Thomas L. McDonald has been a writer and editor for the past 25 years, covering technology, history, archaeology, games, and religion. He has degrees in English, Film, and Theology with a concentration in Church History. He’s been a certified catechist for twelve years, and taught Church History for eight. His other writing can be found at Weird Catholic.
A story is told in the Life of St. Gotthard of a priest in the 12th century named Folcward who met a poor women with a dying child. He urged the woman to make a vow to St. Gotthard for the boy’s recovery, and seal it with the promise of a candle the length of the boy for use at the saint’s shrine. She had no money for this, so Folcward measured the child with a strand of flax which he would use as the wick for the promised candle. The boy was healed before Folcward left the house with the flax.
In the Miracles of Thecla, we learn of Alypios, who slept in Thecla’s church one night to cure an illness. The saint visited him during is vigil and he was cured, “as is her custom.”
After St. John Damascene’s hand was cut off, he prayed before an icon of the Theotokos. His hand grew back, and in in honor of the miracle he had a hand made of silver attached to the icon, which is now known as the Trojeručica (“three-handed”).
In the 1160s, a monk whose testicles were injured in a riding accident bent a coin in promise to St. Cuthbert in exchange for a cure. He made a pilgrimage to Cuthbert’s shrine, offered the bent coin, and was cured. The records of Cuthbert’s canonization inquiry are filled with similar stories.
I could fill a dozen books with similar stories and not even scratch the surface of the vast store of hagiographic material depicting miracles of the saints, particularly those in response to rituals and practices which now seem now only charmingly antiquated, but superstitious and borderline blasphemous.
This is entirely unfair, and it fails to take into account several key facts. Let’s unfolds these practices a bit, and see if we in find in them elements of our faith worth recovering.
It’s Not Superstition
What do all these stories seem to have in common, and what does that tell us about the faith of ancestors?
It’s not a kind of magical thinking, although it’s easy to assume that. Historically, the lines between superstition and practice can be hard to discern at times, but we need to be very clear about them. The Catechism defines superstition, counterintuitively, as “a perverse excess of religion.” In contrast to genuine devotions and sacramentality, superstition attributes “the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand.” (CCC 2110-2111)
Superstition, therefore, is assigning meaning and power to the outward signs and actions rather than the direct action of God. Even actions that appear prompted by the intervention of a saint are the sole work of God, because all prayer derives power from God alone. This is not the place for a long digression on intercessory prayer, except to note that death does not separate the saints from communion with all Christians in all times and all places. We should be close to those living in Christ, but also close to those who have died in Christ and are thus dwelling in the beatific vision.
Some customs speak in a cultural language that is now foreign to us. We need to translate them, and to do that we need to understand them. Votive offerings are a good example.
To start, however, we have to understand a different relationship between matter and faith. The material world of the ancient and medieval Christian was charged with meaning. There was a true sense of sacramentality, an understanding that matter had meaning, and could be a channel of grace.
Votive offerings from antiquity to modern times seem strange to outsiders, and indeed to many Catholics. Yet properly understood they make sense. In Latin votum means “vow,” and that’s what a votive offering is: a vow, and a form of devotion. What is a vow but a kind of contract? In the ancient world contracts were sealed with some object or ritual, as they often are today.
Sacramentals are objects that are set aside for holy use. Votives are a kind of sacramental that represent an obligation between the saint and the Christian. This relationship was that of a patron and a client. Each has obligations. The saint is expected to perform a miracle. In return, the believer makes a promise to give or do something. This might be in the form of a gift to a saint’s shrine, pilgrimage, act of mercy, or other task consistent with the faith or material object with some meaning or use.
In The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy details the practice of coin bending, for example. This was uniquely English, and particularly popular in cults for St. Cuthbert, King Henry VI (who was not ultimately canonized), and other English saints. A coin was bent as a sign that it was dedicated for the use of the saint, usually to be deposited at his shrine. The coin might be bent over an injured person or animal (for example, there are accounts of hawks being healed), or perhaps in the direction of something bad, such as a fire or flood. The bending was accompanied by a prayer to a saint for intervention, and a promise that the coin was for the saint’s use. It was a new way of using an old custom: bent swords and shields have been found in pagan graves.
