Venerating flesh


Rembrandt got it wrong

The Vatican has forbidden the sale of would-be saints’ body parts as relics. That momentous news set off a train of thought.

As attitudes to dead bodies go, I guess mine is—let’s be neutral here—unusual. Since 1976 I’ve been handling embalmed bodies, cutting them up, chopping off bits and pieces, sawing heads in half, removing brains, and so on and so forth.

Embalmed bodies don’t really look like human flesh, and they certainly don’t feel like it. Anatomy departments need embalming fluid that preserves for years—three is the normal legal limit—while funeral directors use a different chemical mix that preserves for only a few weeks, but gives a better cosmetic result.

When I was in anatomy we went to considerable trouble to show our appreciation to the families of those who left us their remains. We kept them informed, organised the funeral, and held memorial services to which relatives were invited. In Dublin most students were non-Christian, always keen to be involved. They and I were immensely grateful to the relatives.

In the 1990s there was controversy about body parts removed for future study and retained in hospital labs. After this came to light, funerals were held for the specimens—a liver, a heart, a lung or whatever—despite obsequies having already taken place for the people from whom the specimens had been removed. I pondered how big a body part had to be in order to necessitate a ceremony months or years later. If a separate funeral was required for a liver, say, then what about a sebaceous cyst that had been removed? Should a malignant tumour have a separate funeral? Is it necessary to have a funeral for my nail clippings? What about all the flakes of skin that fall off every day? Pus from an abscess?

Is it possible that compensation culture was rearing its head? Surely not. Why did clergy condone this nonsense? It’s not as if they get the fees—at least not in the C of E they don’t.

In any case these events led to a revision of regulations. Up to that time anatomical donations were governed by the 1832 Anatomy Act, brought in to deal with the Edinburgh body snatchers, so it was overdue.

Coincidentally, as the controversy was kicking off in Ireland and the UK, retained body parts of Thérèse of Lisieux were on a world tour, soon to land briefly in Dublin. I wondered how many of those who flocked to pay them homage were at the same time agitating for separate funerals and/or compensation for a relative’s retained organs. I wondered if they had ever given thought to what Thérèse’s parents would have wanted.

Let me be clear: I’m not knocking the veneration of body parts of saints. If such devotions help you in your passage through life, good for you. It occurs to me that I do it in a different way: I venerate dead people’s intellects and personalities by reading what they wrote.

When I last saw my father in the flesh in his coffin in 1986, the undertaker said to me that it was just a body, it wasn’t really him any more. A cadaver is just dead meat. When I last saw my elder son in the flesh in 2015, a certain finality hit me when I noted the circumferential skull incision through which his brain had been removed for post mortem examination. I don’t know if it was retained. They would have been welcome to take what they liked.

I write this on Christmas Eve. The incarnation is all about flesh. Look after it. Life is short.

Sacramental assurance

247f11754cd5847ddbc149fb2acdc2beI’m intrigued by the frequency with which different people receive Holy Communion. Some receive daily, some twice or thrice weekly, some weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Some receive only three or four times a year. I suppose it’s a matter of personality, tradition and upbringing. Even theology too. But I can’t help my mind wandering. So bear with me in this gentle meander.

First, let’s consider those who receive three or four times a year. Clearly they don’t feel the need of the sacrament in that form any more often. Perhaps they are pure, holy and incorruptible,. Maybe there is nothing more to be said. Or perhaps the sacrament that they receive so infrequently has been so powerfully consecrated by a minister so virtuous that its efficacy is so very long-lasting, despite the havoc wrought by gastric acid and intestinal and hepatic enzymes. If so, I can see how three or four times a year would suffice.

