I am currently writing a dissertation titled, “The Sacramental Sickness: The Aesthetic Interplay between the Eucharist and Leprosy in Medieval Theology,” under the direction of Professor Willemien Otten.

Francis Leper Greccio

Saint Francis and the lepers, Santuario di San Francesco, Greccio

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. Accepting then the intrinsic relationship between illness and perception/knowledge, my project asks how this influences the manner by which theological symbols or doctrines such as the Real Presence are construed? In examples where Christ appears embodied as an anonymous individual with leprosy, or a leprous scab transubstantiates into the Host, what are the implications (theological, ethical, social) of perceptually suturing a diseased, decay-prone physical reality with a divine, immutable and metaphysical 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.


Saint Bonaventure by Claude François

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. Both preoccupations are shared with medieval discussions of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Consequently, I focus on the medieval hagiographic topos wherein an individual with leprosy (often after being embraced by the saintly protagonist) disappears or transforms, revealing himself to be Christ, in addition to eucharistic miracles wherein Christ is literally-bodily perceived in the Host (as a finger, baby, etc.). I then demonstrate how these topoi are combined most vividly in Franciscan theology.

While the thought of Bonaventure supplies the core of the dissertation, Gregory the Great and Angela of Foligno 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 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. His memoir thus provides a valuable firsthand portrait of Damien, life at the colony, and especially, the dynamics between Damien and the overwhelmingly native Hawaiian patient population. 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