The Healing Hankies of St. Paul

“And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” Acts 19:12.

The veneration of relics was one of the practices targeted by the Reformation. There’s no question that a trade in illicit and fake relics was a scandal of the medieval Church, but the abiding error of the reformers was to strike not at an abuse, but at the entire theology underpinning a practice.

Dujardin, St. Paul Healing the Cripple

The notion that items connected to the holy could be conduits of power had deep roots in the faith, right back to scripture. The remains of martyrs were collected and venerated from the earliest days, and there’s just no way around that. We also have this startling passage above, which is nothing less than Biblical witness to the power of a second class relic to work miracles.

How do we read Acts 19:12 as anything other than a theology of relics in miniature? It’s all right there. We’re talking about fabric used by St. Paul to wipe the sweat off his face or to wrap around his waist while he worked on tents. When this was “carried away from his body to the sick,” it healed physical ailments and drove out demons.

This has caused problems for Protestant commentators since Calvin, eager to sever any connection between this story and the Catholic theology of relics. F. F. Bruce is typical in saying “The healing virtue resided not in those pieces of cloth but in the faith of those who used them,” which highlights the failure of an atrophied theology to address the issue. Objects can in fact bear blessings, deriving their blessing from the power of God alone. Claiming the healing “virtue” “resided” in the “faith” of those who used them is almost gibberish.

Hans-Josef Klauck is closer to the mark in acknowledging that “the understanding of miracles in v. 12 is located in dangerous border territory,” while also noting that God is the agent of the miracle.

You can tell from the way non-Catholic exegetes engage (or refuse to engage) this passage that it troubles them. There’s a tendency to argue that Priscilla and/or Aquila took these things from Paul secretly because they were superstitious, but of course the passage says the miracles are “by the hands of Paul” and such a scenario suggests healing through duplicity, which hardly improves the situation.

Some commentators just the punt the issue back to the woman with the flow of blood touching the garment of Jesus (Luke 8:44), Matthew 14:36 where people who touch his hem are healed, and Acts 5:15, which says Peter’s shadow fell on people and healed them. This doesn’t solve the problem either, but it allow the exegete to move on (no doubt in relief but with still-furrowed brow) to the more entertaining and less problematic story of the seven sons of Sceva in the following verses.

It’s hard to get around the power of relics to work miracles. It’s even in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 13:21 we read that “And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet.”

It’s actually not a complex theology, so one has to wonder why it’s troubled so many people so long after the abuses that prompted the objections have passed away. An object may be a sign and a material bearer of a blessing. It is not powerful in-and-of-itself separate from the power of God, but the power of God has touched and sanctified it, and thus made it holy. That took two sentences to explain. Five hundred years removed from the traffic in and abuse of relics, that really should be enough to deal with an unequivocal line of holy scripture attesting to the use of relics.