Divine worship and human healing: Liturgical theology at the margins of life and death

Posted By on August 24, 2019


Well, I got the idea
to write the book early in the previous decade. Around 2000, I had
been teaching a course to the pastoral theology
students at Boston College on the pastoral care
of the sick, the order of Christian funerals, the
pastoral care of the dying, and also the sacrament of
penance, reconciliation. The course met annually– I offered it annually
for several years– and proved to be one of
the more popular ones in the curriculum at the time. So it became clear
to me that this was meeting a need in
the life of the church and for the kinds of work that
these pastoral ministers were doing. But what also became
clear to me was that the research and
auxiliary reading I was doing to prepare
really good sessions beyond the reading
for the students was fascinating material. And so as I moved into my
first sabbatical in 2003, 2004, I began really working
earnestly on the project. The title Divine Worship
and Human Healing actually was the course title
that I had come up with. And to my mind and to the
minds of some of the students it really sings in a way. “Divine” and “human”–
pairing those in relation to “worship” and “healing”– often I’ve found people
think that that– somehow these should be opposed. If we’re talking about God,
it’s something far greater other than the human being. Or if we’re talking
about humans, it’s what they aren’t
in relationship to God. Granted, there are great
differences between the two in Christian belief and
Christian tradition. But crucial to the
tradition, as well, is the belief, the
revelation we believe, that God is known precisely
through what God is doing with humanity and in humanity. So I hope that it’s
a productive tension. Certainly it was in
my teaching and then in my crafting the project
over several years. “Worship” and
“healing,” likewise, I discovered over and
again that Roman Catholics, practicing Catholics, even other
Christians would say to me, we don’t particularly think
of worship as healing. Or how would these
two things be related? Isn’t worship what you do
when you’re talking to God, when you’re doing stuff for
God, you’re praising God? And yet in the most ancient
of Christian tradition, the sacraments, the
rituals of the church are described or taught
by the church fathers as God’s ways of healing the
human condition and, in fact, raising the human condition up
to a participation or a sharing in the life of God. So in the end, I hope that the
title– all for the terms– the adjectives
“divine” and “human,” the “substantives” “worship”
and “healing” invite people to get into the creative
tension of the book itself. The audience of the book, who I
wrote the book for, obviously, first of all, was
inspired by students. So the master’s level
students working in areas of theology,
pastoral ministry– people that are well-educated
but not necessarily specialists. “Well-educated” meaning whether
that be through a liberal arts education or further
theological education– that people could
pick the book up and it be written lucidly enough
that they could follow it. They could work with it. It’s a scholarly book– the number of footnotes
seems to attest to that. I tried to move a great deal
of the technical theological material into the footnotes
so that the text itself, the body of the text
can read more fluidly. Likewise, I use a lot of
narrative in the book. I try to introduce at places
stories or scenarios that will help people
to envision what the more systematic and
historical material, philosophical material,
is trying to get at. So for a scholarly audience–
in fact, some of my peers who have already read the book
and kindly emailed me about it are very excited
and say it seems to present a very fresh
approach to the methodology of our discipline and the
content of our discipline. At the same time, my target
really was a wider audience. My joy would be if it
gets course adoption. That’s what gives
a books some legs. To focus on rituals concerning
illness and dying and death may sound morbid. But in fact, I
think for all of us, whatever our current backgrounds
or religious heritage is or not, we recognize that we
humans really get at what most matters to us in our lives when
we face these marginal problems and challenges and
these situations, whether for ourselves– we
don’t want to think, though, just in terms of the autonomous
enlightenment individual– not just ourselves,
but rather the people we love and care about. We ourselves, the
baby boomers, caring for our parents in
their late and now their extended years
with great challenges concerning their health
care, their overall health, their mental health, et cetera
would be just one example– couples, married couples. In every direction
of relationships, it’s the times of
these sorts of crisis or great change that
put in such stark relief what it is that we
believe, what it is we’re hanging on to for dear
life, what we maybe have never bothered to consider. And in turn, I think
it tunes people, attunes us to the content
of religious traditions that we otherwise would
