Editorial, Volume 5.1, Fall 2019

Everyone who lives experiences suffering. We all carry wounds, whether they be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Yet faith affirms that “there is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.” Music and the arts, prayer and worship, can touch our wounds and open the way to healing. This issue of The Yale ISM Review invites us to explore this reality. What is healing? What forms does it take? How can the arts help to heal our broken world?

We hope that you will find this issue both thoughtful and thought-provoking. If you like what you see, please share this publication with others! Subscription is free and open to all.

Rita Ferrone, editor
December 12, 2019

On the Cover

Trees Immersed in Pattern, fine art glass, painting and photography on metal, by Tracy Ellyn, artist and founder/director of The Zen Tov Project.

Tracy Ellyn, an internationally known Miami-based artist, is deeply interested in healing traditions. She frequently uses colors, patterns and textures to bring together “holistic experiences.” Many of her works are displayed in hospitals and health care centers. She is also the creator of the Stephen Sotloff memorial.

Ellyn is the Founder and Director of The Zen Tov Project, which she began in 1996. Its mission is to promote healing through the arts and through arts education. Ellyn “is fluent in the effects that the arts can have in a variety of healing settings, and channels her desire for tikkun olam through The Zen Tov Project.” (From the project’s website.)

Recommended Citation: Ferrone, Rita (2019): “On the Cover,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 2. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

In This Issue

The world is a place of suffering. And no one can live long without being touched by suffering in some way, whether that suffering is physical, emotional, or spiritual. Every one of us carries wounds.

Yet, in a powerful way, prayer and worship, music and the arts, can touch our wounded souls and bodies, releasing the power to heal. This issue of The Yale ISM Review is devoted to exploring various aspects of this reality.

We are pleased to feature, as our cover art, Tracy Ellyn’s “Trees Immersed in Pattern.” Ellyn is the founder and director of the Zen Tov project, whose mission is to promote healing through the arts.

The articles in this issue fall roughly into three sections.

A particular realization that has gained prominence in our time is that the earth itself is wounded, due to reckless human exploitation of natural resources. In our first section, ecofeminist literary scholar Karen Kilcup, and Dorothy Bass, an expert in congregational life, reflect on the healing of creation. From their different vantage points, they both observe that healing our relationship to the created world around us is an essential step in renewing the face of the earth. Poetry can help. So can the learned skills of honoring creation within faith communities.

In our second section, art historian Lee Jefferson takes us on a journey through ancient Christian art to discover how Jesus was portrayed as a healer, and why this was important. His essay leaves us at the doors of the church of Santa Sabina in Rome, gazing at the staff of healing being passed from Jesus to his disciples, with the tantalizing implication that the charism of healing has been passed on from the Master to the church.

Liturgical historian Lizette Larson-Miller then picks up the ecclesial theme through her insightful overview of the development and meaning of the Sacrament of the Sick, from its scriptural roots to its essential elements in practice today. Anointing, prayer, and the laying on of hands hold a privileged place in the church’s exercise of a sacramental ministry of healing.

Poet, pastor, and liturgical theologian Jill Crainshaw reflects with us on the healing of our sacramental and dialectical imaginations, “dancing with skeletons in unlikely ballrooms” in order to help us imagine anew the life-giving mystery of God-with-us.

The section closes with a perceptive analysis by liturgical theologian and musician Judith Kubicki concerning the singing of hymns, a performative act that binds communities together, overcoming the wounds of social fragmentation and transforming disparate individuals into one body. This essay is adapted from the plenary address she gave to the National Association of Pastoral Musicians on the occasion of receiving the Jubilate Deo award, their highest honor, for her contributions to pastoral liturgy.

Our third section takes us to places where artists, musicians, and liturgists may rightly be considered bridge-builders and cultural translators within a broken world. No more “drive-by Beethoven,” violinist and social justice advocate Vijay Gupta explains, as he tells the remarkable and deeply human story of how he founded Street Symphony in Los Angeles, and how his encounter with the community at Skid Row changed him.

Healthcare chaplain Kathleen LaCamera challenges us to think hard about what sort of human experiences may be excluded or overlooked when we stay within the confines of established patterns of language and prayer within liturgy. She invites us to acknowledge the real when we gather in “hard times” to honor a life, a death, or a moment of passage.

