I am currently writing a dissertation titled, “The Sacramental Sickness: The Perceptual Interplay between the Eucharist and the Vestigial Leper-Christ in Medieval Theology,” under the direction of Professor Willemien Otten.
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?
My dissertation focuses on medieval theologians’ creative employment of a network of theological symbols—the “leper”/leprosy, the Eucharist, and Christology—to grapple with the ambiguities and anxieties of corporality. Situating my project within the mutually critical correlation methodology of David Tracy, I argue that leprosy as an illness operates as a site for moral and theological inquiry, that it frames and manifests moral and theological questions about the nature of bodies, vulnerability, and social responsibility in light of bodily frailty. But most importantly, the ambiguous visage of leprosy renders this illness an evocative, symbolic lens for exploring questions of perception, exemplified in the vestigial leper-Christ: veiled divinity embodied in visceral materiality.
The guiding thread of this project is the assertion that medieval leprosy was interpreted as masking a deeper, hidden reality. For a medical hermeneutic, leprosy was the shockingly visual manifestation of an internal disorder or imbalance. For a theological hermeneutic, leprosy could serve as either the visual betrayal of a hidden sin or the grotesque veil of the divine. But both hermeneutics reveal the significance of perception and appearances: a preoccupation shared with medieval discussions of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Consequently, this dissertation focuses on the medieval concern with perceiving the divine in the material: primarily embodied, on the one hand, in the hagiographical topos of a leper disappearing to reveal a veiled Christ, and on the other, eucharistic miracles wherein Christ is literally-bodily perceived in the Host (as a finger, baby, etc.). These twin topoi are actually combined in Franciscan theology, first in Bonaventure and then most vividly in Angela of Foligno.
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