Sometimes faith is not enough. Last Sunday in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI stood in the warm Basilica of St. Paul and announced that scientists had conducted carbon-dating tests on bone fragments found in what has long been believed to be the sarcophagus of the Apostle Paul. According to Pope Benedict, "This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul." Thank God. I feel better already.
Why do we insist on this stuff? If it's "unanimous and uncontested," what's the point? Next thing you know, we're going to require video and sound recordings from 62 A.D. before we'll believe any of it.
What happened to faith? So much of religion is predicated in a certain amount of blind belief, it surprises me that the Catholic Church felt a need to verify the authenticity of Paul's bones. What does it matter? Thanks to a beheading, the poor man's skull and teeth are located elsewhere. Thank goodness, or Pope Benedict might be telling us that, based on a bit of scientific teeth scraping, we know what Paul last ate.
My first thought when reading the pope's words was that the Catholic Church has a high-tech lab hidden in some catacomb under one of Rome's hills in which scientists will reconstruct the DNA of the Apostle and clone the old saint. Once again Paul will don glorious robes, or perhaps Levi's, and walk the earth among us. Whew, hand that little idea to The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown and let him run with it. I'm already looking forward to seeing Tom Hanks in another sequel.
Out here where I live, I often find bones and teeth in the woods beneath the limestone bluffs around my house, turkey, deer, mice - all manner of creatures. Last week I picked up the skeletal/cartilage spine of a large snake. Even without these reminders, I know that these creatures move among us. However, what they do tell me is that buried beneath our double chins, thinning hair and potted guts is a wonderful architecture of linked bones that hasn't changed much in many, many centuries. Paul's bones looked remarkably like my own.
On more than one occasion, I've walked across the resting places of Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Charles Dickens in Westminster Abbey in London, and I've never doubted their existence. I've sat quietly in ancient pews during high Mass in the Augustinerkirche in Vienna, never questioning that the small urns in the nearby chapel contained the hearts of the imperial Hapsburg family.
At some point, on some level, one simply must believe that these people once walked with us, sat in the same spots, uttered similar words, explored the same feelings, pondered life's meaning. Sometimes when I'm alone, I go to the woods just to sit on a limestone bench that has my mother's nickname carved deeply into the top. Gone these 19 years now, it's all I need of her. I don't need pieces of vestments, no torn remnant of one of the white blouses she always wore, no voice recording of her laughter. She walked the earth just as surely as Paul, and just as surely as that other guy they called Jesus. No proof required.
If you listened closely on the day scientists drilled into Paul's sarcophagus looking for his bones, you might have heard a small voice echoing across 2,000 years of Biblical landscape. It was a voice in halting Latin speaking to doubters: "I lie in peace ... let me be. If you truly need to find me, look elsewhere. Perhaps travel to Syria, along the road to the ancient and great city of Damascus, the city once claimed by Abraham, Cyrus and Caligula. That's where you will find me, and then you will know all you need to know. I can do no more for you. Have faith. Let me be."
Kurt Ullrich is a writer in Maquoketa, Iowa. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.