so what?

I have had the same problem in holy places – Canterbury, Bethlehem, Lindisfarne and Lastingham, for example. I stand and wait for the revelation to kick in, but usually nothing happens.

In the Middle Ages, of course, it must have been much easier to experience holy magic. Pilgrims might travel across the country for a glimpse of some blessed shrine. Trading in holy relics was presumably a profitable enterprise. To possess some saintly toe-nail must have been comfort indeed. Where, then, has all the magic gone?

We still have our places of pilgrimage. When I make my way to the British Library to see again the Lindisfarne Gospels it is with more than simple interest. I marvel at the craftsmanship and devotion that went into its making – the work of one man, so they say. Some of these early manuscripts do reveal a sense of the magical: you only have to
look at some of the marginal grotesques to feel a kind of respect for the supernatural.

But holy ‘things’ are different – just bits. Theirs was the power of association: has it now
all drained away? Like The House that Jack Built, how far back can we trace the holiness before it becomes so diluted that it can no longer be felt at all? This is the leaf, That fell
from the tree, That produced the timber, That formed the loom, That wove the cloth, That made the shroud, That lay on the body of Christ.

I don’t want to dismiss these things. It just seems that, these days, our values have changed, which is perhaps a pity, since, I suppose that attempts to forge bridges between heaven and earth is what religion is all about. Superstition may not be nonsense, after all. I suspect that a sneaking taste for lucky charms is more widespread than we think.
Myself, I would love to have St.Cuthbert’s little finger on my key-ring. There is a story, however, that many years after his burial, at his elevation, it was discovered that the body had miraculously survived intact – no decay, and no holy bones on offer.

The Bible, of course, retains its pre-eminence as no ordinary book – still in demand –
Christianity’s greatest treasure – respected by church-goers and others – available in almost every bookshop in the land. Still used, I think, in courts of law. Dare I suggest that this high regard has little to do with the popularity of its reading matter? It is treasured for its holiness.

It may be that holiness can not be made by human hands: it can not be manufactured. Perhaps we now begin to realise that the ‘spiritual’ informs and infuses the ‘natural’:
it doesn’t work the other way round. So if the scientists succeed in uncovering all the secrets of the Turin Shroud, they may also succeed in destroying its magic.

Copyright 2010 G Roland Smith

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