Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Humiliation of Saints

"The Miracles of Saint Benedict at Fleury tell of a certain Adelard who persisted in mistreating peasants on monastic lands. Once he stole something from a woman, who then ran to the saint's church. There she threw back the altar cloths and began striking the altar, crying to the saint, "Benedict, you sluggard, you sloth, what are you doing? Why do you sleep? Why do you allow your servant to be treated so?"

Because the serfs of the monasteries were the servants of the saints to whose monasteries they belonged, they believed that the saints were obliged to protect them. Oppression was therefore the fault of the saints. The ritual by which they attempted to rectify the situation was an inversion of their usual relationship to the saint, just as the monks' ritual was an inversion of theirs... Likewise, the physical action against the saint was one most appropriate within a peasant culture and not a monastic one. Punishment in lay society comes not in the form of hair shirts, thorns, or prostration but in blows. Thus the peasants beat their saints, just as they would beat a reluctant beast of burden, to awaken him and force him to do his job."

- Patrick J. Geary, Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages

Stories of saints who bless and punish are familiar enough to us, but tales of "erring" saints who are on the receiving end of punishment are rarer. When the Spaniards returned to the Philippines in 1565, following a 44 year interlude, they found, in Cebu, a most curious phenomenon. The natives had turned the image of the Holy Child-- a gift from Ferdinand Magellan to the chieftains of the island-- into a powerful  rain god, now chief and greatest of the native pantheon. The devotion was such that it had come to supplant the old gods, like the Child in Egypt who toppled the idols of the Egyptians upon their faces. The natives supposedly worshipped the new god with dance to petition for rain; but when that did not work, they carried him in procession to the sea, whereupon he would be stripped and submerged, head first, in the water. There he would remain until such time that  rain would fall on the parched earth. The native Cebuanos claim that this ritual, like the St. Jude novena, "has never been known to fail."

When the revolution against Spain broke out in the  twilight days of the 19th century, many an anti-clerical Filipino would lead the attack against frailocracy by supposedly chopping off the aquiline noses of the images of the saints. The lords have failed to protect the poor and downtrodden of the land, instead allying themselves with the oppressors; and now they receive their symbolic comeuppance, through the loss of their noses.  In the Philippines, devotion to the saints often took the form of the utang na loob, or an internal debt of gratitude. Devotees vow to take on a special action (e.g., making a pilgrimage to an important shrine, joining a procession, attending Mass on special days in honor of the saint, crawling on one's hands and knees, etc.) to gain the favor of the saint, who would secure blessings and prosperity on the devotee and his kin-group. So long as the cycle remains balanced, the devotee continues to undertake his panata (his special vow), the obligation of which he may choose to hand down to his children or any other member of his family. The underlying, unspoken condition here is that the saint must naturally keep his end of the deal; if not, the devotee can theoretically choose to dissolve his bond of kinship with his divine patron, though such moves seem much rarer in real life.

The humiliation of saints, however, is not exclusively confined to the private sphere. Geary cites how the concept of humiliation would be apotheosized into a pseudo-rite in itself, performed in the context of the liturgy.  He cites the example of the custom at Cluny, which the monks  undertook whenever offense had come to the monastery.

"At Cluny... the officiating clergy open, on the floor before the altar, a piece of coarse cloth such as would be used for a hair shirt. On it they place the crucifix,  the Gospel books, and the relics of the saints. All the religious then prostrate themselves on the floor and sing Psalm 73 sotto voce. Next, two bells are rung and the celebrant genuflects before the "newly consecrated body and blood of the Lord and before the aforementioned relics.

At Tours... the ministers place on the ground before the subdean's seat a silver crucifix and all of the reliquaries of the saints and put thorns on top of and all around the tomb of Saint Martin. In the center of the nave they place a wooden crucifix likewise covered with thorns, and they block with thorns all but one of the church doors."

The point of this humiliation of the saints, as expressed in the symbolic debasement of his relics, was to show their impotence and failure in living up to their reputation as the undisputed lords of the realm. In theory, of course, the monasteries were the closest thing to heaven on earth: it was the priests who served the divine cult, who secured the abundant beneficences of the Celestial Realm for the community. Being the custodians of the sacrificial cult, they served the community by praying for its health, deliverance, and prosperity, and also by cursing all those who would seek to subject it. The patron saint, being the master of the monasteries, was held  to be the "supreme ruler" of the land. The monasteries were obstinate reminders of a world beyond worlds, of a power beyond powers; and in that respect, they were held to be practically sacrosanct. Of course, all of this is mere theory, and monasteries were frequently looted and plundered by more than one self-aggrandizing, impious wretch, whose arms would often prove to strike more decisively than the prayers of the religious. Such attacks on the sacred, however, were also seen as a reversal of the natural order: the proud have risen against the meek, and earthly rulers have assumed the power of the spiritual lords.

The patron saint of the land, newly rendered impotent, is thus seen to have failed his people, most especially his immediate and most powerful vassals, the monks. Thus, he is brought low from his pride (superbia); he is made to do penance and prostrate himself before the Lord, the one, true, Master of the Universe. It is doubtful if orthodox Catholicism has enough space to accommodate such a crude reading of the act of humiliation, and perhaps one even redolent of superstition. Under the rationality of orthodox Catholicism, the saints, being in heaven, cannot do any wrong; hence, any failure would be seen as having been brought about by an extrinsic factor, e.g., such as sin, but it is always in retaliation for something that has its origin in the thoroughly human. But it would seem, from the anecdote above, that popular understanding fully held the saints accountable for their inaction against those who would take advantage of the community.  And, as such, they too were deserving of punishment. By taking on utter humiliation, the saint and his monks make an appeal to the unfathomable mercy of God, who humbles the proud and exalts the lowly. They testify to the malicious inversion that has happened with the (or any) attack against the Church, awaiting His swift and terrible justice against the oppressors of the weak and the downtrodden.

It is curious, but not really surprising, that the humiliation of the saints would die out in the years leading to, and immediately following, the Council of Trent. The Council, which developed a more efficient, more legalistic framework for Catholicism, I think, can rightly be called the first instance when the Church became "self-conscious" as Roman Catholicism-- Western European in mind, culture, and structure. Its move from what was essentially a sacrificial, ritual cult-- which dealt primarily with the invincible powers of Heaven-- into a bureaucratic, technocratic, clericalist system shifted the  object of veneration from the saints to the priests themselves. Hierarchy, as in a military structure that flowed from the Pope down to the foot soldiers (ordinary priests), came to exclusively define the relationship between man and divine. Any naive beating of a saint's tomb, now, becomes a grossly political act that is seen as subversive of clerical power.

What is truly fascinating about these examples, I think, is how these stories show how strikingly "real" the communion of saints was for these Christians. Belief in it did not rest on mere acknowledgment, but rather, it was an inseparable feature of their daily lives. But if these stories tell us anything, it is that to live in a universe saturated with the presence of the sacred does not always mean these powers are ready to fight our battles for us. Disturbingly, it seems as if the saints were often viewed with a certain regard for the "mischief" they may sow, or the "arbitrariness" of their help. In that respect, we can see how they were probably more feared than Christ Himself. At the same time, they were indispensable to the life of the community, as the benefits they bring more than outweighs any arbitrariness that could be blamed on them. Again, it must be said that while I do not think of orthodoxy as merely an ecclesiastical fiction, one has to wonder if majority of Catholics-- the unschooled, unchurched bunch-- ever fully imbibed the Church's rationale on the matter.

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