Christus Medicus, St. Dympna and Marc Chagall

Christ the Physician, St. Dympna and Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall’s Jacob Wrestling the Angel and IV pumps, Jesus as Christus Medicus (Christ the physician) on 3rd and 4th Century Roman Sarcophagi, Jewish Sources and Empathic Patient Care….!

I’m just back from the Third Annual Conference on Medicine & Religion organized by the Director and Faculty Scholars of the University of Chicago’s Program on Medicine and Religion whose theme this year was Responding to the Limits and Possibilities of the Body. And well you might ask what Andrew the liturgist and aficionado of things Norbertine was doing at such a gathering. Well, one of the organizing Faculty Scholars, Dr. Abraham Nussbaum, Director of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, is a man I’ve known since his birth. More than a year ago he invited me to write for and present at a similar conference, Walking Together: Christian Communities and Faithful Responses to Mental Illness, sponsored by and held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas just a little more than a month ago (February 6 to 8). Abraham suggested that I submit the abstract of that presentation to the organizers of the Medicine and Religion Conference and it was accepted. So what might Andrew the liturgist, at Abraham’s request, have had to offer to the physicians, scholars and ministers of religion at these two events? Here it is:
Abstract: From Crazed Father to Families of Healing: Host Families in Geel Belgium. Geel is a village famous for its centuries old practice of deinstitutionalized psychiatric care based on the placement of patients in families of the town. This practice dates to mediaeval times when the mentally afflicted were brought to Geel for healing at the shrine of St. Dympna. My presentation studies Geel’s traditions from pre-Christian and ancient Christian practices to modern times.

For three days I was privileged to be with 160 or so Jewish, Christian and Islamic academics, medical professionals, and pastoral caregivers gathered in the Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile to speak with, listen to, reflect upon and discuss the often contested relationship between religion and the healing arts. Professor Arthur Frank, working from an image of Marc Chagall’s Jacob Wrestling the Angel, opened the conference by setting out some contemporary perspectives on the relationship between medicine and religion: isolated from one another (each sees the other as unrelated to their concerns), and/or antagonistic (each sees the other as a corrective of the other). These stances can create asymmetric relationships (unequal partners) that either do harm to the patient or do not bring the healing that is possible when both medicine and religion, not unlike Jacob and the Angel, engage in a “wrestling” that can be a blessing to the sick and dying whom both physician and pastoral caregiver seek to help and heal.

I was inspired by these men and women. They are a band of seasoned academics and professionals who brought with them many of their student collaborators who themselves did some of the most engaging presentations of these days. In introducing myself before my presentation I explained how much I was out of my element in this area of study. I was, however, able to explain that medicine and liturgics share at least one common concept, embolism. In medicine it’s a problem (a blockage) to be eliminated. In the liturgy it’s the extension of a prayer, e.g., “…and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Is immediately followed in the Catholic Eucharist by the prayer “Deliver us, O Lord, from every evil….” I left Chicago buoyed up by the hope that what I experienced among these healers will extend deeply and widely among their peers, collaborators and students for the wellbeing of all afflicted in body, mind and spirit and for the life of the world.