What St Anthony’s face teaches us about the transcendent in man

St Anthony by Bernado Strozzi

Today is the feast-day of St Anthony of Padua. I have just been watching a riveting YouTube clip about him on Rome Reports, entitled “What did St Anthony of Padua look like? 3D technology gives us a glimpse” (embedded below). Why did I find it so interesting? Because instead of the normal physical process of human decay, when a skull becomes a potent “memento mori”, a reminder to us all that “we are dust and unto dust we shall return” as the liturgy puts it, modern digital reconstruction has taken St Anthony’s skull and brought it back to life, so to speak.

Through the wonders of modern science and technology, you can watch the skull, with its empty eye sockets, cranium, jaws and teeth, start to form St Anthony’s face and head: flesh on bone, individual features, personhood: in its way this moving clip put me in mind of the resurrection of the body, that we believe in and pray in the Creed at Mass, when body and soul will be reunited forever with God in the life of the world to come.

It also made me think of those illustrations in children’s encyclopaedias to describe human evolution, when a primate on all fours slowly stands upright and turns into Neanderthal man. But as Christians we believe we are not just homo sapiens, the end result of the evolutionary process. We are made in the image and likeness of God, as the lives of the saints, such as St Anthony of Padua, illustrate so beautifully. When I saw life, intelligence and character digitally reanimating a grinning skull in the film clip, I could almost sense the soul returning to the human remains and imagine this great preacher and charismatic Franciscan friar as he must have appeared over 800 years ago.

I am just been reading a book that has greatly moved me, and for much the same reason: its appeal to what is transcendent in man and what gives him his elusive and mysterious dignity over and above his position at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Titled The Leaves Are Falling, by Lucy Beckett and published by Ignatius Press, it is a modern historical novel, the story of what it meant to be a Jewish intellectual (and sceptic), growing up in vibrant Jewish cultural centres such as Breslau and Vilna before the war and then being destroyed, both personally and collectively, between the Russian and the Nazi forces.

One of the protagonists, Jacob Halperin, a secular Jew from Breslau, as well as a skilled surgeon, violinist and a reserve officer in the Polish army, is captured by the Russians and shot, with thousands of fellow officers, in Katyn Forest in April 1940. Before his death he is interrogated by Zarubin, a Communist commissar, in the camp where he is being held. Zarubin mocks Halperin, saying “Are you, a Jew who says he is not religious, telling me you have sympathy for corrupt and vicious priests who kept the peasants in the darkness of superstition for centuries…?”

Halperin responds, “I am not. I am simply saying that there is something in Christianity beyond the blindness of ignorant priests, something that terror and murder will not destroy. Christianity will not wither away, as you hope, and whatever is in it that is truly good will not die with the deaths of priests so long as in the souls…in the souls of…” Zarubin scoffs, “Captain Halperin, you are a rationalist. Rationalists do not countenance the existence of the soul.” For Zarubin, as for all modern secularists and atheists, the concept of the “soul” is meaningless, “nonsense contrived and maintained by churches and rabbis and the bloodsucking classes”, as he crudely puts it. But Halperin, surrounded by evil, and soon to be murdered, intuitively understands that although “they may kill us, they cannot harm us”; a nice distinction to describe the indestructibility of the soul, despite the death of the body. I do recommend the book to anyone who is looking for a challenging read, something more than an airport novel or about the lives of the middle classes living in NW1.

St Anthony is alive now, in the company of God for all eternity; indeed, more alive than he was in his mortal existence. The 3D digital reconstruction gives us a brief, intriguing and fascinating glimpse of his attractive human features – but also points us beyond them, to what is immortal.