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September 18, 2017

Paulinus of Nola and the Distribution of a Relic of the True Cross

The first documented appearances of pieces of the True Cross in the West date from the very end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth century. An early reference suggests how they circulated. John, Bishop of Jerusalem, gave Melania the Elder, a pious wealthy aristocrat and generous donor to the Church, a piece of the True Cross. Upon her return to Italy from Jerusalem in 402, she gave a fragment of her fragment to her friend Bishop Paulinus of Nola (354-431); he in turn, in 403, sent "an atom" of his treasure on to his colleague Sulpicius Severus.

Paulinus's letter reveals a good bit about the reception of a relic of the True Cross. It expresses anxiety about the fragment's size and humble materiality by insisting that its small scale doesn't detract from its power and that its gold encasement doesn't increase its effectiveness. The text also illuminates the remarkable capacities of a tiny particle of the True Cross to render Jerusalem present in the West through the contemplation of contemporary ritual in the Holy City. The letter further indicates how the fragment of the True Cross acts like the body that endured it, having the power to save and regenerate. Paulinus also suggests here how pieces of the True Cross circulated as gifts - multiplying in number without reducing the size or power of the originating source. Paulinus's letter, finally, indicates that the mounting number of fragments of the True Cross required a fuller narrative of their sacred history.

Below is a portion of the letter of Paulinus, leaving out the history of the discovery of the True Cross by Saint Helen which he elaborates on with some detail.

By Paulinus of Nola

Letter 31

To Severus

Paulinus greets his holy and loving brother Severus.

In telling me of your other activities and desires, our brother Victor has reported to me that you desire for your basilica, which you have built in the village of Primuliacum on bigger lines than your previous one, some blessed object from the sacred relics of the saints, with which to adorn your family church in a manner worthy of your faith and service. The Lord is my witness that if I had even the smallest measure of sacred ashes over and above what we shall find necessary for the dedication of the basilica soon to be completed here in the Lord's name, I should have sent it to you, my loving brother. But because I did not possess abundance of such a gift, and because Victor said that he had great hope of a similar favor from the holy Silvia who had promised him some of the relics of many Eastern martyrs, I have found instead a fragment of a sliver of the wood of the holy Cross to send you as a worthy gift. This will enhance both the consecration of your basilica and your holy collection of sacred ashes.

This goodly gift was brought to me from Jerusalem by the blessed Melania, a gift of the holy Bishop John there; my fellow servant Therasia had sent it specially to our venerable sister Bassula. Though presented to one of you, it belongs to you both, for you are both animated by a single vocation, and the faith which brings you together "into a perfect man" empties you of your sex. So from your loving brethren, who long to associate with you in every good, receive this gift which is great in small compass. In this almost indivisible particle of a small sliver take up the protection of your immediate safety, and the guarantee of your eternal salvation. Let not your faith shrink because the eyes of the body behold evidence so small; let it look with the inner eye on the whole power of the cross in this tiny segment. Once you think you behold the wood on which our Salvation, the Lord of majesty, was hanged with nails whilst the world trembled, you, too, must tremble, but you must also rejoice.

Let us remember that the "rocks were rent" when this cross was seen; so let us imitate the rocks at least, and rend our hearts with fear of God. Let us also recall that the "veil of the temple was rent" by this same mystery of the cross. We must realize that the rending of this veil was revealed to us that, hearing the voice of the Lord and the mystery of His boundless love, we may refrain from hardening our hearts, and may sunder ourselves from things of the flesh and rend in two the veil of unbelief. So, when we have uncovered the surface of our hearts, we may behold the mysteries of the saving gifts of God.

But I do not also bid you imitate the arrangement by which I have enclosed this relic, which imparts a great blessing, in a golden casing. Rather in this adornment I have imitated your faith. I sent you your own exemplar clothed with gold, for I know that you have within you, like gold tried in the fire, the kingdom of God - in other words, faith in the cross, by which we enter the kingdom of heaven. As Scripture says, "if we suffer with Him we shall also reign with Him." So this is given not to strengthen your faith, because you believed before you saw, but because of the merit of your faith, which you received by hearing the word and now prove in action. This is why I have sent you this gift of wood bearing salvation in the Lord, so that you might both physically possess the cross which you hold in spirit and carry with the strength if your vocation.