neglect or ignore. All of a sudden, it matters. So one more thing
about the book, then– I became convinced
over the years of researching and writing
it that the challenge for us in the early 21st
century, at least in our social cultural
context, might be to rediscover why
practicing certain elements of the tradition actually is a
way of practicing or rehearsing the resources that may
very well be useful when we find ourselves in those
more marginal or crisis-type situations. Yes, the word “mystery”
pervades the book. And perhaps just as in the
title, my hope as a writer was to intrigue the reader,
get the reader thinking. Likewise, with the word
“mystery,” the polyvalence of the term, the multiple levels
of meaning and possibility in the term– positive, negative, inviting,
prohibiting or restricting– it bespeaks limits, again, in
fact, as do these rituals– human limits. For all those reasons,
mystery seems apt. But likewise, from
within my discipline of liturgical in
sacramental theology, the concept of mystery has been
the central conceptual locus for the renewal of the
theology in the past century. And adjectives applied to it– “paschal mystery”–
“pascha” is the adjective referring to Passover. For Christians, that’s
Easter– the Easter season. Paschal mystery refers to
Christ, death, and Resurrection as the key, really, to the
enterprise of the Christian and wider human life. So on the one hand, I’m
trying very hard in the book to be faithful to the
liturgical movement and the best of the 20th-century
scholarship that revised a robust and helpful
sacramental theology. On the other hand, I’m trying
to take all of that work and make a further
contribution by relating it to the challenges that
present themselves as mystery in our
social cultural context in the beginning
of this millennium. The Bible also proves to
be an important resource for the text. When I was speaking
about mystery, I couldn’t do it
without referring to the biblical
content of the faith– namely the church’s
belief in understanding raised from the texts
of the gospels– Jesus’ death and
Resurrection being the central passion
narratives, but then one backs up into the
entirety of the gospels– Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John– discovering, as I did
with the help of all the great biblical
scholarship that’s been produced, especially
over the past century and continues– discovering that, for
example, in Mark’s gospel, fully 47% of the content
of the gospel itself, just the sheer body of text– 47% are narratives of healing– Jesus healing people,
raising from the dead, all these different scenarios. This is no small thing. It all of a sudden comes
to me in my research at the time as a clue
that I’m on to something. And yet, it poses a great
challenge or problem because for us who live in modernity,
post-Enlightenment, even in the late
modernity, the notion or the imagery of
the miracle stories and the gospels look like fairy
tales, like fanciful stories. Things happen so abruptly and
seemingly magically that this set me on a lot of
reading and research, which I spent actually
the entire fall of ’06 on a research
fellowship in Ireland doing– not that the books
were only in Ireland, but it was where an institution
gave me the place to do it– but just digging in
to, as much as I could, digging into the biblical
scholarship on Jesus the healer and then letting that speak
to the church’s belief that Christ heals
now in the rituals. Something that I did not
expect in the early stages of my research and
writing of the book– and this would be almost
a decade ago now– was the great crisis produced
in Boston and Massachusetts in the Northeast produced by the
allocations, the revelations, of priests abusing
children sexually, others abusing
children sexually, as well as the
maelstrom that followed in terms of how the hierarchy
handled it, et cetera. Why that mattered to me
was I started to notice, as I was reading The Boston
Globe and other form of media– constantly and
noticed that people were using the
language of healing. People from all
sides of the crisis would discuss healing as the
goal, healing as the objective, healing as what was
being obstructed. So it seemed to me that– indeed, as theology’s project,
the academic theologian’s project is always to try to
take the content of scripture and tradition and make that
viable and in service to people today. All of a sudden, I realized– wow, I’ve got in front of
me here the term “healing.” I’ve got to pay attention to how
it’s being used and being used so pervasively by people in a
very specific situation that’s a church situation. So it was nothing
I was looking for. And yet, at least I had eyes
to see and ears to hear. And I realized,
oh, look at that. So this coincided that year
with my working on a project further west out at Holy
Cross with an anthropologist and medievalist. We were working on a project
about Catholicism and ritual. And my angle was coming in
with the healing material because some of the
medievalists were dealing with healing in the Middle
Ages and so forth– it’s a longer point. Part of the project
that we got involved with in that conference