Finally, liturgical anthropologist Rebecca Spurrier raises critical questions about what we are praying for when we pray for someone’s healing, as she shares what her sustained involvement with a community of persons with disabilities taught her about ableism and the authentic desire for wholeness.

Our last feature, “One Final Note,” engages the theme of our issue from a different vantage point, opening up new insights. In this issue, physician and ethicist Lydia Dugdale confronts us with what is perhaps the most challenging question of all: What constitutes a good death? With help from the ars moriendi and the writings of Michael Ignatieff, she offers a thought-provoking answer.

— Rita Ferrone, editor


Recommended Citation: Ferrone, Rita (2019): “In This Issue,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 1. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

At the Hour of Our Death

“I am so sick of the assumptions surrounding a good death,” a philosopher colleague raged to me recently. “They’re so Christian. It’s ridiculous to think that a good death means forgiveness and reconciliation at the deathbed. People should be able to go to the grave shaking their fists. And if this is what they want, then it’s a good death for them.”

A group of us had been sitting around a table at an interdisciplinary bioethics conference talking about whether hospice facilitates dying well, and our colleague’s outburst caught us off guard. Was she right? Is dying well—that is, healing at the end of a life—nothing more than a self-scripted dying plan? Is it wholly subjective? Or might there exist some standard criteria, some shared moral script by which we can experience healing even as we are dying?

These questions are not new, of course. The writer and academic Michael Ignatieff notes that since at least the Enlightenment philosophers have been trying “to imagine the moral logic of a society without confessional unity of shared belief.”[1] With regard to dying well, we Westerners don’t hold common assumptions. We lack a moral vernacular for human finitude. Ignatieff writes:

Most other cultures, including many primitive ones whom we have subjugated to our reason and our technology, enfold their members in an art of dying as in an art of living. But we have left these awesome tasks of culture to private choice. Some of us face our deaths with a rosary, some with a curse, some in company, some alone. Some die bravely, to give courage to the living, while others die with no other audience than their lonely selves.[2]

Dying well seems to have become a matter of personal wish fulfillment.

It is curious that Ignatieff, himself “not a churchy guy,” expresses dismay over confessional disunity.[3] If asked, he would likely disagree with my philosopher colleague. He would disagree not with her bemoaning a good death as necessarily a Christian death but with her suggestion that a good death be individually-crafted and subjective.

Ignatieff finds value in the way that family and community help people understand themselves and care for one another.[4] Such communities cohere because of a shared moral logic that is often religious in nature.

Doctors can make use of virtually unlimited technology to thwart death but are entirely powerless once death sets in. Who among us desires such a position of vulnerability?

But religion is precisely what was demoted by the Enlightenment. As Ignatieff puts it, religion’s great enemy is neither science nor unbelief, “but rather the silent and pervasive plausibility of earthly need as a metaphysics of ordinary life.”[5] Western society has come to act as if all that matters is satisfying the desires of our bodies—in living and in dying.

As a medical doctor, I am aware that my profession has reified corporeal appeasement. The physician attends to the physical, the material. Gone are the days of medice cura te ipsum[6] from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4. No longer healers of the holistic variety, we doctors attend to earthly needs as our metaphysics of ordinary practice. And physicians attend all the more doggedly to the physical the nearer death looms. Doctors can make use of virtually unlimited technology to thwart death but are entirely powerless once death sets in. Who among us desires such a position of vulnerability?

Even if medical practices that support living and dying have evolved to focus on the strictly biologic, history begs us to remember that living and dying were not always this way. For more than five hundred years, an ars moriendi or “art of dying” body of literature dominated the cultural landscape of the West. The central idea of the ars moriendi was that dying well takes work—preparation that could occur over the course of a lifetime.

The story of the ars moriendi starts in the mid-1300s, when the Bubonic Plague struck Western Europe. The plague ravaged with such ferocity that the majority of the population is thought to have succumbed. The death bell tolled with little warning, and death came quickly.

