Tag Archives: history

The Shroud of Turin (La Sindone)

SINDONEIf you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could speak for hours. Before I saw it in Italy one Easter, I read several books on it. So I could tell you the Shroud is a linen cloth, three feet wide and fourteen long, that’s marked with faint front and back images—like those of a sepia photo—of a man in burial pose.

Beginning at one end of the fabric and panning lengthwise towards the other, you can see the front of the man’s body: his ankles, shins, knees, and thighs; his hands shielding his groin; his stomach, chest, beard, and face; his tendriled forehead at mid-length.

From there, continuing on, you can see the man’s back: his hair gathered in a ponytail at the nape of his neck; his shoulders, buttocks, hams, and calves; his heels at the far hem.

You suspect the man’s been scourged. Blood-filled back and buttock wounds bring to mind a flagellation by a leather multi-thonged whip, lead pellets tied to tips. You deduce the man’s been crucified. Blood-crusted wrist and ankle wounds suggest an ancient crucifixion, iron nail shafts rammed though flesh and bone by pounding rough-hewn heads.

You theorize the man’s been crowned with brambles. Blood has trickled through his locks from myriad scalp and forehead punctures. You surmise the man’s been speared. Serum has puddled at his waist from a right-rib, lance-shaped wound.

So you guess, if you’ve read the Gospels, that the Shroud is Jesus’ burial cloth, the sudarium John and Peter found in their teacher’s vacant tomb. And you grasp why it’s the world’s most-guarded relic—displayed only once each twenty years—and why scholars debate its authenticity, some proclaiming it a miracle, others declaring it a fake.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could summarize its history. Some experts place it in Jerusalem in AD 33 and chronicle an almost gapless jaunt:

To Edessa in AD 34, where Christians hid it from vandals in the city’s stone surrounding walls, to Constantinople in AD 944, where the Byzantine emperor raised it banner-like in his palace church.

To Athens, Greece, in AD 1204, when Fourth Crusaders sailed into Byzantium and seized it with the empire’s Christian relics, to Lirey, France, in 1354, when a French knight took it for himself.

To Savoy, France, in 1453, when the knight’s heiress gave it to a duke in exchange for a country castle, to Chambéry in 1502, where the duke placed it in his royal chapel behind an iron grill.

There, the cloth remained, folded in a bolted, silver coffer, until a fire swept the chapel in 1532. Hell-bent to save the Shroud, two Franciscans doused the reliquary, summoned a smith to pry the hasps, unfurled and inspected the Shroud.

Melted silver had singed a folded corner. Water had seeped through the fibers. But except for a series of scorch marks burned through to holes at intervals, the image was unmarred, and Poor Clare nuns patched up the holes.

Then, in 1578, Milan’s cardinal planned a pilgrimage to the Shroud, so the cloth was moved to Turin, Italy, to spare him a hike across the Alps. Today, the Shroud remains in Turin’s Duomo, out-of-sight for decades at a time, in an airtight, bulletproof case.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could recount the scholarly debates. Despite the propositions of their colleagues, some historians dispute the Shroud’s existence before its debut in medieval France.

Radiologists endorse the naysayers—their carbon-14 studies date the cloth to the early 1300s; they claim the image and bloodstains are paint, a counterfeiter’s work. Forensic scientists support the yaysayers—they find no pigments on the fibers, just human blood and serum; they charge the radiologists with sampling a Poor Clare patch.

Textile experts back the devotees—they say the Shroud’s herringbone weave was prized in Caesar’s time and unused in the Middle Ages. Botanists agree with them—they say the Shroud is strewn with flower prints and pollen from Israeli mums extinct before medieval times.

But the nonbelievers are diehards, determined to prove the Shroud a fraud by reproducing it themselves: They’ve tried Byzantine tempera painting, medieval photography, printing bas-reliefs. They’ve attempted hot statue wrapping, line engraving, and vapography. They’ve tried fungal and bacterial methods, non-enzymatic browning, singlet oxygen techniques. They’ve undertaken fabric scorching, flash irradiation, and electrostatic fields.

Then came an aero-optics expert who thought he’d proved the Shroud authentic, settling the debate: his NASA image analyzer showed the Shroud plots a 3-D elevation of a tortured human male. But skepticism persists, although no technology we know of—no natural process, no artistic or photographic method—can make an image like the Shroud’s, one that plots 3-D.

So if you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I’d have plenty to say.

But most of it is straw.

Because there’s something that leaves me speechless, something I didn’t read in books, something that didn’t strike me till I stood in the dark cathedral among a praying crowd and stared at the backlit Shroud suspended on a wall before me, so close I could have touched its fibers, the imprint, the blood.

That something is this: Jesus was a man, a man no bigger than my son, one man among the billions who have lived or ever will. And one spring evening long ago, he pulled his hair into a ponytail to prepare bread and wine for his disciples, as my son pulls on a favorite t-shirt to set out beer and nachos for his friends.

