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Remedial Virtues Ascribed To Relics

Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery

A relic has been defined as an object held in reverence or affection,

because connected with some sacred or beloved person deceased. And

specifically, in the Roman Catholic and Greek churches, a saint's body

or portions of it, or an object supposed to have been associated with

the life or body of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, or of some saint or

martyr, and regarded therefore as a personal memorial, worthy of

religious v

The worship of relics and the belief in their healing properties appear

to have originated in a very ancient custom which prevailed among the

early Christians, of assembling at the tombs of martyrs, for the purpose

of holding memorial services. The bones of saints also became objects of

great veneration, and this doctrine was supported by the teachings of

Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, and other Fathers of the

Church, of the fourth and fifth centuries. The belief in the marvellous

virtues attributed to sacred relics was sustained by such miracles as

that recorded in 2 Kings, xiii, 21: "And it came to pass, as they were

burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the

man into the sepulchre of Elisha; and when the man was let down, and

touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet."

Some authorities, however, ascribe the origin of the cult of relics to

the words contained in Acts, v, 15: "Insomuch that they brought forth

the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at

the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them."

In the year 325, Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, the

first Christian Emperor of Rome, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where

she was alleged to have discovered the wood of the true Cross. This,

according to tradition, was found, with two other crosses and various

sacred relics, under a temple of Venus, which stood near the Holy

Sepulchre. And the true Cross was identified by means of a miraculous

test; for when a sick woman was touched with two of the crosses, no

effect was apparent; but upon contact with the true Cross, she was

immediately restored to health. Such is the legend.

Of the four nails found in the place where the Cross was buried, one was

said to have been sent to Rome. Another the Empress Helena threw into

the Gulf of Venice, to allay a storm; while the other two were sent by

her to Constantine, who welded one of them to his helmet, as an amulet,

and affixed the other to his horse's headstall.

Among the classic peoples, symbols of their gods were used by physicians

in writing prescriptions for material remedies, as invocations or

charms, and were credited with the same wonderful healing powers which

were ascribed to holy relics, blessed medals and amulets, and in later

times to many purely superstitious remedies.

The worship of relics naturally afforded a strong impulse to visit

sacred places, and especially Palestine.

Generally speaking, the prized relic, a piece of the true

cross, whether possessed by a church, a crowned head or a

private individual, is a minute speck of wood, scarcely

visible to the naked eye, set sometimes on an ivory tablet,

and always inclosed in a costly reliquary. M. Rohault de

Fleury, who calculates that the total volume of the wood of

the original cross must have been somewhere about 178,000,000

cubic millimetres, has made a list of all the relics of which

he can find any record, and the sum of their measurements

amounts to only 3,941,975 cubic millimetres, or about one

forty-fifth of the amount of wood necessary to reconstruct the

original cross. In the United States there is not an

authenticated relic of the cross as large as half a

lead-pencil, and some are so minute as to be visible only

through the aid of a microscope. The Church of St. Francis

Xavier in New York has a fragment which is exposed for

veneration on Easter Sunday, as is the custom in European

churches possessing a relic. Another fragment, at the

Cathedral, is shown on Good Friday. This relic is in a crystal

and gold casket, set with precious stones, which form the

centre of a handsome altar cross. The French Church of St.

Jean Baptiste, in East Seventy-sixth Street, also possesses a

relic of the cross.

The powder obtained by scraping the tombstones of saints, when placed in

water or wine, was in great repute as a remedy. The French historian,

Gregory of Tours (544-595), was said to have habitually carried a box of

this powder, when travelling, which he freely dispensed to patients who

applied to him.

Great was his faith in this substance, as is apparent from his own

words: "Oh, indescribable mixture, incomparable elixir, antidote beyond

all praise! Celestial purgative (if I may be permitted to use the

expression), which throws into the shade every medical prescription;

which surpasses in fragrance every earthly aroma, and is more powerful

than all essences; which purges the body like the juice of scammony,

clears the lungs like hyssop, and the head like sneezewort; which not

only cures the ailing limbs, but also, and this is much more valuable,

washes off the stains from the conscience!"

Chrysostom (350-407) commented on the fact of the whole world's

streaming to the site of Christ's crucifixion. Rome was also a favorite

resort of pilgrims, chiefly as the site of the graves of the great

apostles, while many flocked to the tomb of Saint Martin of Tours.

Meanwhile, wrote Henry C. Sheldon in a "History of the Christian

Church," there were emphatic cautions against an overestimate of the

value of pilgrimages. The eminent Greek Father, Gregory of Nyssa

(332-398), said that change of place brings God no nearer.

The cult of relics developed rapidly in the Middle Ages. Even the theft

of these precious objects, we are told, was condoned, "in virtue of the

benevolent intent of the thief to benefit the region to which the

treasure was conveyed." The custom received encouragement from

many eminent scholars, who appear to have been deceived by certain

mysterious physical phenomena, the nature of which was not understood

even in comparatively recent times.

Pope Gregory the First (550-604), we are told, was wont to bestow, as a

mark of his special favor, presents of keys, in which had been worked up

some filings of Saint Peter's chains, accompanied with a prayer that

what had bound the apostle for martyrdom, might release the recipient

from his sins.

The second Nicene Council (A. D. 787) decreed that no church should be

consecrated unless it enshrined some relics.

At the celebrated Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, in southern Italy,

which was founded in the year 529, the care of the sick was enjoined as

a pious obligation. There diseases were treated chiefly by means of

prayers and conjurations, and by the exposition and application of

sacred relics, which appealed to the patients' imagination, and thereby,

through suggestion, assisted the healing forces of nature.

Thomas Dudley Fosbroke, in "British Monachism," states that among the

early monks of England, medical practice devolved on clerks, on account

of their ability to read Latin treatises on therapeutics.

Until the middle of the fifteenth century, physicians were forbidden to

marry, owing to the prevalent opinion that the father of a family could

not heal so well as a bachelor. The art of writing prescriptions was

made to conform to the dogmas of the existing religion, "for which

reason relics were introduced into the Materia Medica."

The medieval priests and monks, who were actively interested in the

development of medical science, encouraged the therapeutic use of such

relics. Miraculous agencies were the more eagerly sought after on

account of the popular belief in devils and witches as morbiferous


The reliquary, or repository for relics, was regarded as the most

precious ornament in the lady's chamber, the knight's armory, the king's

hall of state, and in the apartments of the pope or bishop.

Gradually the custom of relic-worship degenerated into idolatry. In the

year 1549 John Calvin published a tract on the subject, wherein he

stated that the great majority of alleged relics were spurious, and that

it could be shown by comparison that each Apostle had more than four

bodies, and that every Saint had two or three at least. The arm of Saint

Anthony, which had been worshipped at Geneva, when removed from its

case, proved to be part of a stag. Among the vast number of precious

relics, presumably false, which were exhibited at Rome and elsewhere,

were the manger in which Christ was laid at his birth, the pillar on

which he leaned, when disputing in the temple, and the waterpots in

which he turned water into wine at the marriage feast of Cana at