Europe was devastated by the loss, but most bewildering, perhaps, was the death of the priests. The cleric’s collar conferred no special immunity to the Plague, and many church leaders sacrificed themselves on the front lines of caring for the sick. Who, then, was to guide the dying as they exited the land of the living? Who was to administer last rites, to bury the dead? The laity was perplexed and sought ecclesial guidance.

Lovers of church history well know that the fourteenth century’s latter half was not the church’s finest. In what has come to be known as the Western Schism, two—and later three—men simultaneously claimed to be pope. This deep division meant that the church was ill-equipped to respond pastorally to the concerns of the laity.

The threat of death never drifted far from the collective imagination. When the Council of Constance was convened from 1414 to 1418 to repair the schism, it also sought to address pressing pastoral concerns. Chief among them? The preparation for death.

First two woodcuts in a published edition of the Ars Moriendi (c. 1450). Left: “Temptation by lack of faith,” Right: “Encouragement in the faith.” The contrast between the two illustrates “a good death.”

As early as 1415, an ars moriendi handbook began to circulate. No one knows who wrote it, but its contents drew from earlier work by theologian Jean Gerson and the liturgical material of Friar Laurent, Henry Suso, and Dirk van Delft. This art of dying handbook offered concrete instruction to the dying and those who care for them. The manuscripts were quickly circulated, translated, and adapted by other religious and even non-religious groups.

The theologian Allen Verhey, in his book The Christian Art of Dying, notes that the early variations of the ars moriendi generally contained six parts:[7]

1. A commendation of death;
2. A warning regarding the temptations the dying will confront (to lose faith; to despair; to become impatient, proud, or greedy) along with advice on how to resist them;
3. A brief catechism affirming faith;
4. Prayers for use by the dying;
5. Counsel to the entire community to attend to preparation for death as a matter of first importance; and
6. Prayers the community could offer on behalf of the dying person.

The ars moriendi commanded reflection on finitude and offered concrete instruction on how to think about one’s own death and the death of another. It was not just a medieval phenomenon. It formed the basis of endless books on pastoral care and continued to serve as a reference for both Catholics and Protestants after the Reformation.

The ars moriendi was not perfect. In fact, Verhey finds it “not an altogether satisfactory alternative” to modern medicalized approaches to dying because its Platonic leanings threatened “a premature alienation of people from their bodies.”[8] The ars moriendi, Verhey maintains, went too far in its commendation of death.

Despite theological shortcomings, the ars moriendi does prove a satisfactory alternative to the Enlightenment-inspired do-it-yourself, death-on-my-own-terms versions of dying described by both my philosopher colleague and Ignatieff. Verhey rightly acknowledges this, applauding the ars moriendi’s “invitation to faith and faithfulness in the face of death.”[9]

One way that the dying and their communities could exercise such “faith and faithfulness” was by cultivating the virtues necessary to overcome the temptations that lead to dying poorly. Early versions of the ars moriendi noted that these virtues included faith, hope, and love, as well as patience, humility, and “letting go.”

Verhey expounds on these at length, but I will highlight only the first three. Faith was the proposed antidote to the temptation to disbelief, hope for despair, and love for the temptation to impatience, because “love is patient,” as 1 Corinthians 13 tells us. Faith, hope, and love are inextricably intertwined. As Verhey writes, “Faith and faithfulness exist as love; faith ‘works’ as love (Galatians 5:6). And love is the mark of the new creation, the good future for which we hope.” They go together.[10]

Why do I make this point? Because, for the Christian, love never ends (1 Corinthians 13:8). As Verhey puts it:

[L]ove is the mark of God’s good future. Or, as John says, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). So, even as we lie dying, love is a sign of the resurrection, a testimony that we have a share in the victory of God over death, a witness that we participate already in God’s good future.[11]

This is precisely why deathbed acts of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation are so important. They signify that a person abides in life and not in death. They point to victory and hope and healing.

Of course this is not to say that the only way to die well is the Christian way. In the case of my philosopher colleague, much hinges on what she means by dying and well and even Christian. But the ars moriendi offered one set of practices for addressing what Ignatieff calls “some of our most durable historical needs—for consolation and ultimate explanation.”[12] No one has to choose to die the way of the ars moriendi; we are free to choose to die any way we please.

