2019 has been an important year for Cahors, the capital of the Lot department, as it celebrated the 900th anniversary of its Cathedral dedicated to St Stephen.
The pinnacle of the celebrations was the display of the cathedral’s relic: The “sainte coiffe” (or holy headdress). For those of you who have no idea what a holy headdress might look like; the relic is allegedly the cap Jesus wore when he was buried. It looks like a papal zucchetto or a Jewish kippah but is made of simple white cloth at least as far as I could make out when I had a closer look at it.
Indeed the visual was extremely important in the Middle Ages when it came to sharing the Christian faith. For at a time when very few could read, pictures and objects helped people to imagine and remember stories. And so all over the Christian world church walls were decorated with Biblical scenes, amazing stained glass windows retelling the stories of Old and New Testament were created and objects claimed to be related to Jesus or the saints were purchased and displayed.
Like most relics this skullcap found its way to Cahors Cathedral in the Middle Ages; a time when many pilgrims made their way to the Holy Land in an attempt to get closer to Jesus.Now whatever we may think of this cap and of relics in general, they were, I think, a way of making Jesus and some of his special followers more “visible” to people.
Now whether such objects should have been revered in themselves or whether they truly were what they claimed to be is not the point here, the point is that in their earthiness, they helped people understand and live the story of salvation. They brought Christ and God’s love closer to the ordinary man or woman.
As such, I think those relics may not have been very different from the stone we are today asked to hold in our hand during a meditation about pain and grief. A stone that we may later put at the foot of a cross because we want to leave our suffering in Christ’s safe hands trusting that he can take our brokenness and make us whole again.
So maybe that skullcap, that rather unusual relic from Cahors cathedral , helped thousands and thousands of ordinary men and women understand that Christ had truly died for them . Maybe it helped them see salvation and know true Love.
As for the relics of saints: I met a devout Catholic a few days ago and asked him what according to him was the meaning of them today. His response was: “To me relics remind us that the person whose bones we see is only human just like us”; not therefore an object of veneration but an object to encourage imitation. In short: if a saint is just a human being, then every human being is potentially a saint. Now there is a thought!
To get back to the famous “sainte coiffe” together with the beautiful pont Valentré, it turned Cahors into an essential stopover, a “high place”, on the pilgrimage route to Compostela. And this year, as the holy cap has been back on display for the first time since WWII, pilgrims from all over the world have come once more to admire it. Let’s hope that they too were able to “see” how much Christ loves us all!
As for the different denominations present in Cahors and surroundings, we will celebrate the anniversary in a way that we feel is appropriate for us: by getting together in the cathedral for a joint service of hymns and prayers celebrating Christ and all his saints known and unknown.
Blessings to all God’s beloved who are called to be saints