Here’s the important part of this practice: neither coin nor bending had any power. That’s not to say that some people didn’t associate the deed with the act or the object. If they did, then the practice could easily shade into superstition. We’re not equipped to make that judgement, however, because we do not think like pre-modern people. Faith and life were more fully connected, a coin dedicated the upkeep of a church or the feeding of the poor was a fair promise in kind for miraculous intervention. The explanation may sound strange today, but it was as routine as dropping a twenty in the collection basket, but imbued with greater meaning.
Incubation and Measuring
Other votive offerings seem even more peculiar today. Measuring, as related in the tale above, involved measuring a sick person, or perhaps a saint’s tomb, with a thread, and then turning that thread into the wick for a candle. Again, it represents a contract between a patron (the saint) and the client (the person making the request). A wick the length of a body is a personal thing representing the client, while a candle is a concrete gift needed in quantity for tombs, shrines, and churches. It was also common (and still is in some places) make an afflicted body part (such as a hand or leg) out of wax or even precious metal and leave it at a saint’s site. The wax or metal could then be repurposed by the shrine as candles or money.
The practice of sleeping overnight at saint’s shrine or tomb is called incubation. It had a practical origin in that pilgrims often didn’t have so place to stay, so they slept at or near the shrine. It also had a theological dimension, because the bodies of saints were holy and associated with miracles. Again, this is no place to digress into a defense of relics, but the reverence for the bodies of the holy is consistently practiced from the very early days of the church. As a faith that believed in the resurrection of the body, the physical remains of the holy are imbued with meaning and power. The remains of the saints have always been considered the most noble of all material substances aside from the Eucharist. As Thomas of Celano writes in his Life of St, Francis “the dead body heals the living body.”
The Miracles of Thecla explain why:
“God, because he loves human beings, … sowed the earth with saints, as if he were dividing up the world between some wonderful doctors, so that they could easily work wonders, being nearer to those in need, able to hear them at once and bring healing, and through God’s grace and power to perform those great things which especially need his help, being ambassadors, intercessors, mediators, for nations, cities, races and peoples against plague, famine, war, drought, earthquake.” (translated by Robert Bartlett for Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?)
These are just some examples of the way people used to express religious belief and devotion. Some of them are ancient practices found in pre-Christian cultures, but given new meaning.
Would we have been better to just give it all up for a pure sola scriptura Christianity?
The question misses the point completely. These are practices which speak to people, and for that reason survive across belief systems. When a practice is clearly antithetical to the faith, the church condemns it even if it is an ancient practice. For example, divination is integral to most ancient belief systems, but is wholly incompatible with Christianity. Thus, we don’t attempt to adapt it.
When folk custom is capable of being Christianized, however, it can provide a powerful link between people and belief. Much of the praxis of the faith bubbles up from the people. It is then met by the clerical culture, which directs it along rights paths when it can, and condemns it when it can’t.
Belief can’t thrive in airy abstractions. It needs concrete form. Protestantism severed the faith from its material implications, leaving the preaching of the word as the highest form of worship while utterly losing a truly sacramental sense of the world. That’s not merely bad theology: it’s bad anthropology. People will express belief in material forms. The church in her wisdom understood this and channeled that believe into things that always—always—point back to God. Statues, icons, devotions, sacramentals, and all the material culture of Western and Eastern Christianity are ways of re-sanctifying matter. Remove the sanctification and the matter doesn’t go away: it just gets worshipped in and of itself. Who can deny this when you look around at our rapidly re-paganizing culture?
Christians believed in a world stirred to life by the finger of a God who acted in all things. We pay lip service to that idea, but do we really believe it?
It’s not likely we’re going to go back to coin bending or saint measuring because those practices don’t speak in a cultural language we recognize. It would be incoherent. But we can’t just assume these were backward practices that meant nothing, and we’re better off without them. We’ve lost that cultural language, but need to find our own. We should to continue to explore our past for these practices, learn what they meant to the faithful, and find new ways to adapt them and imbue them with meaning that makes sense to us.
This article originally appeared Jan. 26, 2016, at the Register.