And choose we will. Some will choose to embrace an art of dying as skeptics or atheists. Others will approach the art as believers. Still others will dismiss the ars moriendi and instead go to the grave shaking their fists at death itself. We are free to choose our good death. But this freedom comes at a cost. Ignatieff says, “We have Augustine’s freedom to choose, and because we do, we cannot have the second freedom, the certainty of having chosen rightly. That certainty, Augustine believed, could only be granted by the gift of Grace.”[13]

Lydia Dugdale, MD, MAR (ethics) is a physician and ethicist at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. She is editor of the book Dying in the Twenty-First Century (MIT Press, 2015) and author of the forthcoming book The Lost Art of Dying (HarperOne, 2020).


[1] Michael Ignatieff, The Needs of Strangers (New York: Picador, 2001), 79.

[2] Ignatieff, Needs, 76–7.

[3] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/michael-valpy-on-michael-ignatieff/article1378481/

[4] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/michael-valpy-on-michael-ignatieff/article1378481/

[5] Ignatieff, Needs, 77.

[6] “Physician, heal thyself.”

[7] Allen Verhey, The Christian Art of Dying: Learning from Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 87.

[8] Verhey, Christian Art, 174.

[9] Verhey, Christian Art, 174.

[10] Verhey, Christian Art, 277.

[11] Verhey, Christian Art, 278.

[12] Ignatieff, Needs, 135.

[13] Ignatieff, Needs, 135–6.

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Dugdale, Lydia (2019): “At the Hour of Our Death” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 12. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

The Heavenly Physician: Jesus as Healer in Early Christian Art

Now look at Jesus the heavenly physician. Come inside his room of healing, the church.

— Origen of Alexandria (Homily on Leviticus)

In the Book of Common Prayer, the Roman Missal, and in almost any Christian prayer book, there are prayers for healing. Health is a human concern and has always been a focus of prayer among Christians, who pray for the sick whenever they gather for worship.

It certainly is no surprise that health and well-being was also a primary concern in the time of Jesus. Health care existed, of course, but was arguably as difficult to negotiate then as it is now. Physicians could be consulted, but it cost money and was expensive. People could also consult magicians to procure spells to ward off maladies. Quite often the ill and infirm treated their health as a religious matter and turned to gods and goddesses in the Greco-Roman pantheon such as Hercules, Asclepius, and Isis for healing. There were also divine men such as the Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana (15–100 CE) who developed a following as a healer. To understand how Jesus is characterized in early-Christian texts and art as a healer and worker of miracles, we must see him within the context of competition among various sources of healing available at the time.

Figure 1: Fresco wall painting, Jesus healing the woman with the blood issue, Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, fourth century CE (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Gospel of Mark, the first canonical gospel, written around 68–70 CE, Jesus is introduced as a healer with the word “physician” (iatros) (Mark 2:17). In the healing episodes in Mark, Jesus is frequently contrasted with other physicians, being like them in terms of healing, but different in the impact his healing has on the patient. In one notable story, a woman comes to Jesus seeking a cure for her hemorrhages. The author of Mark writes, “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse,” possibly commenting on the efficacy of worldly medicine (Mark 5:26, NRSV). In this pericope the woman is described as going up to Jesus and touching his cloak. Jesus notices that “power left him” as the woman was cured. Jesus thus turns the episode into a discourse on faith, telling the woman that her faith has made her well, and to go and “be healed of your disease.” The healing episode as described in Mark was depicted in early Christian art, a fine example being the painting preserved in the catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus in Rome (Figure 1).

The depictions of the healings and miracles of Jesus as they survive in art before the fifth century demonstrate the continuing need to show the healing power of Jesus over and against other rivals, and the importance of these stories for early Christians. Readers may be surprised to learn that in the early development of Christian art, images of the crucifixion were not of interest to audiences. Instead, images of Jesus as healer and miracle worker were the most prolific.[1]

Why was showing Jesus as healer and miracle worker so important for early Christians? One obvious point is clear: An image of a god (or demigod) that heals the sick and performs miracles is more likely to draw believers than images of a crucified person. Early Christians were interested in promoting Jesus as more powerful than his rivals, and they wanted to exhibit the curative qualities of their religion. At the same time, these images also reveal the laity’s growing need to believe in the miraculous, providing some respite in harsh times. “Healing” and “miracle” may seem to be two different terms, yet in early Christianity they are related. Images of Jesus curing the sick and afflicted  or raising the dead gave hope to their audiences and they established Jesus as not only a healer but the preeminent healer.