Or perhaps it could be that the gastric acid and digestive juices of this group are weak, thus having little effect on the mystical power inherent in the consecrated bread and wine, which are thus largely unaffected by natural secretions. There is another possibility, namely that these people are all recovering alcoholics and so not permitted wine more often than three or four times annually. Of course they shouldn’t have it at all unless, as in the case of a former King of Saudi Arabia, the alcohol turns into fruit juice as it passes the cricopharyngeal sphincter. Frankly, I think this argument is stretching things a bit, and it seems to me that one could never establish the truth since if one asked such people of their boozing history they would almost certainly tell fibs.

At the other extreme there are those who take the sacrament daily. How might this be explained? Perhaps they are very, very wicked indeed and need constant mystical reinvigoration. Or maybe the priest who consecrates the elements is a very naughty boy or girl with as a result such weak powers that the efficacy of the sacrament is ephemeral. Or maybe these priests have been ordained by a bishop who is not a member of the right club, or has the wrong sort of genitalia. Or maybe, just maybe, these people have such powerful gastric secretions and intestinal enzymes that the spiritual power of the elements stands no chance whatsoever.

A research project calls. It would involve volunteers of course, together with physiologists, lab technicians, geneticists and theologians: a multidisciplinary project to elucidate a tricky issue.

Invertebrates rule OK

4985825287_273f35736fThis is not a swipe at spineless Church of England bishops, though God knows there are plenty of reasons why they deserve to be swiped.

It’s about octopuses. A recent article announced that scientists said that because of their DNA, octopuses ‘are aliens’. The assumption is that those scientists are competent to judge what is and what is not alien.

Humans have been around—let’s be generous here—about 200 thousand years, and our immediate antecedents about 6 million years. Octopuses, on the other hand, have been around for 150 million years, and their antecedent cephalopods 500 million years.

So—let’s get this right—the new arrivals belong on the planet, but the old stagers are aliens.

This mind-set allows us humans to do what we like with animals and plants. It allows us to do what we like with the planet. It enables us to discard rubbish, pollute environments and behave as if we were rulers of creation, bossing it about.

Biblical scholars might like to know that when Genesis 1:28 is properly translated from the Hebrew, it’s clear that we are to be custodians of the earth, not subdue it or have dominion over it. We are responsible for it, and our actions.

A theological conundrum arises. Are octopuses saved? Do they need to be? Let’s say for argument that they don’t. What do we humans have that requires our salvation, but that octopuses lack? This is not an entirely silly question, for its implications need to be explored if biology and theology are to have a serious conversation. Good luck with that.

Octopuses are very bright. They use tools and solve problems. Comparing the behaviour and skills of octopuses with those of some of the species to which I belong yields conclusions that it ill behoves a clerk in holy orders to consider, let alone articulate. Perhaps the human ape is evolving into several species as I type.

7869-a-plate-of-octopus-salad-pvThere are more octopuses than humans. Octopuses will be around long after we’ve disappeared. Jellyfish are older and vastly more numerous. The more toxic waste we chuck into their environment, the sooner they will rise up against us. Read The Swarm by Frank Schatzing. In the mean time, I am very fond of octopuses, especially with garlic and lemon.

Losing it and letting go


Living for ever

“Where did I put my keys?”

Why do I go out, lock the door, then have to unlock it to get something I’d forgotten? Not once, not twice, but three times.

“Yes, I rang you, but I’ve forgotten what about—oh, wait a minute, now I remember.”

Our brains are wired so that as we age, we remember 30 years ago better than yesterday. There are good reasons for this in terms of self- and species preservation. We remember what is good and bad for us. We remember what we learnt by experience.

In days gone by, the loss of recent memory didn’t matter much since we were unlikely to live long enough for it to become a problem. But now we live too long. Or some people do.

Remembering stuff from decades ago can be depressing. We tend to dwell on the days when we were fit and active, and when we grabbed life by the short and curlies. We become sad about what we can’t do any more. We need to grieve these losses: the loss of youth and energy and get-up-and-go. And we need to acknowledge that things we once thought important have turned out to be no more than seductive bubbles that have burst, leaving only a soapy mess.

