On severed heads and other sloppy thoughts

7 12 2009

I was going to write a nice, organized post for this week, but I have been busy this weekend, so expect much shorter posts for the time being. One “Facebook scuffle” I got into was with my “magisterial Protestant” friends. Apparently, they like to study history, but they study it in such a distorted manner that it reminds one of nineteenth century British gentlemen going on safari in Africa. They only really go to gawk at strange beasts, and have a detached vicarious experience from the safety of a civilized party of “explorers” who take a break for afternoon tea. When a Catholic studies Christian history, he tends to realize that he is indeed “one of the natives”.

My friend’s brief essay was on the veneration of the head of St. Edward the Confessor in ninth century England. He has a hard time understanding how medievals could believe such things as people:

claiming that the severed head of a saint-king, which had been callously tossed aside by his killers and lost in the bushes, answered people calling out to it by saying, “Over here! Over here!”, so that they could find it and reunite it with the body – which, as so often happened in these sorts of stories, subsequently remained incorrupt.

Or find edifying the idea of a:

hagiographical tradition claims that he was so “holy” that he voluntarily slept with his wife for many years without ever touching her in any way not suitable to a mere sister…This problem is, of course, subsequent to the larger problems involved in trying to grasp what a “celibate marriage” might be, and why it is supposedly “holier” to treat one’s wife like one’s mere sister than as one’s WIFE.

Again, it seems like a good question only if you are a Protestant, since we Catholics have had Josephite marriages since, of course, the Holy Family, the Fathers of the Church, and up to the famous Maritains last century. I had to point out to them that it was “Scripture stupid”, and one only needs to cite I Corinthians 7 to see that stuff like this makes perfect sense. Of course, they still didn’t get it, but that is not surprising. They live in a society where people choose to get married or not. If you lived back then, and you wanted to be a “eunuch for the Kingdom”, but your parents wanted you to get married, you were out of luck. So a man choosing to be celibate with a woman he did not choose to marry would make sense in that context. But we seem to be beyond that now. As AG pointed out to me, we live in such a sexually driven culture that we cannot possibly conceive the reality of carnality’s spiritual affects on us. Just look at that theology of the body garbage: I can be a saint too… through sex! I can be a saint too by eating lots of marshmallows and offering the act up to Jesus as a symbol of my Eucharistic love for Him. Please, grow up.

But the juicier subject is how people can believe in talking severed heads. Again, it’s Scripture stupid: talking asses, rods that turn into snakes, shadows that heal, etc. But then I thought back to my own childhood, and how my mother raised us with the story of Santo Niño de Atocha in Zacatecas, Mexico, a statue of the child Jesus who would get up at night and bring bread to the prisoners. Or the Virgin of Tepeyac Hill, or the stories of vengeful images of the Holy Face that would send weevils into your corn… I guess Protestants aren’t raised with the idea that this stuff still happens, so it isn’t “normal” to them, so “stories like this often frequently lead to outright idolatrous attitudes and actions, so surely that should give us pause”. They never gave me pause. Heck, that kind of stuff is in the Bible.

Then, of course, my mind wandered to the question of whether being literate (or learned), makes us better Christians. Sure, we all know the Jerome quote: ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. But he was saying this in a society where most people could not even read. So what does it mean to “know Scripture”? Did the peasant in the field who knew the story of Christ backwards and forwards have an inferior faith compared to ours since he couldn’t quote chapter and verse of the Gospel (assuming “chapter and verse” existed back then, which they didn’t)? Was Christ coming to the earth so that His plan would be fulfilled by this well-educated, literate, and well-groomed city on the hill we know as the U.S. of A.?