Much of the earliest Christian art that survives is funerary in nature, being preserved in places where the dead were buried and their lives celebrated. Funerary art in early Christianity was not for the dead but for the living.

Figure 2: Fresco wall painting, raising of Lazarus, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, early to mid-third century CE (photo from Joseph Wilpert, Roma sotterranae: le pitture delle catacomb romane, Rome: Desclée, Lefebvre, 1903, pl. 45)

Catacombs in Rome—located outside the city walls, because in Roman practice the dead must be buried outside the city—contain funerary niches and occasionally sarcophagi where the inhumed were laid to rest. Family members and other Christians would come to the catacombs to pray and honor the dead. Both Prudentius and Jerome claim that Christians celebrated the Eucharist in the Roman catacombs, with Jerome recalling how fearful he was of the dark. Jerome records when he was a boy in Rome that he used to visit the crypts of the martyrs on Sundays, and that the bodies of the entombed were on either side encased in darkness, commenting it reminded him of the prophecy, “They descend to the infernal regions alive.”[2] The art in this underground context was important in making tangible, for the living, the power of Christ’s victory over death. Images of Jesus raising the dead to life are featured in many rooms and on sarcophagi (Figure 2). The art gave expression to ideas and represented events described in the scriptures, but their visual impact in a funerary environment also served to inspire Christians to be united in the face of adversity in the polytheistic world that included competing healers and healing gods. Such images were community-building and bound the group in a relationship with their God.

Jesus and Asclepius

One room in the collection of the National Roman Museum in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme contains two examples of early Christian funerary sculpture that wonderfully exhibit the importance for early Christian communities of portraying Jesus as a healer and miracle worker. The first example, the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dates from the fourth century and features several iterations of the various healings and miracles of Jesus that are mentioned in the New Testament (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Marble, Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, Rome, 330-340 CE, Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (photo: author)

The front of the sarcophagus features a prominent central figure: the orant, a female figure, based on a Roman prototype, that stands with her hands raised in the position of prayer. On either side of this praying figure are episodes of Jesus performing nature miracles, turning water into wine at Cana, and dividing loaves. Jesus is presented as a Roman in typical Roman dress, in toga and pallium, and clean-shaven (many early images of Jesus did not include the iconic beard, a feature that may surprise modern viewers).[3] The narrative of healings and miracles is bookended by Peter striking water from the rock on the left side, and Jesus depicted raising Lazarus from the dead on the right side, touching his burial house with a curious tool or implement that will be discussed below.

Figure 4: Marble funerary plaque, Terme fragment, Rome, 290-310 CE, Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo delle Terme (photo: author)

Displayed above the Marcus Claudianus sarcophagus in the Terme museum is a funerary plaque, on which representations of Jesus are preserved: he is shown bearded and wearing a toga, his chest bare, as he teaches and also heals with the power of touch (Figure 4). The guise in which Jesus is represented has caused some confusion among scholars regarding the context in which this relief was viewed originally. Some scholars interpret the clothing of Jesus as indicating that he was understood as a Cynic philosopher, given that Cynics were itinerant and were arrayed in the same manner.[4] Others have used this fragment to suggest that in some representations Jesus’s appearance deliberately recalls rival gods, specifically the healing god Asclepius, who was portrayed in a similar manner, as we shall see below.[5]

These two examples of sculpture produced in Rome during the fourth century exemplify the importance for early Christians at this time and place of the idea of Jesus as a dominant healer and miracle worker. In both similar and different ways, the objects demonstrate the environment of the early Christians, one in which monotheists and polytheists lived side-by-side in the Empire. One of the biggest threats to the rise of Christianity was competing religions, including the cult of Asclepius, the Greek healing god, that had been adopted by the Romans. Originally from Epidauros, he was “imported” to different cities to battle outbreaks of disease. Ovid writes of Asclepius’s advent in Rome, that his symbol, the snake, slithered off the boat and onto Tiber Island where his temple stood.[6] Now, the temple has given way to a Christian church, but the serpent imagery on the stone foundation remains.

