I am currently writing a dissertation titled, “The Sacramental Sickness: The Aesthetic Interplay between the Eucharist and Leprosy in Historical Theology,” under the direction of Professor Willemien Otten. I am excited to report that for the 2020-2021 academic year, I will be a Dissertation Fellow with the Louisville Institute.
Illness has the uncanny ability to simultaneously disclose furtive internal processes and betray their innate unruliness—twin characteristics which make illness so symbolically fertile. The popularity of the medieval hagiographical topos wherein a veiled Christ assumes a leprous body testifies to the visceral allure of illness; fever, lesions, and effluvia herald a deeper, hidden reality. In my dissertation I address how the construal of theological symbols affects the ethical status of people with an acutely stigmatizing and theologically fraught illness such as leprosy. I focus on the relationship between stigmatic illness and medieval sacramental theology, particularly the medieval Franciscan interpretation of leprosy alongside the sacrament of the Eucharist, and contend that this generative theological tradition promises fresh insights for crafting more nuanced, ethical responses to contemporary stigmatic illness, e.g. mental illness, HIV/AIDS, and neglected tropical diseases. I propose that “crucial fragments” (a term of theologian David Tracy) of the medieval past are pregnant with novel constructive possibilities for addressing the moral problems latent in marginalizing illness. I also recognize the tragic sway the figure of the “medieval leper” stills holds upon the popular imagination and the unfortunate linkage between medieval leprosy and contemporary HIV/AIDS.
In my sources, leprosy operates as a site for moral and theological inquiry: it frames and manifests moral and theological questions about the nature of bodies, vulnerability, and social responsibility in light of bodily frailty. Furthermore, in medieval thought, leprosy and the Eucharist were conjoined by virtue of aesthetics, meaning knowledge acquired through sensory experiences. Leprosy was interpreted within a system that assumed each creature was also a sign that pointed beyond itself, namely to its ordered relationship to its Creator. This illness was thus entangled in concerns about how bodies signified—whether sensory-knowledge could unmask furtive, internal realities—and a desire to properly “read” matter so as to perceive the divine behind this material veil.
While the thought of Bonaventure supplies the core of the dissertation, Gregory the Great, Angela of Foligno, and even John Calvin are also heavily featured. The theological synthesis of leprosy and the Eucharist is finally examined in the practical setting of the Molokai leprosy colony and the ministries of Father Damien De Veuster and Mother Marianne Cope (a Franciscan). I recently conducted unique archival research at the Damiaan Documentatie en Informatiecentrum in Leuven, Belgium. I had the privilege of viewing a number of Father Damien’s personal letters, as well as correspondence from Charles Warren Stoddard, Edward Clifford, and Mother Marianne Cope. The other document that I was especially eager to study is Ambrose Hutchison’s unpublished, handwritten personal memoir. Hutchison, a native Hawaiian, contracted leprosy and was exiled to Molokai as a young boy before eventually becoming the resident superintendent of the entire settlement (the first native Hawaiian to occupy the position). Hutchison worked closely with Father Damien, and was indeed dear friends with the Belgian priest. Likewise, a research trip to study Mother Marianne’s unpublished writings is also in the works.
Featured image: The Legend of St. Francis, “Sermon to the Birds,” Giotto