Thursday, April 5, 2007

Ashes to ashes

It's ages since the late John Lennon shocked people by comparing the popularity of the Beatles with that of Jesus Christ. As for the Rolling Stones, who are still alive and kicking, most observers would have imagined that these old-timers had moved beyond the stage at which they might shock anybody. But Keith Richards claimed, this week, that he had once snorted the ashes of his dead father. And shock waves circled the Earth up until the Rolling Stones guitarist, who has battled heroin addiction, explained that his statement was a joke... which failed to amuse everybody.

In a different domain, many French people were surprised, if not shocked, to learn this week that alleged relics of Joan of Arc, burned at the stake by the English at Rouen in 1431, were in fact crumbled fragments of an Egyptian mummy. This discovery was made by a young medical doctor named Philippe Charlier who has become a renowned specialist in the research field known as paleopathology, which consists of analyzing pathological elements in ancient human and animal remains. The fraudulent nature of these relics, belonging to the archbishopric of Tours, was revealed by spectrometry and carbon 14 tests. But Dr Charlier also called upon two professional sniffers who carried out much the same kind of act that Keith Richards had joked about: nasal contact with human remains. When these two expert noses from the French perfume industry detected an aroma of vanilla, Dr Charlier was able to conclude with certainty that the remains came from a decomposed, rather than a cremated, body.

The Catholic Church, which looks upon Joan of Arc as a saint, used to be prepared to consider the Egyptian elements (including a fragment of a mummified cat) as authentic remains of the French heroine. It's understandable that the Church could have made such a huge error of judgment in the 19th century, when this stuff was unearthed. Today, it's harder to understand why the Church persists in making an infinitely greater error of judgment by asserting absurdly that natural events determined by the principles of science (many of which are known perfectly, whereas others remain less well-known) can be upset by allegedly magic happenings called miracles, brought about by prayer culminating in the "intercession" of the late pope.

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