In fifth or sixth grade, my school took us to see a dead saint.
The body of St. John Neumann lies beneath a church that rises, gray and imposing, out of a dilapidated block of North Philadelphia. He is in a long, glass coffin, dressed in glittering white and gold vestments, a pointed miter on his head. The shrine is full of flowers and candles. I remember the air of hushed reverence.
I also remember that someone, maybe a teacher, told us that he was incorruptible: that his flesh, miraculously, hadn’t decomposed after death. A real miracle, a visible sign of God’s existence. I had to see it.
Later I learned it’s not true, and the Church doesn’t claim it is. Instead, a carefully sculpted wax mask of his face covers his skull, a frozen expression of eternal peace. This became clear to me as soon as I got close enough to get a good look. I remember feeling a little embarrassed for my teacher. Either they were very gullible, or just wanted to believe so badly that they ignored the obvious: that there was no way you could mistake the mask for flesh, corruptible or not.
Because I was at an age where I appreciated the rare feeling of being smarter than adults, I felt some satisfaction at that. But I also felt a quiet disappointment.
I’d wanted to believe, too.
Catholicism is weird
We believe in virgin births, resurrection, and that we literally consume the flesh of Christ at Mass every Sunday. And those are just the basics, the core beliefs that every Catholic learns. It barely even scratches the surface of the really weird stuff, the more supernatural aspects of faith.
The line here is blurry because it’s all supernatural, but I’m talking about stories of miracles and incorruptible flesh and prophetic visions — a spiritual reality spilling over into our own. It is an interruption to everything we know to be true. It is the divine touching the world and leaving a mark, a smudge, a bruise.
For instance, the saints: they weren’t just holy people, we also tell stories of them levitating, talking to animals, picking up their own decapitated heads and continuing to preach. We venerate their relics, their belongings or body parts. These can range from tiny fragments of bone to tongues, hair, hearts, even (in the case of St. Francis Xavier) an entire arm. Sometimes, like St. John Neumann, it’s the entire body.
We believe in angels and demons, prophetic visions and possession by evil spirits. We claim that the spiritual can imprint on the human body, through miraculous healings or the stigmata, the spontaneous appearance of Christ’s wounds on a believer’s hands and feet. We flock to see statues of Mary that weep, or the dried blood of St. Januarius, which liquefies once a year in Naples.
It’s all pretty amazing, and can serve as tangible, comforting signs of God’s presence in the world. I want to believe them, but I somehow feel like I’m out on a limb. The core beliefs of our tradition, even as strange as they might be to an outsider, are what I grew up with: the Communion wafer becomes the Body of Christ — sure, that makes sense to me. But I have trouble accepting these more sensational stories.The reason, I think, is fear. I’m afraid of looking ridiculous, and afraid of what I can’t understand.
But there’s room in faith for the ridiculous and the incomprehensible. The weirdest parts of Catholicism help me to appreciate both.
St. Anthony of Padua’s tongue in a gilded jawbone. Dire warnings that a Ouija board from Target can leave you vulnerable to demonic possession. Guardian angels. Even as a person of faith, my first reaction is: “Do people really believe that stuff?”
The faith I grew up with was domesticated, suburban. We believed in God, but were also grounded and practical. I often took pride in not being one of those Catholics: gullible, superstitious, ridiculous. The sort who pored over messages from Medjugorje or saw Christ’s face in burnt toast. I took my faith seriously. I was too smart for all of that.
My intentions were good. I’d think: why worry about a medieval saint’s left toe when God is calling us to respond to the cry of the poor right now? But deep down, I wanted to believe. I was just too afraid of looking foolish.
My high school owns a massive collection of relics. I inspected them once, and was stunned to find a porous shard of bone labeled “St. Peter.” Peter, who I’d heard stories about my entire life. Peter, who had walked and talked with Jesus. A little bit of his bone, part of the body that had fished the Sea of Galilee and witnessed the healing of the blind and embraced the risen Christ … just down the hallway from where me and my friends talked about girls and comics and movies? It was too absurd. I told myself it must be a fake.
But a question occurred to me and wouldn’t leave me alone: What if it’s real? If it was, then that reality would give me a new perspective on my own life, and how it was bound up, against all reason, in the same great story as St. Peter’s. Ridiculous as that may sound.
The ridiculous can help us see the familiar in a new light. Like a court jester who can point out hard truths no one else can, the ridiculous subverts our expectations, and expands our ideas of what’s possible. Indeed, in my life, God works in very unexpected ways. These days, my most frequent response to God isn’t stunned awe or ecstatic worship, but a delighted laugh. God is a God of surprises. The ridiculous helps me to remember that.
There’s nothing scarier than the unknown. Despite all of the powerful mystical experiences I’ve had, at heart I’m most comfortable when my faith is solid and defined: ritual prayer, a topic of study, a story to interpret. It’s safer that way.
But faith isn’t supposed to fit easily into a box. It’s about the transcendent: something bigger, stranger, more amazing than the world we can see. And, that can be terrifying.
Once I talked to a priest about an exorcism he’d performed. He was funny, good-natured, very down-to-earth, and it intrigued me that he believed in something so paranormal. As soon as he told me that the possessed man struggled with drugs, I thought: Ah, okay — this is just an old school way of understanding addiction, not a literal demon. Then he said: “There was one corner of his apartment that was always in shadow. You could see images flashing in the darkness. Faces. When I was done, it disappeared.”
My justifications felt hollow after that. I didn’t ask any more questions.
As I get older, I like to think I’m getting more humble, and can admit that there are a great many things that I don’t, and can’t, understand. Reality is bigger than my ability to comprehend. So is God. If I could sort through every mystery on my own, there wouldn’t be any need to have faith.
Living with the weird
This isn’t to say that I believe in all of the “weird stuff” now. I can’t overcome my skepticism in every case, and I don’t think I should. If I’m going to believe in any of it, it becomes even more important to sort genuine articles from frauds.
But I’m more open now, more willing to admit that with God, more is possible than I can imagine.
I think its weirdness is one of the best things about Catholicism. Our worldview doesn’t separate the transcendent from the mundane. Instead, we see them as intertwined, constantly in communication. We believe we can find God in all things — maybe this is just another way.
The world is surprising and full of wonder. It’s a world where invisible angels make sure I don’t get run over in the grocery store parking lot, or where a Portuguese saint, dead for almost 800 years, can help me find my car keys. A world where the sacred is close enough to touch. A world bursting with the surprising presence of God — where ridiculous, incomprehensible miracles are always possible.