was to do a mass of the anointing of the sick. And in working with
Canvas ministry there, which I think
the student body, the actors would not be
that different from BC, we discovered a
lot of resistance to people on the part of
people– their resistance to the notion that the church’s
rights for the pastoral care of the sick would be relevant
to anybody other than someone dying. And to try to open up
the language of healing with regard to the
rights, I found I faced great resistance– great resistance on
the part of laypeople, but also especially
among the priests. And so the question became
all the more pointed for me. What do people mean by healing? And I discovered as I
really deconstructed the quotes in the texts and the
different journal and newspaper and magazine articles,
a wealth of insights were there to be tapped. That led me to read work by
cultural anthropologists. There’s a whole subdiscipline
called medical anthropology I discovered, as well as
some other critical social theorists, interdisciplinary
work that supplemented what I was reading– and ended up constructing
a whole chapter I didn’t expect in the front
end of the book constructing this notion of healing
through a contemporary lens. Theology today works so hard at
situating the practice of faith and the questions of the
content of faith in contexts. And to do that has led also
to a recognition of how bodily and acted is the practice
of faith by any peoples. Body, therefore,
for Roman Catholic and wider Christian theology
in the early 21st century is not just an idea that derives
from the prevalence of body and other postmodern
discourses and research, but also body presents
itself as a renewing category to again advance theology into
a post-modern mode of its own– a post-Enlightenment deliverance
from thinking of faith only as tenets to be argued,
texts to be defended, creeds to be recited. For sacramental and
liturgical theologians, since our concern are the
rituals of the church as they relate to the wider
life of the church, then body becomes and all
the more obvious category. I’ve tried to work with that
category in my previous writing and continue so. But when one looks at the crises
of illness, dying, and death, the body becomes all
the more prevalent. The chapter that I
wrote on funerals toward the end of the book– I found eventually a way to
get a handle on the complexity of what goes on in the momentous
event of the death of a loved one and all the related
actors and contexts was to parse out the
types of bodies that are in action or in motion– and to realize with the help
of certain religious historians and phenomenologists and a
French sacramental theologian whom I greatly admire,
Louis-Marie Chauvet– with the help of all of them– that any one of us
in our own bodiliness are a multiple types
of body, or there’s polyvalence to our bodiliness. We’re physical bodies, for sure. We live, function in
the cosmos physically and are affected by
it and affecting it. But we’re also social bodies. The fact that I’m sitting
here in a jacket and tie is a most obvious
way to describe I function in the
social body of North Atlantic, academic, certain
social class, et cetera. But that feeds into so
many other dimensions of culture and context. So our bodies are socially
constructed, and we contribute. The third category is
the traditional body. In some ways a subcategory
of the social and cultural, traditional refers to those
aspects of how we live bodily that we are least
quick to change and ironically very often
are described as natural. Well, it’s just
natural that you do X or Y. We discover that what
the word “natural” really means is, thus has
it always been done. And we are not lightly
to toy with this. Roman Catholicism then
is rife with tradition. It’s a traditional
body and yet also a social body– contextualized
and given places. Further, you have the
specificity of gender roles and all the other aspects of
the physical but– hyphen– social but– hyphen– traditional body. So in the book– for example, I was just
trying to note the funerals– I’m able to get a better
analytical approach– or I was able to arrive at an
analytical approach by parsing out the different dimensions of
bodiliness and then addressing how it is that at
this point, at least, in the United States
for Roman Catholics, people are drawing on elements
of traditional Catholic funeral rites and yet insisting that
other cultural practices now be inserted– language like “a
celebration of a life,” people even introducing
video footage, many different ways that we
know culturally and socially want to remember. A final dimension in my research
that was a delightful turn– and again a surprise to me– was to get into the whole very
current notion of green burial and to learn that in Great
Britain, over 10% of burials now are green burials–
meaning people are not even in a cardboard coffin, let
alone a metal or a wooden one, but are simply wrapped in gauze
or something biodegradable. And they’re buried in
certain designated– I forget the
language right now– but designated wilderness
or arboretum preserves. And the idea is your
body contributes to the cycle of