Which brought me back to my original conversation: could my “magisterial Protestant” friend survive one week in a pre-Reformation society, or societies like my mother’s growing up, where they had no idea what a Protestant was? Would he have enough time to find his reformed brethren amongst the swineherds caked in filth, saying their Paternoster beads? Again, when a Catholic reads history, he may be reading of an exotic place where they do some strange things, but he will recognize enough there to know that these are “his people”. I don’t think my Reformed friend could do that. He is going to be the “civilized gentleman” who snidely comments on the strange customs of the natives that he saw. To us, it just seems like another good idea: let’s do a novena to St. Edward the Confessor and his disembodied head.

No doubt, there are many “famous” Catholic converts now who would have the same problem. Not only would they not have a Bible, but they wouldn’t even know who the Pope was. I would give them three days before they went crazy, but that is another can of worms.



9 responses

13 02 2010
Anita in Florida

These books are truly a blessing for all of us,if we truly knew the unconditional love they had,and have for Our Dear Lord!!!!!
Many Blessings to all for an open heart,Bob

11 12 2009
Fearsome Comrade

But did it actually happen?

10 12 2009
Jared B.

No doubt, there are many “traditional” or “folk” Catholics now who actually do have a similar problem. Not only has Catholic culture imploded around them throughout much of the West and North, but they constantly have to deal with coreligionists who don’t know what Joseph cords are. I give them three days before they go crazy and blog about how others would hypothetically go crazy were the tables were turned on them.

J/K, it’s a very good point about Catholic converts having the substance but lacking so much of the flavor of the religion. We can learn our faith & morals by picking up any good catechism. If we want a deeper immersion in those more intangible aspects of believing and practicing the faith, short of a time machine we seem to be left high and dry.

8 12 2009

“y’all” Arturo? – I am glad to read you adopting some of the beautiful tongue of your new environs.

8 12 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Hey, y’all are probably right. I am just going off what this guy said. But thanks for the correction.

7 12 2009

I believe that albion is correct. The severed head is St. Edmund, King of East Anglia–about 200 years prior to the great St. Edward, who was a confessor and certainly worthy of a novena, but he was not a martyr.

I don’t think that St. Edmund had a josephite marriage, but it is near certain that St. Edward did.

More here:


7 12 2009


Thanks so much for another excellent post. I’ve been enjoying this blog for a few months now. It was nice to see a picture of the statue of St. Edward next to the main building at Notre Dame. I’d never heard this story about St. Edward. I’m all for the novena to his talking severed head!


7 12 2009

I don’t think Scott Hahn would have a problem with venerating the decapitated head of a saint. He and his wife are leading a pilgrimage next May to Rome and Assisi. The itinerary for the trip includes the following:

Day 5: “This morning, visit St. Agnes Outside the Walls to venerate her relics….”

Day 6: “…After lunch see the Basilica of the Holy Cross where some of Christianity’s most important relics are housed, including a piece of the True Cross, thorn, and nails. Then a visit to the church of St. Lawrence (Tomb of St. Lawrence, St. Stephen and Justin Martyr)…”

Day 7: “…following lunch, return to the hotel for free time or take Optional Afternoon Walking Tour to see the Pantheon and St. Augustine church, venerate St. Catherine of Siena’s incorrupt body at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Church.”

He’s also been known to speak well of veneration of relics, as in his article, “The Splendor of the Catholic Church:”

“I just recently came across a book by Joan Carroll Cruz entitled, Eucharistic Miracles and another one entitled, The Incorruptibles. The incorruptibles! I never heard of the incorruptibles. These incorrupt Saints like St. Catherine of Genoa or St. Francis Xavier whose bodies are not decomposing. God shows how supernatural grace can transcend the decomposition and the degradation of death in the natural order in the bodies of His Saints. St. Francis Xavier has actually parts of his beard in his cheek, in flesh, centuries and centuries after he should have been nothing but dust. He’s without his right arm, though, because those Catholics took it off to carve it up for relics. What a religion we’ve got! What glory! ”

(from here: http://catholiceducation.org/articles/apologetics/ap0105.html)

– christina

7 12 2009

Wasn’t it Saint King Edmund?

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