Asclepius was the son of Apollo, trained in the healing arts by a centaur, and he was killed by Zeus for transgressing his authority. But he was raised to Olympus upon his death. His cultic observance lasted into late antiquity with temples known as Asclepeion serving as de facto healing centers. Patristic authors noted the threat of Asclepius, calling him out by name. Justin Martyr, writing in Rome in the mid-second century CE, mentions him in comparison to Christ, saying “And when we say that he (Christ) healed the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, and raised the dead, we appear to say things similar to those said to have been done by Asclepius.”[7] Athanasius of Alexandria, writing in the fourth century CE, mentions that Asclepius was deified as a healer but is not comparable to Jesus, who heals not with matter such as herbs but healed mankind with his Resurrection.[8] But Asclepius had his defenders, who ardently believed in the efficacy of the healing cult. Aelius Aristides claims that he lived “many varied lives” due to the power of the god.[9]

Figure 5: Marble, Statue of Asclepius, Rome, Second century CE, Galleria Borghese (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Asclepius was depicted in a consistent manner, often with a beard (though occasionally clean-shaven), in a toga with his chest bare, and carrying a serpent-entwined staff (Figure 5). The appearance of Asclepius has drawn comparisons to the image of Jesus on the Terme fragment mentioned above (Figure 4). Art could be used to present Christ as analogous to Asclepius or like other gods in appearance, making the Jesus movement more palatable to polytheists. If Jesus were portrayed as similar to Asclepius in appearance,  and healing through the power of touch, he could be recognized as a healer akin to Asclepius, only greater.

The testimonies of the cult show that the healing of Asclepius came about through the power of dreams. Asclepius would purportedly visit the patient napping in the Asclepeion and provide a healing remedy or prescription. One blind man testified that the god revealed in a dream that “he should go and take the blood of a white cock along with honey and compound an eye salve,” whereupon he was healed thanks to Asclepius.[10] Unlike the testimonies of Asclepius’s healing through dreams, however, Christian art shows Jesus healing his patients directly, with the power of physical touch as on the Terme fragment above, where a bearded Jesus touches the sick. This feature sets Jesus apart as a healer in the manifest world, not the ethereal realm of the subconscious.

There are several instances in the gospels of Jesus raising the dead, and these are among the most popular scenes for representation in catacomb art and on sarcophagi. The most frequently occuring example is the raising of Lazarus, an event recorded only in the Gospel of John.[11] In this miracle, Jesus beckons Lazarus out of his tomb and also takes special notice of Lazarus’s sister Martha, who acknowledges the messianic status of Jesus (John 11:27). Lazarus is typically depicted in early Christian art as a mummified figure in a little burial house as Jesus touches the dwelling. The raising of Lazarus was a popular scene in a funerary environment as it emphasized the final resurrection and provided comfort for the family of the dead.

The act of raising the dead was also a well-known feature of the Asclepius myth. In fact, several ancient writers attest that Asclepius was slain by Zeus for being too good at his job as a healer: by raising the dead, he made Hades angry. As Pliny the Elder states, “Asclepius was struck by lightning for bringing Tyndareus back to life.”[12] Asclepius transgressed the bounds of his authority.

By exhibiting Christ as a successful raiser of the dead, requiring no permission or authority from above to perform such a feat, Christian art emphasized Jesus as more powerful than other contemporary deities or men acclaimed as healers. Early Christian art was multivalent both in intention and in its reception. An image of Jesus raising Lazarus can provide comfort for the family of the inhumed, remind them of the resurrection secured by Christ for the faithful, and show Jesus as unrivaled, all in one simple snapshot. Another feature of these scenes is the curious inclusion of Jesus using a tool in his healings and miracles. On first glance, it appears that in many of these images Jesus is using some type of magic wand.

The Magic Wand of Jesus?

