Dear God, please don’t let me be too hungry or too thirsty. Help me to please my mother. And help me to please You. — St. Germaine Cousin
St. Germaine Cousin’s feast day is on June 15, which goes to show how long I’ve been compiling essais to write on my blog. Most never get written. However, ever since I read the above quote in my daily Bible reading (which always begins with a famous quote by a saint of the day), St. Germaine’s story has haunted me.
When operating off of habits, it’s easy to unthinkingly complete each daily tic. Reading the Bible shouldn’t be that way, but it too often is. Thankfully, my mind is often caught by an oddity or some good old-fashioned violence, which the Bible is full of. On this day, my mind was caught by the obvious childlike tone of the saintly quote. This usually means the saint died as a child. It’s a good bet. As much as we might feel preserved in our modern day lives, life is and always has involved death. Life is a series of races that must be won in order to move on to the next level: infancy; childhood; young adulthood.
These aforementioned three phases used to be very shaky, a clumsy dance between life and death. The high risk of infant mortality was followed by a more stable yet still precarious childhood. The teenage or very young adult phase was a little more stable than what followed, with the risks of dying in warfare or childbearing for men and women respectively. Once past these phases, a person could live to a good old age. But there were (and are) no guarantees.
We put a lot of faith in our modern medical system; we think we can cheat death, or at the least delay the inevitable for a long, long time. Yet, infants still die. And children still die, as do expectant mothers and soldiers who go off to war. Just the other day, when I was picking up a few items late at night at Walgreens, I noticed the checker was acting in an extraordinary manner, making weird noises, speaking ghostly words to the customers and then ducking below the counter so we couldn’t see her. She was obviously entertaining herself — laughing all the while — but I didn’t find out why until I purchased my goods. Life was short, she said, and her best friend’s baby had just died that morning. Why waste time acting normal?
Going back to St. Germaine, it turns out she didn’t die as a child. Rather, she died at the age of 22 after a hard, impoverished life as a sickly shepherdess with a withered hand. Although her family had a homestead, her stepmother hated her and forced her to go out to work tending sheep and to sleep in a stable. Because of her circumstances, she possessed the kind of humility and patience most of us need in order to see God’s hand in our lives. Her life story is incredible due to the miraculous ways God preserved her during her too few years on earth, as well as the way in which she gave what little she had to the poor. However, her death was perhaps even more incredible than her life.
You see, St. Germaine is one of Catholicism’s “incorruptible” saints. Some forty years after her death, her body was found to be perfectly preserved. As with a number of other “incorruptible” saints, her body was put on display in a lead casket. This seems a grisly practice on one hand, but on another, it’s a glimpse into the place we’ll all end up — that is, death. At the same time, it’s a glimpse into the place we should all wish to end up — that is, in God’s grace, having changed into our incorruptible forms.
When somebody close to us dies, it’s possible to cross mental and spiritual boundaries, to see life with a renewed filter. Yet, our culture doesn’t prefer to look at death squarely in the eye. We hide it away, bury it, and act irrationally when we can’t cope with our losses. You probably know what I mean: most who’ve reached my age have watched relatives and friends cling to inheritances that don’t belong to them or cut off ties to their closest family members simply because they can’t cope with the death of a loved one.
I think about the incorruptible saints when I see this kind of pettiness. I think of the nuns who care for the bodies of the incorruptible still on display. I used italics above regarding the use of “incorruptible” because they really aren’t. Yes, they might have been for a period of time, due to environmental factors, but there is no perpetuity to the preserved corpses. The people who practically live with these dead saints understand this — or I should hope so. The purpose is a bit less ephemeral than the physical body itself. It’s an image that captures the clumsy dance between life and death into an ornate stillness, a beautiful husk of a human in a gilded cage. It’s an image that whispers what we don’t understand about the nature of the soul.
St. Germaine’s incorruptible body was thrown into a grave and desecrated with lime by a handful of revolutionaries during the French Revolution; despite that, after the Revolution, her body was found to still be otherwise preserved where the lime hadn’t eaten her away. To me, that is the most incredible and startling part of the story. Remember, the French Revolution was the people’s act of rebellion against their religion. It was the moment the French people rejected the church. Yet, the church persists regardless of humanity’s petty little attempts to mar it. Staring unflinchingly at the church is about like looking into the face of death. Our modern-day, post-revolutionary culture may find the scrutiny difficult, but that doesn’t alter the essence of the church, the human temporal aspect, or the eternal aspect that is wedded to God.