Saturday, October 11, 2008


For some time we have realized that persons can do powerful kinds of chemotherapy inside their own bodies by reading, watching movies, listening to music, talking to someone esp. someone powerful and attached, dancing, exercising, and so on. Stock traders who have a good day have more testosterone circulating in their blood than the same men on a bad day. We have generally accepted that art can be therapeutic and that dreams give clues to healing. Play therapy for children is a whole discipline. But we haven’t thought much about the uses of liturgy for mental health and, especially “re-framing” as is often practiced in psychoanalysis. That is, for considering the world from a whole new point of view, since most liturgy is attached to an institution which is naturally interested in reinforcing -- if not enforcing -- the prevailing point of view.

Practice tends to focus on the small daily maintenance rituals: maybe Bible reading, maybe fasting, maybe smudging, maybe even cleanliness. In the Christian culture worship in the formal sense tends to be a Sunday morning occasion, with maybe a Wednesday backup. Liturgy, except perhaps as private prayer, is not usually thought of as something an individual does alone, like writing. (Which also has its therapeutic uses.) Even as a solitary pursuit, as in Asian contexts where people go to a temple to present a gift and linger in the presence of the Ultimate, there’s not much encouragement to be creative in terms of practice or assumptions.

But I would argue that liturgy DOES reach deep into those liminal places where we pray, dream, and play -- maybe the brain functions controlled by the limbic system -- and CAN be a powerful means for individual renewal in crisis or trauma. Not just a rational reflection and reform, but a genuine change in ways of being. Consider baptism, which is presumably a one-time transforming liturgical act. Consider repentance and forgiveness which can be patterned as Liturgical Confession. But these are familiar and conventional. I’m after major life-altering or life-preserving deep experience.

In my thesis I used two cases, both rather sensational because they are so deep. One is the case of the Uruguayan rugby team on the airplane that crashed high in the Andes and had to survive through cannibalism. They and the priest who guided them through their return to civilization defined this as Communion. The other is the case of a minister who expected to perform a wedding. The night before the event, the bridegroom was killed in a car crash. The bride insisted that she wanted to go through with the wedding, marrying the groom’s body. The minister had to work through whether such a thing weren’t sacreligious (not whether it was not religious, but whether it broke theological code) and then how to create such a ceremony. He was also acutely mindful of the mental health of the young woman, whom he knew well since she was a member of his congregation.

Both of these cases involved faithful, believing people. That is, the rugby players were part of a culture deeply and consistently invested in their kind of Christianity, which lifted up the bloody aspect of the Crucifixion more than say, Ohio Methodism in the 21st century. There was no one among them who would say, “this is sacreligious.” There was no one who urged despair and an early death. On the other hand, the rationality of consuming people who were already dead was supported by the strength of identification with the group, rather than individuals, so that they felt confident that the dead people would WANT their flesh to be dedicated to their relatives and mates. There was no dynamic of rivals plotting to kill the least liked of the group in order to have fresh meat, as there might be in a lifeboat cast adrift with seamen who had long-standing disagreements with each other. But more than anything else, this group went naturally to the virtual world that they shared. Their first thought in the crash was appeal to God, Jesus, and Mary, which put them into a framework that accepted “Communion” as a template.

Some argued afterwards that the priest imposed this idea on the sixteen survivors, both to protect their own mental health and to prevent the media from portraying them as animals with no morals. I don’t doubt that the priest was shrewd enough to see these factors, but it wouldn’t have worked as a sham. The boys did return to normal lives. In fact, the first version of the 1972 event, called “Alive!” has now been followed up with a new memoir, called “Miracle in the Andes,” which is presently being remaindered.

The story of the bereaved bride was not a book but an article in a pastoral care journal. It is striking because the minister tells the story and he is both honest and sensitive about how he worked through the ceremony, from considering what to wear to preparing in case the bride collapsed or became hysterical. Not only was the bride a girl he had known well for a long time, the two young people had entered into pre-marital counseling with him, so he knew what their expectations were and what materials they had planned for the wedding. His concern was to make the event something like a “wedding ceremony” but a sub-category that was a special event, unique and non-competing with a “regular” wedding. He did not want to interfere with a later wedding with a living bridegroom and he wanted to end the “marriage” even as he began it. He wanted the young woman to feel fulfilled, but also completed, not going through life bound to a dead man.

Liturgies have been used by cults to circumscribe the group and deny the reality outside the circle. “Drinking the Kool-aid” has become a social catch phrase because of Jim Jones’ use of it in a ceremony of mass self-destruction. Rituals are not virtuous in themselves, but are simply effective for good or ill. The effectiveness depends on a shared world-view but can also be managed for good by a skilled and conscientious leader. It’s a strangeness in our modern world that this has to be pointed out all the time. We have so much trouble defining and finding skilled and conscientious leaders. Perhaps the problem is the turmoil in our understanding of reality and the creeping suspicion that it might all be a shadow-play, a dream, a deception. Maybe that's why there is so much discussion over whether there is a God or not.

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