Arm Rest: The Severed Arm of St. Edmund

November 25, 2016 — God damn, I love Catholics. They’re just so weird. They drink blood, eat flesh, hang dead bodies on their walls, and worship mummified body parts. And while I like wine and Wheat Thins with the best of them, it’s that latter bit, that infatuation with relics, that I most dig about those guys. And you don’t have to go to Italy for them. You can find them all over the U.S.

Wanna see a good’un? Head to the Connecticut side of the Long Island Sound. To the village of Mystic, home to a famous aquarium, a famous pizza joint, and those bottles of sugary fruit juice shaped like the top half of a lava lamp that were popular in the 1990s. That last one is a lie, but that’s the closest I’ll ever be able to get to a Mistic reference, so I’m taking it. Once in Mystic the village, make your way to Enders Island. Don’t worry. There’s a bridge.

I’ve known about the severed arm of St. Edmund for a while, but I didn’t chase it down, despite it being only two hours from my house and—in my opinion—one of the top oddities in New England. I thought it would be hard to get to. One of those objects I’d have to call ahead to gain access to, only to learn they keep it in a vault and don’t consider me journalist enough to pull it out for.

Nope. It’s easy. And uplifting.

As we drove toward the island, we first crossed onto Mason’s Island, where we were stopped at a guard station. It’s there because the neighborhoods are lined with expensive houses and yacht clubs. But you just have to know the code phrase to get in. And, no, it’s not, “I’m here to see an ancient dead arm.” Just tell them you’re headed to St. Edmund’s Retreat. Although the guard’ll probably suspect you’re there for the arm.

St. Edmund’s retreat was set up by the Society of the Fathers and Brothers of St. Edmund, a religious order founded in France in the 19th century, the patron saint of which was not the 9th century Saint Edmund the Martyr, but a chap from the 13th century who was named after that famous saint. The Edmund…at hand…became Archbishop of Canterbury and ended his life self-exiled in France after fighting with Henry III and Pope Gregory IX. The society dedicated to him left France in the early 20th century due to some similar problems with the government. They then hung out in England for about a century before ending up in Connecticut in the early years of this millennium.

And the entire time they lugged Edmund’s preserved, severed arm around with them, hoisted against a shoulder like a rifle in a military parade, is the way I’m imagining it. The rest of Edmund’s body remained behind in France’s Pontigny Abbey.

Today, Edmund’s arm is the centerpiece of a retreat dedicated to reflection and soul-communion. You can stay overnight on the island, sign up for group programs, or go for a private retreat. You can also just drop by and walk around their gardens with two fingers held lightly in the air. The island is small enough that you could walk its circumference in minutes, watching waters fresh from the Atlantic wash the rocks. The island is full of apple and pear trees, flowers and vegetable gardens. It’s a beautiful place that almost forces you at dove beak to ponder the imponderables of life.

But I like a dead thing in front of me when I do that.

St. Edmund’s arm is in the Chapel of Our Lady of Assumption, a small, nondescript oceanside church crowned by seagulls on our visit. We approached the door, and I peeked inside. Empty. No services. Good timing.

We found the arm in a little room at the back of the church. Above it was a carving of St. Edmund himself. In front of it was a prayer bench. Below it in a glass case was a collection of tiny relics, the labels on which weren’t legible, but I saw lots of bone fragments in the collection.

The big bone I was there for was sitting atop the case in a glass tube. The arm was dark and shriveled and extended from a red sleeve. Completely horror movie prop-worthy. And if you stare at any of these types of relics for long, they are somewhat unsettling. I’m still waiting for a movie about a monster made of reanimated saints parts.

However, if you take them in the context of the altar and prayer bench and chapel, they're as beautiful as they are grisly. This particular one has been preserved for seven centuries. It represents real history, from the person it was to the people who’ve protected it afterward. What it has touched and what has touched it. It represents the mystery of faith and belief and the strangeness of humanity. The fact that it has survived all this time is miracle enough, beyond the sainthood of the guy who used to use it to high-five.

St. Edmund’s arm has almost seen an entire millennium. It deserves its peaceful repose in its sweet little chapel on its idyllic retreat on its cozy island. And it deserves to be visited.

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