Sunday, June 24, 2012

Venerating the Dead

St. Maria Goretti
It bothers me that people keep re-living their suffering, as if somehow, by re-living the events that caused them pain, they will be alleviated of that pain.  My own experience tells me that brandishing traumatic events in my life only adds depth to the pain I once felt; that is, it makes the pain more intense.  What it doesn't do is bring closure, or lessen the pain.  [I don't include the unfortunate victims of post-traumatic stress disorder in my observation.  They are re-living their pains against their choosing; I'm sure they would be happy to be rid of their suffering, just like any other sane person.]

What I don't understand, however, is the seemingly insane adoption of another person's pain, even long after they're dead. 

Take the example of St. Maria Goretti: she was 12 years old in 1902 when she was stabbed to death by a rapist.  A horrible tragedy, I'm sure no-one would disagree.  Now, 110 years later, Catholic devotees gathered by the thousands in Toronto to view her body, as if by doing so, their imaginings of her pain and heroism somehow effected their lives in a positive way; they were somehow blessed by looking on at her century-old corpse.  No doubt, Catholics also imagine Maria is considering each one of them from her extra-planar vantage, if not bending her knee to the Almighty as he sifts the sin from contrition and radiates the better portion to Miss. Goretti.

But who were these people who gathered?  Why did they cry as if Maria's pain was theirs?  What kind of neurosis induces such hysterical worship (yeah, I know: dulia not latria.  Apparently a darker shade of gray explains the "worship" as distinct from the "like, worship worship") of a dead girl?

Not being a qualified psychologist, I can't legitimately attach a 'condition' or diagnosis to such hysteria.  Though I do think there's something fundamentally wrong in the psyche of people who would gather to weep and worship at the sight of a girl they never knew, and have no connection to beyond their contrived emotional states.

At the root of it, I think it has a lot to do with being told they should have some feelings for those who died professing the faith.  In the same manner, we pay tribute to fallen soldiers who secured our freedoms in the Great Wars.  On that note, though, I really don't see anyone hefting caskets about with wax-recreations of degenerated bodies, and people falling over each other to toss garlands and tears at long-dead riflemen.  There's no hysteria about soldiers we never new.  There's no haughty ideologies about fox-hole victims recovered from the trenches being able to confer special blessings by their mere presence.  And that has most likely to do with no-one demanding certain emotions of the general population that they should react this-or-that way to a long-dead soldier.

So to sharpen the focus a little more, I think the craze about a dead girl lauded to be a 'saint' (whatever that really means) comes from the external demands placed on Catholics to behave in a certain way when they encounter certain objects of their faith.  I'm certain no-one alive today knew Saint Silvan.  He died in AD 350, and enjoys the status of being 'incorruptible.'  So, however that happens that a corpse doesn't degrade -- I'm sure there's a natural explanation for it -- it really shouldn't make any difference to anyone's feelings, nowadays.  Except that the faithful are told that it should.  Because he was declared a saint.  And saints are to be reverenced; that is, honoured and respected as exemplars of the faith.

Even so, that doesn't explain how a passing nod in honour of an unfortunate girl mutates into the emotional surges of Catholic devotees.  It isn't a rock concert where hordes of less-than-twenties tear at their faces and scream themselves hoarse in a hero-worshiping frenzy.  It's a wax recreation of a dead girl who, had she lived, would most likely already be dead by this time, anyway.  She said 'no' to a psychotic lunatic and was murdered.  Allegedly she forgave the man before she died.  It's not anything like a rock-concert, is it?  There's really not any reason to induce apoplectic fits about the arrival of a glass-walled casket containing a dead girl.

My assessment is far from scholarly.  Really it's just a general confusion that I've written down.  I've wanted to call into question the reality that Catholic faithfuls get so worked-up about dead people who have no real effect on their lives now other than to be an emotional focal-point for their otherwise dubious faith-claims.  Quite simply, I don't understand the fervor surrounding saints, the emotional mania that is often alleged as being contrition and deep humility for God, or the dressed-up agnosticism that gets passed-off as knowing theology about things for which there really is no evidence (e.g., that dead saints confer any discernible benefits to the living faithful).


Gregory said...

I'm happy to see that your 'powers of accute observation' still have their same disregard for facts.

As one of those gullible and psychologically-troubled masses who went to view the incorrupt body of St. Maria Goretti (though at the Martyr's Shrine in Midland, rather than in Toronto), and who himself felt great spiritual benefit from having done so, I'm a bit annoyed by your eponymously cynical stance on the subject. You subtitle your blog with a line from Bernard Shaw about acute observation, and yet litter your article with no actual factual observations, but the mere ramblings of someone with his preconceived ideas who has viewed the event from far outside the emotional, spiritual, or psychological frames of mind of the people who did go and derived great spiritual benenfit from having gone.

Your lack of acute observation extends so far as to call St. Maria's body a "wax reproduction", which it wasn't--it was her incorrupt body covered in a thin layer of wax for protection, because while her dead body has not decayed in 110 years, it also doesn't regenerate itself like a living body, if damaged.

So, true, you're not a psychologist, and you have no authoritative ability to assess the psychological state of a religious person's mind. You're also no longer a religious person, and have no better grasp of the state of a religious person's soul. One would have at least hoped you'd have enough sense to more accurately appraise the plain facts of the situation, though.

Kane Augustus said...


So nice of you to drop by, and thank you for leaving your comment.

I cannot help you with your annoyance at my bafflement with the fervor surrounding Maria's dead body. I remain unapologetic about my confusion and implied disapproval of the fanaticism surrounding her corpse.

Nevertheless, you have accused me of being inaccurate in my regard for facts. In fact, you pointed specifically at the fact of Maria's wax-recreation. I'm going to go ahead and assume you read the article linked to those words in my report, and that when you read that article you also didn't gloss over these words (quoted here for your convenience):

"Her body has degraded naturally, and she is encased in a wax shell designed by artists who recreated her likeness."

So, the facts, as they have at least been reported by the Toronto News stand as such:

1) She is not incorruptible, but has degenerated;
2) She was not simply encased in a "thin layer of wax for protection" but was substantially recreated (though not wholly) by artists.

Given the two facts above, as reported not by me, but by the news outlet already cited, Maria is not incorruptible but following the course due to all untreated corpses.

I appreciate your loyalty to Catholicism, and you're right that it's one I don't share. Nevertheless, your fanaticism may just be outweighed by your disregard for the possibility that what you consider a "great spiritual benefit" from having observed a dead person is equally possibly (sorry for the horrid use of participles) an emotional upsurge brought on by psychosomatic responses. And that those psychosomatic responses took place because you've been educated by your Catholic forebears, leaders and writings that they should take place. Hence your responses may just have been conditioned responses primed to take place when the opportunity presented itself. Thus the reason you experience moral outrage when your veneration of dead people is criticised by individuals like me who confess to being confused about the cult of saints and the fervor that follows them.


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