Surgery for the Soul?

It’s great to be back in a church building, sharing in services ‘in the flesh’. Yet the strangeness of our times is reinforced at every turn. From leaving my track and trace details on entry, to the procession of visored clergy, and the silent, sanitised, distribution of Holy Communion. Nothing is quite the same.

The elements of protective equipment have been familiar to me across 20 years of service in the NHS. In more recent times any visit to a care home involves a routine of infection control that includes the constant wearing of a mask. In the context of COVID-19 the delicate balance of homeliness and clinical safety has shifted resolutely in favour of the latter. How to help people live well while being safe is a vexing question for anyone operating places of residential care.

The appearance of ministers as medico-clerical hybrids reminds me of the way the sacred and secular co-existed in the Middle Ages. The physical served as a continual source of analogies for the spiritual. For example, the act of confession was compared with various elements of physical healing:

As the best physician, Christ ‘orders therapeutic baths through our outpouring of tears’ and the healthful diet of ‘fasts’. And the strongest and most effective medicine of all was penance.

Swift, C. (2016). Hospital chaplaincy in the twenty-first century: The crisis of spiritual care on the NHS. Routledge.

This correspondence of the physical and spiritual is sometimes startlingly visceral. In the York Mystery Plays the Barber Surgeons were allocated the section of the story dealing with the baptism of Jesus. Their contribution ended with a prayer addressed to the Lord, ‘as Sovereign Leech’, curing our ‘sore’. It feels very strange to exalt Jesus as the spiritual leech, yet it is entirely fitting with this Medieval desire to connect the physical and spiritual realms with unflinching determination. Why would Jesus not be equated with the key healing technique of the time, used for purging infection and restoring health?

The Shambles, York
The Shambles, York

Much has changed since York’s Medieval plays saw pageant wagons trundling through its narrow streets proclaiming the stories of the Christian faith. Fewer people today would see the spiritual world so closely aligned with the physical realm. Nevertheless, the realities of human sin; of greed, inequality and war, remain as real as ever. What we do with the material world, whatever we understand it to be, is a question of more than material consideration. Our beliefs allow us to turn a deaf ear to the consequences of climate change. We tolerate inequality in life not because the physical world tells us to do it – but because we choose to accept it. We choose to do less than we might to alter the ever expanding wealth of the rich.

Perhaps some radical surgery should be prescribed? Human beings require comfort for the damage we all carry, but also challenge for the damage our choices bring to others. Inequality is not a concern only for the powerful and the oppressed. It’s a concern for us all. Maybe the sight of clergy in visors should remind us that religion can be dangerous, in the best sense. Dangerous because it should not leave us alone, content with the injustices of which we are a part. Religious belief is designed to change us, to provide both consolation and, when needed, incision.

The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Dillard, A. (2016). Teaching a stone to talk: Expeditions and encounters (Vol. 57). Canongate Books.

Liturgy is full of symbolism, often ancient. As we witness the innovation of clerical PPE perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on what this physical barrier says to our spiritual insight. To be reminded that, like everything with the potential to transform, there is both power to create and power to destroy. We need to ‘handle with care’ the gift of faith and ensure that we live it in ways that strengthen the weak and weaken the mighty. To develop our belief as a remedy for the casually tolerated ills of our age, and allow the God-in-us to heal the terrible sores that are part of human life.

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