11212629_835354123185770_7807558211314617443_oRather than moping, try mopping. Honour what you used to be able to do and absorb it into yourself. Accept that you can’t do it any more. Take up something you can. I’m very impressed with what SWMBO has achieved in a short time having taken up crocheting. I need to find something like that. Think how you might share your wisdom and experience with younger people. Talk to them as friends. One of the sadnesses about my relationship with my father was that before he died (I was then 37) we never reached the stage of talking to each other as friends. I dare say it was as much my fault as his, but at that time his words seemed only to be given as peremptory instructions.


There comes a time to acknowledge that it’s someone else’s turn to carry the flag. We see people doing things that our experience tells us will come to grief, and we want to tell them why. If only we could plug a memory stick into a USB port on the side of our heads, transfer our wisdom to it for transmission to someone else’s brain. Maybe bodily USB ports will be the next stage of our evolution. Dr Phibes, the wonderful Vincent Price, seemed to have some such thing on the side of his neck.

Hindu sanyassi give up all their possessions and wander off to fend for themselves. I find this peculiarly attractive. I’ve lived my life backwards in a sense, each change of job in the last 10 years some sort of a renunciation, with less and less income (poor SWMBO). But I lack guts to go the whole hog (relieved SWMBO). Enjoy getting older. Acknowledge the right of others to cock up just like you did. Let go of the will to control and influence, and relax into life. Clutter, rank, things, attitudes, stuff, possessions—none of this matters. The only things that matter are relationships. Live in the present because before you know it, it’ll be too late.

Living in the past leads to depression. Living in the future leads to anxiety. Living in the present leads to peace.

Blood, flesh and bread

The-Holy-Eucharist4People of the Book are much more at home with parts of the body and bodily functions than we are. They think nothing of talking at length about blood, guts, wombs, circumcision, hearts, body, eyes, ears. They are much less prissy and much more down to earth than respectable Anglicans are.

Let’s start with blood.

The film Gandhi has Charlie Andrews on a crowded train, hauled up to sit on the roof. An Indian says to him ‘I have friends who are Christian: they eat flesh and drink blood every Sunday.’ It’s a friendly greeting, though with today’s flesh-eating zombie and vampire films and video games, people might think otherwise.

We can bleed to death. As the blood seeps away, so does the life-force. Lack of blood equals death, so blood equals life. For Jews and Muslims, ritual preparation of meat to eat involves draining all the blood so that they are not guilty of consuming the God-given life force. (I like black pudding so am doomed I suppose). The blood that marks the doorposts in the first Passover signifies that the house will be preserved: blood equals life. The blood of Jesus, the blood that flows from his crucified side, gives life to the world.

Blood brings nutrient to the cells of the body. What more nutritious than the Sermon on the Mount?

Blood contains red cells that bring oxygen to the tissues. Get rid of the polluting smoke of duty and should, and instead take up the oxygen of freedom from worldly burdens. We are in the world, but not of the world.

Blood has white cells that fight disease and maintain health. Think about that.

Blood removes rubbish from tissues of the body, and contains platelets that plug holes in blood vessels. The resources of the church are there for us when we feel burdened, and life overcomes us. Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

When I hear of the ‘blood of the lamb’, I understand it as, quite simply, the life of the Divine. As St John’s Gospel has it: ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you’ (John 6:53). And in the passion gospel we hear that when Christ’s body was pierced, blood and water flows out to sanctify the earth.

Now body, specifically on Holy Thursday, feet.

For most of the people on the planet, feet are even more important than they are for us. Bad feet = no work. Feet need to be cared for. Washing feet an example of service and kindness. And naked feet of the very rich look pretty much like naked feet of the very poor.

Imagine Jesus and the disciples’ feet. No stout brogues, and I doubt that they would have been so lacking in fashion sense as to wear socks with their sandals. Who knows what they trod in. So in washing their feet, Jesus was taking a bit of a risk.

