As the people in Iceland are graced with visits by the relics of Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, and soon the great Doctor of the Church Therese herself, it brings to mind the importance of keeping the holy souls of the Communion of Saints tangibly present among us. Far from being talismans or tokens, relics are traces of the very humanity of great, living examples of virtue contained within the bones of our ordinary earthly lives. As cemeteries preserve and celebrate bodily memory, reliquaries preserve an additional glimpse of the holiness possible among those who sincerely strive toward knowing God in the beautiful and intimate gestures for which we remember them.
Iceland’s Patron Saint Thorlak once had reliquaries of his bodily remains, preserved in arks adorned with gold and silver and jewels which dazzled the eye and recalled the honor of his achievements as priest, abbot and bishop. These holy relics were both venerated by the faithful and associated with powerful, supernatural miracles of healing and reconciliation. Many perils befell St. Thorlak’s reliquary, including devastating fires in the early centuries of the Church. The greatest assault, however, occurred at the time of the Reformation, when zeal clouded reason to the point of ruthless destruction of any tangible reminder of that which had become symbolic of the moral drift, corruption and failings of church leaders, clergy and stewards throughout Europe. Thorlak’s relics were decimated along with everything else associated with the Catholic Church, and his sacred remains were scattered across the countryside of Skálholt.
To this day, there are no known relics of St. Thorlak, save for a fragment of bone said to be embedded in the wall of the St. Magnus Cathedral in the Faroe Islands. This relic is verifiably present even today, but is regarded as a preserved historical artifact and not specifically venerated. This precious, tiny fraction of the remains of St. Thorlak is reduced to the level of museum-curiosity, but we can take some consolation in knowing it is at minimum purposely preserved.
No, there are no relics of Iceland’s Patron Saint to be venerated as Sts. Therese, Louis and Zelie Martin are celebrated. There is no ark of St. Thorlak to be toured through the monasteries and churches of Iceland to great jubilation and devotion. One might just as well collect a vial of soil from Skálholt, for this is where it is most likely that some microscopic trace of St. Thorlak could be found, if at all; and that simple vial of soil would warrant all the majesty and reverence being shown the bejeweled reliquaries of the other mighty saints who stand with Thorlak and intercede for Iceland before the Heavenly Throne.
Then again, if we focus our reflection on the vessel in which relics are contained, we find to our surprise that St. Thorlak’s remains DO have a defined place in which they rest: Iceland. The birth and death of this saint took place on Icelandic soil, which itself is its own island vessel in the North Atlantic Ocean. Thorlak’s remains were scattered back to the soil from which he sprang, and thus this vessel, Iceland itself, has been crowned his reliquary. Without the physical ark to contain him, Thorlak rests now in physical Iceland… carried at times by the wind across the plain, or buried under turf, or cascading through the cliffs on waterfall’s wings… but never lost, and never far from his people.
Yes, St. Thorlak has his reliquary – his beloved homeland. Iceland is Thorlak’s living reliquary, and Icelanders are his living guard. May we remember this with the same reverence and celebration as we approach his feast day in December.