I must confess—with no sense of boasting, just honesty—that I have often been quietly dismissive of news of, or interest in, the world of the more spectacular aspects of the faith: news of this incorruptible holy one’s body or that purported apparition; this stigmatic, or that saint’s levitations. And while such subtle, occasional arrogance is a poor quality of mine, I think there exists a healthy reticence that ought to be maintained when it comes to revelations of the private variety and the reportedly miraculous, a distance that should be maintained prior to Church action and investigation. There is also the danger of building one’s faith on the spectacular and privately revelatory and not on the sure footing of Scripture and Tradition. However, I must relate a recent occurrence that provided me with a greater appreciation of those holy ones whose bodies have remained incorrupt after their souls have gone onward into the eternal.
Towards the end of the recently wrapped-up school year, I was teaching and reading Augustine’s Confessions with a generally-bright group of tenth-graders. A refrain to be found throughout the great bishop’s work is the notion of God as incorruptible; as not being able to diminish, deteriorate, or decay. This characteristic of the Almighty impresses itself upon the young Augustine as he finds dissatisfaction in the ephemeral pursuit of worldly respect and success, human relationships, and Manichean falsehood. The reality of God as incorruptible, as not being subject to the same lack and vulnerability as all else, provides Augustine with something—really someone—sure and stable in which to ground his restless, wayward and tempestuous heart.
To weave this line of thinking together with one of the more moving passages from his autobiography, Augustine embroiders a beautiful passage on Christ’s victory over death, where death has been made dead:
He who is our very life came down and took our death upon Himself. He slew our death by His abundant life and summoned us in a voice of thunder to return to Him in His hidden place, that place from which He set out to come to us when first He entered the Virgin’s womb (Confessions 4, 19).
In getting back to where we started, that being the phenomena of incorrupt saints, this string of thought from Augustine has garnered me a more profound appreciation for the providential protection of certain saints’ bodies from the decay of death. Now, I speak here of authentically, miraculously-preserved saints, and not any that may be suspected of being a hoax or sham. (It’s not my purpose to parse out which are which, authentic or fake, I intend to just consider the phenomena generally.)
In a way, the holy one, whose body lies in the sleep of death, without decay or deprivation, lies as a witness to and embodies the reality of the Paschal Mystery. After having taken on the reality of death, of the severing of soul and body, the victory won over the great haunting specter by Christ Victorious becomes manifest over time as the saint’s body remains intact, untouched by the corruption promised those bodies whose souls have left them. The saint is not only witness to Christ’s victory of death, but also the aforementioned incorruptibility of God, and his ability to allow for a share in that imperviousness to deprivation and deterioration.
Of course, the saint has suffered the effects of the Fall, soul and body no longer are intertwined as they ought to be, but the separation wrought by death is something of a shadow victory. One can almost imagine a sly, wry smile on the face of the incorrupt saint if faced with Death personified, the subtle smile conveying something along the lines of, “you think you have me you do, yet, not for long and not all that much.”
Continuing along, the incorrupt body’s preservation proclaims the awaited Resurrection. For, why preserve something if it isn’t intended for some purpose? In this instance, of course, one later purpose would be the body’s reunion with the soul. Of course, all bodies await the Resurrection, however those particularly set aside to be immune to the decay of the body—being in the stark minority—wait in a drastically different state. The incorrupt body can be seen as carrying a providential, unspoken message of sorts: “see here this body, awaiting the grand reunion with its ghost—death has no abiding power over it, neither decay—no worm food here, no mere particles taking up real estate, no, see here slumbers the sleeper awaiting the great ‘Awake.’”
And while a holy one’s incorrupt body is often taken as a sign of personal holiness—as it certainly should be—the true holiness reflected in the phenomena is that of the Almighty. Of course, all holiness comes from its One Source, however, the case of an incorrupt body, a visible thumb-in-the-eye to death, can only be taken as something originating in the Victor over that one thing that no human being could have ever vanquished of their own volition; in other words, it is only in the God-Man’s power to have shown death’s weight as no longer having the final answer to the human equation—as now being a hollow vestige of what it once was. The incorrupt saint stands—really lies—as a silent and subtle witness to the sole Victor over death and decay, His incorruptibility as well as His victory.
And so, considering all of this, I hope any impulse of mine to dismiss news of the incorrupt as no more than miracle-hunting and spiritual sight-seeing will be quelled by the remembrance of the lasting testimony proffered by those preserved in God’s good providence. That testimony being the reminder of the incorruptibility and immutability of the Almighty, along with the reality that death holds no final sway over us, and that we all will await the coming of Christ Victorious, when our bodies—both corrupt and incorrupt—will be united again with our spirits.