This is a cleansing, like Baptism. A washing away of the dust on our feet, that is, washing away the past. It’s a confession. And as we wash each other’s feet we might confess our weaknesses to one another. In truth, we should be washing each other’s feet as a preparation for every mass.

Now bread.

Companion means [taking] bread together. That is a sermon in a sentence. Bethlehem, Bet Lahm, means house of bread. Another sermon.

Finally, an invitation

I could end with George Herbert’s invitation (Love III: Love bade me welcome …), but instead I opt for Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ play on the word ‘come’ in his Christmas Sermon of 1620.

Lancelot Andrewes

Lancelot Andrewes

In the old Ritual of the Church we find that on the cover of the canister, wherein was the Sacrament of His Body, there was a star engrave, to show us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there.

And what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say, ‘Come.’ And He, Whose the star is, and to Whom the wise men came, saith, ‘Come.’ And let them who are disposed, ‘Come.’ And let whosoever will, take of the ‘Bread of Life, which came down from Heaven’ this day into Bethlehem, the house of bread. Of which Bread the Church is this day the house, the true Bethlehem, and all the Bethlehem we have now left to come to for the Bread of life, – of that His life which we hope for in Heaven. And this our nearest coming that here we can come, till we shall by another venite come, unto Him in His Heavenly Kingdom to which He grant we may come, That this day came to us in earth that we thereby might come to Him and remain with Him for ever, ‘Jesus Christ the Righteous.’

You scratch my back

orangutans-grooming-didi-higginbothamA court in Argentina has ruled that an orangutan has rights. Commentators say that this is the first time an ape has been so blessed.

Utter nonsense. They just don’t get it, do they? It’s not the first time at all.

There are apes somewhere near you. There are apes somewhere near me. No, I’m not referring to the locals of Ashby or Swad: Twycross Zoo actually. In a manner of speaking, they’re inside my skin. I am an ape. You are an ape. He/she/it is an ape. We are apes …

Orangs are apes, just like us. They are primates just like us. Moreover, they are intelligent primates who value solitude—in which they are perhaps more discerning than some of us.

When will humans realize that we are not the centre of the universe? We are a recent development in terms of cosmic history, we will not be around in the present form for ever, and it looks as if we might well be wiped out soon (again, in cosmic terms). We are creatures of this earth. Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.

As a square is a rectangle, so a human is a primate, an ape, a mammal, a vertebrate, a chordate. There is nothing new about this classification, and if there are theologians who don’t accept it, then all I can say is that they’re wrong.

Orangs are capable of acts of kindness, mutual care and compassion. They grieve. They think. They ponder. They reflect. Perhaps they are more than human. We sometimes act as if we’re less than human.

On this rock …

Blackpool-rock-ePeter, the denier, the dissembler, the man who means well, the man who cocks up time after time. The man who sometimes gets a bit above himself and has to be given a slap. Homer Simpson in fact. You. Me.

Cut us in two and we have humanity written all the way through us.

Cut us in two and we bleed. Some of the things that help us to stop bleeding are platelets. These are not blood cells, but are broken-off pieces of huge cells (megakaryocytes) that lie in wait to be summoned to wherever they are needed to plug the holes in the pipes. Biological Radweld. We are broken off bits of the Divine. To be sure, we have other things in us too that are maybe not so Divine, but we are all sons and daughters of the Divine.

Platelets bind together when they recognize damaged blood vessels. They aid blood clotting to stop blood seeping out of damaged vessels. Blood is life force, so pushing this silly simile a bit further, we stop the life force seeping out by plugging bleeding hearts, easing burdens, bringing delight. Blood brings iron, oxygen and nutrients. Blood disposes of waste products.

On this rock. Not the rock of perfection, superiority, excellence and aloofness, but the rock of humanity with its tendency to wander off like a supermarket trolley, and its ability to act as plugger of holes, mender of fences and bringer of jollity.

O admirabile commercium.