Holy Handkerchiefs and Saintly Shadows

In September 2009, thousands flocked to St. John’s Cathedral in Portsmouth to view a casket containing remains of St. Therese of Lisieux—pieces of her thigh and foot bones, according to the British Daily Mail newspaper, which reported that many onlookers prayed for miraculous healings as they approached the relics.

Some readers, however, were less objective than the reporter writing the story. “Shouldn’t you be praying to God instead of Therese’s bones or even to Therese? People are touching the glass surrounding the casket. Touching objects to it, in hopes of what?” bellowed one reader in the comments section.

The comment echoes probably what every evangelical Protestant, and perhaps even some doubting Catholics, thought as they read the story: Bones of a saint? Don’t those belong in the sock drawer of Catholicism, along with crying statues, the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua, miraculous medals, and other vestiges of ‘medieval superstition’?

Such devotional traditions indeed are often a theological bridge too far for some Protestants who find themselves on the banks of the River Tiber but unable to make the final leap of faith. The Catholic Church may have Aquinas, Michelangelo, and Mother Teresa, they say. And it may have surprisingly strong biblical arguments for praying to Mary, obeying the Pope, and believing in the Real Presence—but what kind of a church encourages its members to honor the bones of a century-dead nun? And, what’s more—to pray that their encounter with her relics will lead to miraculous healings? That goes a bit too far, doesn’t it?

A worldview in which contact with the relics of a long-dead person has spiritual meaning to a believer is indeed alien to the modern world.

But it is a worldview that is in complete harmony with the spiritual outlook of believers in the Bible.

The first example happens to be a bona fide case of healing by holy bones: in 2 Kings 13, a dead man comes back to life after touching the bones of the prophet Elisha.

Crossing over to the New Testament, in the Book of Acts, we find two more examples of miracles that are extraordinary not only because of their effects, but also because of their unusual causes.

In Acts 5, the ministry of the apostles, led by Peter, is in full swing: signs and wonders are being performed and the number of believers is increasing. So great was the demand for miraculous healings, that the Jews started laying their sick on the streets, hoping that if Peter’s shadow might at least pass over them, they would be healed. Cured by the shadow of a saint—that has to go down as one of the oddest and most far-fetched methods of miraculous healings. But it’s right there in the Bible.

And it’s not the only example in the New Testament. Another occurs in Acts 19, this time involving the Apostle Paul. Even the gospel writer notes that God was working through Paul to produce “more than common miracles” among those diseased and demon-possessed. He elaborates: “So that even there were brought back from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons, and the diseases departed from them and the wicked spirits went out of them.”

It’s one thing to pray to the Mother of God. It’s another to pray to other saints for their intercession. But saintly shadows and holy hankies—haven’t we lost sight of the Christ-centered gospel at this point?

To paraphrase Bishop Fulton Sheen: the danger is not that men will think too much about saints and relics; it’s that they will think too little of Christ.

Christianity is a touch-and-see faith. Christ was not a human hologram or an angel. He did not come crashing down to Earth in an aerolite, Superman-style. He was a flesh-and-blood human, complete with the dirt under his fingernails and the sweat on his brow to prove it. If you prick us, do we not bleed? cried out Shylock in a plea for the common humanity of Jews and Christians in  Merchant of Venice. Jesus was not only pricked with thorns, His back was lashed with a whip, His wrists and feet were nailed to the cross, and His side was pierced, sending blood pouring forth.

Appearing to his disciples after his Resurrection, Jesus urged them: “Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones.” He even invited St. Thomas to put his fingers in the holes left by his wounds.

Even those who had indirect contact with the Body of Jesus still had a profound encounter with God—the hemorrhaging woman who touched the fringe of his cloak and the blind man who was healed when Jesus rubbed clay mud on his eyes, both acts that foreshadowed the peculiar miracles in Acts.

It’s important to note that the element of the physical in no way diminishes the need for faith. The bleeding woman was healed as a result of her faith, Jesus says. And the blind man whose sight was restored does not run around talking about magic mud: he professes faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord. So totally abundant was God’s grace in Christ that it overflowed into the world surrounding Him: the fringe of His cloak and even the mud He touched.

It is this Incarnational principle that is the key to understanding Catholic Christianity. It is at the root of the seven sacraments, the visible Church, the Petrine office, the formal priesthood, and, yes, veneration of saints and their relics—even the bones of a dead nun.

Stephen Beale


Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • chaco

    POWERFUL STUFF ! We “get dizzy” fighting the endless circular arguments spurred by Relativism (vogue philosophy of life embraced by the current culture; “There is no Truth except what is RELATIVE to each individual’s own experience or appetites”). It’s refreshing to know that we needn’t rely only on one’s “Intellectual Acrobatics” to discern Truth from mere sentiment. It can get tricky when you throw “Angel of Light” deception into the mix as Paul describes in 2 Cor. 11: 14. When we read further; through to 2 Cor. 12: 9, it seems like Paul is trying to show that the way to distinguish Divine Power from “Angel of Light” power is by observing how one is willing to endure trials/ persecution in this current state of existence; “Church Militant”. Thus, BEWARE of GOSPEL of PROSPERITY PREACHERS who say that Jesus did it all and we only need to reap the benefits (“Church Triumphant ” here & now). “VICTORY OVER TRIALS” (see Jn. 16: 33 & Col. 1: 24)) is preferable to “NO TRIALS” because Jesus did it all.

  • Sarah Beth Couvillon

    When visiting the shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos in New Orleans and viewing his breast bone in a glass case I had the following dialogue with a shrine caretaker. She was a young, attractive, apparently healthy woman who was probably in her thirties.

    me: “I’m a cradle Catholic and love the Catholic religion, but relics and saints’ body parts give me the creeps.”

    her: “I felt that way too, but I had a blood clot in my brain give me a stroke with no warning. Our priest put this breast bone on me as I was unconscious in my hospital bed, and I had a complete and miraculous recovery. The doctors have no explanation for what happened, but upon their recommendation I now take Coumadin. I volunteer in this shrine so I can tell my story. My brother takes Coumadin too; apparently our propensity for clotting runs in the family.”

    me: “Oh, sorry, do excuse me.”

    her: “no worries!”

  • Thanks Stephen for this apologetics. Now will have to memorise the verses when the objections come my way.

  • JMC

    And that comment about Christ healing the blind man by rubbing mud on his eyes made me realize that the toast, “Here’s mud in your eye” probably has its roots in that incident and is a lighthearted, and perhaps slightly irreverent, attempt to wish someone well.