Concrete mysticism and sacred objects

The following examples are taken from works (The Song of Roland, Records of the Western World, The Travels of Marco Polo) that are written at the level of concrete operations (Cerridwen’s stage 3a) and Kohlberg’s stage 3 of social and moral development. They would also fall into Fowler’s stage 3 of faith.

Concrete mysticism found its expression in the veneration of sacred objects (many of which were probably bogus tourist souvenirs), and sacred sites (many of which were probably also bogus).

In The Song of Roland, Roland speaks to his sword as he is dying:

‘O, Durendal, how fair and sacred you are!
In the golden hilt there are many relics:
Saint Peter’s tooth and some of Saint Basil’s blood;
Some hair from the head of my lord Saint Denis
And part of the raiment of the Blessed Virgin.
It is not right for pagans to possess you;
You must be wielded by Christians.’
[Song of Roland, verse 173, lines 2344-2350]

Charles, Roland’s emperor, also has his holy relic to protect him:

We could speak for a long time about the lance
With which our Lord was wounded on the cross.
Charles has its point, thanks be to God,
Which he has had mounted in his golden pommel.
Through this honour and this excellence
The name Joiuse was given to the sword.
[Song of Roland, verse 183, lines 2503-2508]

Europe had (and perhaps still has) many shrines to saints containing similar holy relics, to which people would make pilgrimages. Classical India was similarly peppered with holy sites, with stupas (structures) containing the relics of Buddha. The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (seventh century CE) described many such sites dedicated to pilgrims like him.

At the south-west of the Bôdhi tree, outside the walls, there is a stûpa; this is where the old house of the two shepherd girls stood who offered the rice-milk to Buddha. By the side of it is another stûpa where the girls boiled the rice; by the side of this stûpa Tathâgata [Buddha] received the rice. Outside the south gate of the Bôdhi tree is a great tank about 700 paces round, the water of which is clear and pure as a mirror. Nâgas [snakes] and fishes dwell there. This was the pond which was dug by the Brâhmaṇs, who were uterine brothers, at the command of Mahêśvara (Ta-thseu-thsaï).
Still to the south there is a tank; formerly, when Tathâgata had just acquired perfect enlightenment, he wished to bathe; then Śakra (Shi), king of Dêvas [king of the gods], for Buddha’s sake, caused a pond to appear as a phantom.
On the west is a great stone where Buddha washed his robes, and then wished to dry them; on this, Śakra, king of Dêvas, brought this rock from the great Snowy Mountains. By the side of this is a stûpa; this is where Tathâgata put on (?) the old garments offered him. Still to the south in a wood is a stûpa; this is where the poor old woman gave the old garments which Tathâgata accepted. [Records of the Western World, book 8; Beal translation, volume 2:127]

Not far from this spot is a stûpa. This is the place where Tathâgata preached the law for the sake of his mother. When Tathâgata had acquired complete enlightenment, he was termed ‘the teacher of gods and of men.’ His mother, Mâyâ, then came down from heaven to this place. The Lord of the World preached to her according to the occasion, for her profit and pleasure.
Beside this spot is a dry pool, on the border of which is a stûpa. This is where in former days Tathâgata displayed various spiritual changes to convert those who were capable of it.
By the side of this spot is a stûpa. Here Tathâgata converted Uravilvâ-Kâśyapa (Yeu-leu-pin-lo-kia-she-po) with his two brothers and a thousand of their followers. [Records of the Western World, book 8; Beal translation, volume 2:130]

South-west of the Yashtivana about 10 li or so, on the south side of a great mountain, are two warm springs; the water is very hot. In old days, Tathâgata caused this water to appear, and washed himself therein. The pure flow of these waters still lasts without diminution. Men far and near flock here to bathe, after which those who have suffered from disease or chronic affections are often healed. By the side of the springs is a stûpa, to mark the place where Tathâgata walked for exercise.
To the south-east of the Yashṭivana about six or seven li we come to a great mountain. Before a cross-ridge of this mountain is a stûpa. Here in old days Tathâgata explained the law during the three months of rain for the benefit of men and Dêvas. Then Bimbisâra-râja (Pin-pi-so-lo) wished to come to hear the law. He cut away the mountain, and piled up the stones to make steps in order to ascend. The width is about twenty paces and the length 3 or 4 li.
To the north of the great mountain 3 or 4 li is a solitary hill. Formerly the Rĭshi Vyâsa (Kwang-po) lived here in solitude. By excavating the side of the mountain he formed a house. Some portions of the foundations are still visible. His disciples still hand down his teaching, and the celebrity of his bequeathed doctrine still remains.
To the north-east of the solitary hill 4 or 5 li there is a small hill, also standing alone. In the side of this hill (has been excavated) a stone chamber. In length and breadth it is enough to seat 1000 persons or so. In this place Tathâgata, when living in the world, repeated the law for three months. Above the stone chamber is a great and remarkable rock, on which Śakra, king of Dêvas, and Brahma-râja [another god] pounded some ox-head sandal-wood, and with the dust sprinkled the body of Tathâgata. The surface of the stone still emits the scent of the perfume. [Records of the Western World, book 9; Beal translation, volume 2:147-148]

The cult of relics also appears in The Travels of Marco Polo. The Mongol emperor of China sends people to collect a Biblical relic from Ceylon.

Now it happened that the Great Khan heard that on this mountain was the monument of Adam and likewise his teeth and his hair and the bowl from which he used to eat. He made up his mind that he must have these relics. So he sent here a great embassy in the year of our Lord 1284. What more shall I say? You may take it for a fact that the Great Khan’s envoys with a great retinue set out on their way and journeyed so far by sea and land that they came to the island of Ceylon. They went to the king and so far succeeded in their mission that they acquired the two maxillary teeth, which were very large and thick, and some of the hair and the bowl, which was made of a very lovely green porphyry. [The Travels of Marco Polo; Latham translation:284]

Today we idolize people in the entertainment industry, collecting photographs, autographs and other memorabilia, and occasionally going on pilgrimages and visiting shrines such as grave sites or estates. It’s the same thing.

PS I *have* visited a pilgrimage site (L’Oratoire St Joseph, in Montreal) and it is spectacular, but the part where Saint André’s heart is preserved separately from his tomb is a little weird. At least we know it isn’t bogus, since he died in the 20th century.

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