As if it were an ordinary evening.

But it wasn’t an ordinary evening; it was the last one of his life.

And when his mother saw his broken corpse, one she hoped to never see—as I hope to never see my son’s—she tossed a few chrysanthemums upon it, covered it with the Shroud, and left the tomb with her grief.

Then, when all was quiet, a flash of light, a flutter of fabric. An image to hold onto until eternity.

For the Time Being

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I recently ran into a good friend who’d been battling depression for years. She looked radiant. She smiled and said a therapist had healed her; he’d taught her to live wholly in the present, enjoy every flower she sees, block all but the here and now.

I’m glad this philosophy works for my friend, but it wouldn’t be helpful to me. I too believe in cherishing the present—both in time and place—but I couldn’t live without remembering the past or the beauty of distant things.

While every flower I encounter brings me instant joy, the past has taught me which ones smell delicious and which harbor poisons to avoid. And when there aren’t flowers anywhere in sight, I recall that all I need to do to find them is wait for springtime or travel somewhere else.

This is likely why I so enjoyed For the Time Being, a book by Annie Dillard that contemplates time and space. I love the way it assembles information: stories from China and Israel, the natural history of sand, wisdom from Confucianism, Christianity and Kabbalism, medical facts about birth and death.

I love the way it poses statistical questions: Do you remember what you were doing on April 30, 1991, when typhoon waves drowned more than 138,000 people in Bangladesh? Do you know the dead outnumber the living in the ratio of twenty to one?

I love the way it travels through the ages—from the days of the Chinese Emperor Qin, who unified his country in 221 BCE, to the days of the Galilean Rabbi Isaac Luria, who reinterpreted the Zohar in the 1500s, to the days of the French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose archeological team discovered Peking Man in the 1920s, to the present day.

And I love the way it juxtaposes incongruent images—images of clouds, carnage, waves, plagues, trains, cemeteries, dwarves—so that readers can stir them all together, add their own connections, and marvel at the subtle, complex stew.

Dillard’s book shows so well that no matter our technologies or theories, we can’t control or comprehend our baffling world, or disentangle its disasters from its wonders. It also highlight that we humans, each unique and precious, are at once common and insignificant, and that this paradox unites us all.

This brings to mind a personal connection. While I believe in one God who made all that’s seen and hidden, I can’t believe that any single human doctrine can fully capture his utter mystery. All throughout the ages, and all around the world, his children have attempted to revere him in innumerable ways.

My tradition is Catholicism. The teachings, the liturgy, the organ, the incense, the light through stained glass: all of these move me to reverence. But you may be moved by something else. And the students I once taught at a yeshiva, by something different still.

But what should we make of the difference? A few years ago, I signed up for a yoga class—something I’d never done before. Following the instructor’s directions, I sat cross-legged on the floor, straightened up my spine, pressed my palms together, relaxed my face and closed my eyes.

The instructor began to chant in Sanskrit: Yogena chittasya padena vacham. The experienced students responded: Yogena chittasya padena vacham.

The instructor continued to chant: Malam sharirasya cha vaidyakena. Again the veterans responded: Malam sharirasya cha vaidyakena.

I couldn’t understand a single word. But despite this or likely because of it, I discerned something deeper than words could ever have disclosed. For sitting closed-eyed in that studio, I felt the presence of all of humankind—people calling, listening, responding, searching for each other and beyond.

And their dissonant separate voices—many raspy, off-key—combined oddly into harmony. It was a harmony that rose around me, ran through me, expanded within me.

It was a harmony distinct from all others, yet identical to all—the harmony of Gregorian chanting and Southern a cappella hymns, the harmony of Torah cantillations and Quranic tarteel.

It was all harmonies I’d ever heard and those I’d never imagined. It was all harmonies I’d yet to hear and those I never will.

In it, I sensed God.

I’ve remembered it often since then.

I remembered it when a Taliban assassin shot a Pakistani schoolgirl in the head, almost killing her, and when Hurricane Sandy swept the East Coast, killing dozens and leaving eight million without power.

I recalled it when a young gunman murdered twenty-six teachers and children in a Connecticut elementary school and when two brothers set off bombs at the Boston Marathon, wounding hundreds and leaving three dead.

I remembered it when Syrian government forces massacred five hundred civilians in a Damascus suburb and when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh killing and injuring three thousand workers.

Each time I’ve recalled that harmony, I’ve let it fuse with bygone melodies still resounding from the past and blend with distant songs I somehow knew were being sung in other places.

It’s always brought me peace, the peace I know is God.

So, for the time being, I’m determined to cherish that harmony, as I wish my good friend could. I hope to always keep it in my memory so that it can rise again to buoy me when the next typhoon waves come.