Sometimes you start thinking (or even writing) about something, and it suddenly becomes more complicated than you initially imagined. Ideas tumble; you hope not uncontrollably.
The Veil of Veronica is such a case for me.
As a convert to Catholicism – one whose growth in the faith has come in fits and starts over 43 years – I’ve been both attracted to and repelled by relics. I’ve a bit of the attitude, I suppose, of the Catholic humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (d. 1536), who wrote of fragments of the True Cross that “if all. . .were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship.” Mind you, Erasmus believed in Christ and probably assumed some of the wooden shards encased in altars or displayed under glass in churches and cathedrals were authentic; he simply doubted that all of them were.
But I’m not a skeptic. For instance, I’ve come to believe the Shroud of Turin is exactly what it’s claimed to be. In the matter of the Veil of Veronica, however, I’m not so sure.
Who was this Veronica? Well, she is alleged to have been an early Christian woman, one among those along the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday. She knelt to press a towel or cloth (velum in Latin, thus our English word “veil”) to the face of our suffering Savior when He fell beneath the weight of the Cross.
Her name, however, is unlikely to have been Veronica, because that is a portmanteau word formed from the Latin vera, meaning truth, and the Greek eikon, meaning image, which is to say this woman was the bearer of the True Image, the Real Icon, the Veronica. This is not to say there were no women named Veronica before her, although it’s a stretch to suppose that she, a Jewish woman living in 1st-century Jerusalem, would have borne that name. If it actually were her given name, it would be a clear case of nature at the service of divine intent.
In any case, she was real enough for the Church to have canonized her in 1885.
In all versions of her story, Veronica brings her veil to Rome, and that’s where the story gets sticky. A shard of wood from the Cross – there’s one at the Church I attend – is credible almost because it’s one of so many; because wood is easily splintered and passed around.
But there’s only one Shroud. Why, then, would there be more than one Veil of Veronica? Well, one supposes because the second (and third, etc.) is a copy. These are variously called the Mandylion or Mandelion (“Holy Napkin”), especially in Orthodoxy, as in the icon below by Veronica Royal.
The current claimants to possessing the True Image, faded with age, are the Capuchin friars at the Santuario del Volto Santo (Sanctuary of the Holy Face) in Manoppello, Italy. According to their understanding, the Veil was stolen from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during an early 16th-century renovation and, by a circuitous route, came to the Sanctuary in about 1660.
This means the even more faded version still at St. Peter’s and displayed – rather distantly, every Passion Sunday – is likely a copy and not an acheiropoieton. That term scans as a dinosaur name, but it means “made without hand(s)” – an object, in other words, created without human agency; created, in fact, miraculously.
Of that Manoppello image . . . well, it looks to me a lot like a work of early medieval art, which is not to say that it’s creator was not a conduit for the Creator.
Anyway, this got me thinking about another kind of veil. In fact, two: the veil of Herod’s Temple, rent at the death of our Lord on the Cross, and the veil that persists between us and the Truth.
When the Temple veil was torn, from top to bottom, the Holy of Holies – the dwelling place of God among His chosen people – was thrown open to the whole wide world.
In “Ash Wednesday” (1930, known as his conversion poem), T.S. Eliot wrote of the veil between heaven and earth:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny
the voice. . .
Faith and the practice of faith allow us to glimpse the glory of God, often with fear and trembling. But, as Rudolf Otto wrote in The Idea of the Holy (1917), it too fades like the image on an acheiropoieton:
The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until, at last, it dies away, and the soul resumes its profane, non-religious mood of everyday experience.
Otto called this the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – and the fascination may come later, after your heart stops pounding and you begin trying to explain it to yourself or, in boasting, to someone else. And the explanation begins to turn the numinous, the term Otto coined to describe it – the wholly other – into . . . something or other. Water cupped in one’s hands, fingers spread. Gone. Drops fallen to earth that bounce, become covered in dust, then flatten into mud.
One day, though, we will all look upon the Holy Face, and not a faded version on cloth, but the living and eternal Lord of life.