i’ve been doing some thinking lately on the miracle of incorruptibility. from ancient times, many christians have believed that God will, at times, intervene in the natural processes of decomposition to preserve the body of a saint, according to the words of the psalmist, “thou wilt not suffer thy holy one to see corruption” (ps 16:10)
the doctrine has basically evaporated from protestant teachings — indeed, it tends to seem rather macabre to more refined and modern religious sensibilities. and while belief in incorruptibility persists within romanist and orthodox contexts, it does so mostly as a folk belief — for academic theology, it is often something of an embarrassment. yet despite all the theological modesty pushing in the opposite direction, it is an immensely powerful tradition with deep roots and ongoing influence, and i think very much worth reintroduction into properly “theological” conversation — particularly given what i am working on in terms of reconceptualizing the nature of the miraculous.
of course, there are some problems with the miracle of incorruptibility that are immediately apparent — to wit —
- why should God intervene on behalf of some saints, and not others? how is this determination made?
- how do we account for the phenomenon of incorruptibility as it occurs in holy men of other religions? — indeed, i observed in greece the belief that incorruptibility can just as well be a curse as a sign of blessing! how do we know if it is one, rather than the other?
- as with cognate phenomenon, such as relics, what about the possibility of deceit and forgery? in particular, what about the case of a saint that is intentionally mummified and his cult promoted for less than holy purposes?
to these, we may add the objection raised by Brian Dunning over at skeptoid: if incorruptibility were truly miraculous, wouldn’t we expect the incorruptibles to be more — well — incorrupt?
Mummification is the natural, expected process that happens to a body under the right conditions. There’s nothing miraculous about a natural, expected process. I suppose some people claim that in some of these cases, decomposition should have taken place instead of mummification, and thus the miracle. So, what; leaving a few strands of beef jerky stretched over the bones is the best that the miracle-creating superbeing was able to muster? I’m not convinced, and a skeptical Catholic shouldn’t be either. Incorruptible should mean incorruptible. The corpse needs to be flexible and lifelike, as if asleep. We’ve never seen anything remotely like that. There are no verifiable, viewable examples of supernatural incorruptibility anywhere on the planet, and no reason to think there ever have been.
yet Dunning’s sarcastic comments are rooted in a common misunderstanding about the nature of the “supernatural.” there is no need for a miracle to work over and against or contrary to forces for which we can give a naturalistic account. it MAY do so, of course, but this is not — as i have argued — essential to the definition of a miracle. it is worth becoming fluent in this distinction in order that we may “give an answer” to skeptical killjoys like Dunning who rule out miracles a priori and then go about proclaiming the triumph of modern modes of explanation — which on the whole turn out to be rather boring ways of cloaking the mysteries. for my part, i much prefer the ancient impulse to celebrate them — and i defy the skeptics — if they wish to pry me and others like me from my “backwards” and “primitive” phronesis — to offer me a more compelling way to do so.
i have suggested that miracles be understood primarily as an event that definitively shapes an imaginal topography. i would submit, accordingly, that the preservation of the body of a saint is only one aspect of the miracle of incorruptibility, and while it might properly be held up as the most dramatically visible component of the miracle, it is not actually the most important one — as counterintuitive as this may seem.
let’s consider again the “natural” process which death typically involves — and by “natural” here, i mean the ordinary course of human events and experience, which extends beyond the process of decay/mummification and into the social body of those beings that die. the ordinary progression moves from death to the dissolution of the body to the fading of memory of that individual, to the disappearance of any living memory, to their ultimate final oblivion of being completely forgotten and leaving a world that is effectively without evidence of their ever having existed. i suppose that we could add some other gradations in there between the last two stages — for instance, many of us will persist in some form for a good long while by virtue of contributing our healthy genetic markers to the gene pool. in the right conditions, written information can be fairly durable, as can artifacts discoverable by archeology. so the time from our demise to the final extinction of ANY evidence of us WHATEVER could be quite long. these days, however, no one would argue for the eternity of the world. the creation is “subject to futility and decay,” and eventually even these last scraps of our existence shall also be destroyed; whether incinerated in some great conflagration or gobbled up by a black hole or frozen out of existence by the extinguishing of our sun and the “great freeze” of all of the material stuff of the universe drifting so far apart that nothing is left of the cosmos we know.
such, at least, is the natural order of things, in all its glorious grimness. there is no escaping mortality … except, of course, by the grace of God in Christ, who tramples down death by death, and raises together with him to the newness of life. in knowing Christ and adhering to his promises, we share in the power of his resurrection and in the fellowship of his sufferings — and this is well-worth pursuing by all means if we may in any way participate in the life-giving miracle of his defeat of death.
what happens in the incorruptibility of a saint is precisely the opposite of the normal course of death. their bodies do not return to the dust, as was promised by the curse spoken over them. they are not returned to the ground from which they were crafted, to lie hidden in obscurity till they are summoned forth by the voice of the Lord. instead, they are put on display; indeed, they are lavishly celebrated as an icon of the triumphant power of a God who is glorified in his saints. and rather than slipping into oblivion, with their memory fading, and their social impact gradually diminishing, they instead often continue to grow in notoriety and social influence through the expansion of their cult. if the visible preservation of their physical body is somewhat lackluster, the visible preservation (and indeed attenuation!) of their social body cannot fail to be impressive — and indeed, this social body supplies for the ongoing maintenance, beautification, and adornment of the physical body. in fact, the social body contributes to the extension of the physical body through the replication of images and icons of the saint. over time, the saint can become an even more potent conduit to the numinous after her decease than when she was alive!