the cosmos of life. That’s highly
compatible, actually, with Christian theology. So part of what
I want to propose toward the end of
the chapter are ways in which tradition can
become a living tradition and not be threatened by other
cultural and social movements, but rather work with them
creatively and expect to be surprised. I concluded the book with
a narrative description with which originally I
thought I would start the book. It’s a tale of my– when I was on
sabbatical in ’04– of my having gone
out to Brittany, a North Western coastal
region of France, to spend a few days exploring
the prehistoric megaliths in the region of Carnac. These are probably dating
at least back to 8000 BC– rows and rows of
monumental stones. The stones haven’t
been carved in any way. But clearly, these
massive stones have been brought and erected or
put up as upright as possible– sometimes kilometer-long rows
of these rolling over the hills. To me, just seeing them from
up above on higher hills, it was breathtaking. There was something just
about the order of it. Likewise, in that region
are many burial passageway gravesites. And it’s quite charming, in
a sense, that some of these are just literally in
people’s front yards. Or you can just access them in
the corner of a town square. I have a degree in anthropology. Before I did my PhD in religion
and systematic theology, I followed the advice
of an undergrad mentor and did an anthropology degree. And so I wanted to
go see these sites, but again unexpectedly
discovered they were having a big effect on me. And in the evenings,
I’d sit and write a journal on my own
bodily reflections, experiences, how
my thoughts ran– insofar as I was already
researching and writing this book on worship and
healing, life, death, illness– what did these silent,
millennia-old passage graves and absolutely enigmatic
alignments of rocks– there’s no agreement on
what purpose they serve– what insights
would that provide? My editor told me this won’t
work as the introductory chapter of the book
because nobody’s– she said, I don’t
know why this is here. So we put it aside. But as I finished the book,
I realized– ah, it becomes, in a way, a parable or a story
through which I can tie up what I’ve tried to do for 250 pages. How? For example, those alignments– I’d learned that among theories
for what the rocks are about were that it was a calendar– that these were somehow aligning
with the lunar and solar and all these other
sorts of cycles. And well, could that be there
is strength and weakness in the description? The church, the Roman
Catholic Church, historically, tried to eliminate a
lot of them because they saw them as phallic. And they were used by the
peasants as springtime, May Day sort of ritual sites
or fun sites, fertility sites– maybe you see where I’m going. Again, all those layers of
bodiliness start to interact. And these strange, silent
stones become a lesson in how we’re always
constructing and reconstructing our engagement with the physical
world and with one another, with our history,
and with our future. So I end up with what
my editor had initially described as something I should
submit to National Geographic. It ends up being a way, I hope– and an engaging way–
a narrative that helps the reader to imagine
how they might go out into the world and
recognize similar situations and start to reflect on all
those different dimensions of bodiliness in their
own lives and world. One other term I introduce in
the text and repeat in places– and, in fact, play with very
strongly in that conclusion– is the concept of treasure. And in fact, to
be more specific, I like to speak or write
about squandered treasure. It seems to me that
the revised rites of the current Roman
Catholic Church that have been beautifully– I think they’ve been beautifully
designed to serve people in great need– in sickness,
in aging, dying, and death– it seems to me that these
have been squandered a lot. They’ve been enacted. They’ve been official
for over two decades. And yet so often to my own
observation, what happens is the priest or other
pastoral minister simply says a
prayer for somebody. And these texts languish. The texts, of course,
are there to become alive in the actual care
and work with people. And so a passion behind
the book is perhaps also a certain measure of
my own indignation. You know, there’s probably
a little anger in there, even, which wouldn’t
be surprising given my personality– indignation that these
very carefully researched and constructed rituals are
being neglected or squandered– hence squandered treasure. They’re based on all
those years of research into the early
church’s materials, trying to recover
a kind of approach to the faith that’s not just
about ideas and arguments. It seems to all
be ready to answer and serve a post-modern
or late-modern people. And so I suppose
in the end, it’s a rhetoric or an
apologia to convince people that here is a treasure. Here’s a collection
of tools or resources that we would be foolish not
to take from the storehouse and enjoy the use of.

Posted by Lewis Heart

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