incorruptability is a type of participation in the resurrection power of Christ that testifies to that power. it remains, however, categorically different than that power, and also than the power that we anticipate will be released at the general resurrection, when “what is sown in corruption will be raised in incorruption.” this accounts for the apparent imperfections of incorruptibility – viz., the fact that the body’s state of perfection is less than absolute and perfect, and also that the preservation itself is not absolutely durable (ie, the relics can be destroyed by theft or vandalism, or the cult of the particular saint can dwindle away and the body discarded as the cult disappears.) indeed, in the “long view,” incorruptibility staves off the dissolution and oblivion of death only for a time. but i am not disturbed to think that even angels and saints may be mortal and looking forward with us to the fuller immortality that shall come when the last enemy, death, is defeated. but i would speculate their “death” occurs only from our perspective as they slip into oblivion, out of our ability to remember or even imagine them. they may indeed be ascending to higher ranks of more pure and perfect praise, hidden even more entirely from our view, awaiting the consummation of all things, where the transformation that will occur by the direction of the divine power is unspeakable and unimaginable.
as a mode of participation in the divine energies, incorruptibility is rooted in christianity’s profound (even at timesgrotesque!) affirmation of the body, an affirmation that has its origins and pinnacle in the doctrine of the Incarnation. although God is confessed to be pure Spirit, impassable and outside of all human affairs, utterly outside of our comprehension and even outside of “being” as we know and understand it, the only true “supernature” — nevertheless, in Christ he has humbled himself, and descending through the ranks of angels, he has come among us and taken on a body, the Power of the universe submitting himself to the powers of this world, and yet unable to be held down either by these powers or the weight of materiality. accordingly, we affirm that the uncreated divine energies, which are eternally focused and ordered and consummated in Christ and transmitted through the holy angels, continue to be active and manifest through the material: since our Lord became matter for the redemption of matter.
because of the Incarnation, human bodies — and those of men and women who are especially united in love to their Lord — are capable of serving as signs and as conduits of the divine energies – whether they are alive or dead. in fact, death makes the body all the more transparent to these energies, as (a) there is less of a danger of confusing the divine energies with the powers immanent to the individual through whom they are flowing and (b) the personal life of that individual, now more perfectly “hidden with God in Christ,” shares a particular nearness to God through her complete freedom from the cares of the body and of this world, and by this freedom, she able to stand perpetually in worship before God and intercession for the world as she awaits the final consummation of all things.
to answer the initial difficulties we posed with incorruptability, then: first, since the primary purpose of incorruptibility is to testify to the power of the resurrection, it is not strictly necessary for there to be a great number of incorruptable saints — we need only to have an effective signification. as to why some saints are chosen and not others, this is a mystery of the divine dispensation analogous to other such mysteries: God appoints some as as apostles, some as teachers, some as prophets, etc., each to serve the purpose that he appoints within the Body. this is also reflected in the fact that within the Church there are multiple mechanisms that can convey a meaning and power that is similar to incorruptability — for instance, relics, shrines and icons can serve a very similar purpose — even when these have very little connection to the saints personal physicality (although some kind of mechanism is often needed to bridge that gap.)
second, the existence of “incorruptables” outside of the Church or among the cursed does not invalidate the miracle — it in fact confirms the existence of the “natural” mechanisms through which that power is communicated. indeed, there is no reason to denigrate these instances as something other then “miracles,” since our definition of shaping an imaginal topography applies equally. there is no question, however, that outside of the Church these miracles are attesting to an alternate imaginal landscape. as such, in the process of christianization, these the authority and influence of these incorruptables would need to be outflanked or otherwise reinterpreted.
as to the question of forgery, finally, we have already dealt with this to a certain extent above in noting that it is possible for the meanings and power of incorruptability to be conveyed with out there being “actual” corruptability. presumably, this would mean that it is possible for a forgery to possess this power — in the instance, for example, of a local holy man being deliberately mummified on the sly and passed of as incorruptable. in this case, the power would seem to flow more through the faith of those who believe in the miracle with sincerity, rather than the inherent power of the relic itself. the initial act of deception, however, would be unbecoming to the holiness of the desired end, and could be immensely destructive should the deceit be discovered, causing the cultus to unravel and many “little ones to stumble.” it is by far the best, then, to regard with humble piety the miracles that God has given us, rather than to try to artificially promote or manufacture our own.
this also makes some inroads into what i’m sure would be the skeptic’s next objection – that the incorruptible saint and his cultus (rendered in this way) are not “miracles” so much as they are “natural” sociological processes. but the existence of an anthropological or sociological account of the cult of a saint need not invalidate its miraculous character. indeed, as much as we might understand the processes that form these patterns of practice and piety, i would defy any “expert” in such phenomenon to engineer one.
the miracle is thus, in my view, satisfactorily interpreted — and indeed, it becomes even more wondrous for its color and complexity, for finding how it interweaves into everything from cosmology to sociology. and given such a robust expression, it does not need to be despised by secular people as an impediment to continued to participation in the systems that produce “real” knowledge (ie science) or “real” power (ie politics).
this does not, of course, “prove” the miracle to the unbeliever. the unbeliever will continue to unbelieve, for although it is not necessary for a miracle to be verifiably “supernatural” in order to be a miracle, it is necessary for that miracle to accepted as a matter of faith, and understood in the light of the economy of salvation worked out in the world by God’s initiative, not our own.