In catacomb painting and funerary sculpture examples of Jesus healing and performing miracles, he often holds a stylized implement. This could be thin and reed-like, as in the catacomb examples, or thicker and ruddy as in the sarcophagi examples (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Marble, sarcophagus fragment with Jesus raising the dead and visitation of magi, Vatican, fourth century CE, Museo Pio Cristiano, inv. 31450 (photo: author)

There is no mention in any of the gospels of Jesus utilizing a tool in the performance of his miracles. The closest mention is Jesus using saliva or mud in the healing of a blind man in the Gospel according to Mark (Mark 8:22). Yet in these images Jesus appears to be holding what could be called a virga or rabdos, a type of wand in antiquity akin to the caduceus of Hermes. Some scholars have used these images to conclude that late ancient audiences thought Jesus was some type of magician wielding a magic wand.[13] When I show these images to young audiences, their initial exclamation is that Jesus is like Harry Potter, part of the wizarding world of Hogwarts.

However, there are several reasons to think this is not meant to be a type of wand. First, magic in antiquity did not prescribe the use of implements in spells. The efficacy of magic was achieved by the proper recitation and recreation of the spells themselves, not by any type of wand. Second, there are no recovered images of any magician in the performance of their job. This lack of images suggests that wands were not primary in late ancient magic. Furthermore, the early church writers certainly did not want to associate the practice of magic with Jesus, as they deemed magic repugnant and too aligned with polytheism. In these images, Jesus is not a magician; he is a divine healer and miracle worker, so the “wand” must mean something else.

Interpreting early Christian art often means decoding the language of symbols, and making connections to other cognate iconographic figures and images.  Jesus’s “wand” does bear a resemblance to the staff of Asclepius, though it lacks the tell-tale serpent and so this connection seems less likely. But there is another biblical miracle worker featured in catacomb art and on early Christian funerary sculpture who accomplishes his feats with a staff-like tool. That figure is Moses.

Moses was understood by early Christians as one of the most important miracle-working figures prior to Jesus.[14] His feats manifested his authority and his connection to the divine. Moses is depicted striking water from the rock and crossing the Red Sea, using his staff in the performance of these miracles. The tool that Jesus wields is not a wand but a staff. This is meant to connect Jesus to Moses, and also to show that the nascent church is the repository of healings and miracles on earth while Christ is in heaven.

These images accomplish that task by showing the staff Jesus wields as being handed down to another figure. On the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, on the far left side, there is a figure striking water from a rock with the staff. However, this is not Moses but Peter. In a non-canonical text, the apocryphal Acts of Peter, the apostle strikes the walls of his jail cell, releasing water, and then baptizes his jailers.[15] This fairly obscure passage from the Acts of Peter had a powerful impact on the creation of images. Peter can be identified on this sarcophagus as he is being arrested by the jailers (recognizable by their hats), next to the striking of the rock scene. The staff of Moses, now bequeathed to Peter, shows that Peter carries on, in the church, the miracle-working power once associated with Moses. Such images remind viewers that the church is that physical place where miracles, especially healing miracles, still happen. The staff is an iconographic reference to the enduring power left to the church by Christ.

Figure 7: Wood, Jesus raising Lazarus and performing nature miracles, Rome, 432 CE, Doors of Santa Sabina (photo: author)

On the doors of the church of Santa Sabina, on the Aventine Hill in Rome, are some of the oldest wood carvings in early Christian art. Various scenes from scripture are depicted in relief, including one of the earliest images of Jesus crucified. Among the episodes from the New Testament is Jesus’s raising of Lazarus from the dead and his performance of various miracles, all with the staff (Figure 7). However, the interpretation of one particular scene has vexed scholars and viewers alike: Jesus appears to be ascended and in heaven, where he is encircled by a victory wreath, while standing below, the disciples Paul and Peter are shown reaching up to grasp something that is descending to them, and an orant figure stands in between them (Figure 8). It is unclear what exactly it is that the disciples are reaching for. One suggestion is that it is a cross, enclosed in a circle, for there seems to be a carved line extending out of the circle.

Figure 8: Wood, Resurrected Jesus, Rome, 432 CE, Doors of Santa Sabina (photo: author)

Currently, I am working on this image, using photogrammetry technology to support the theory that this carved line is intentional and not due to age or damage. In light of some of the images discussed here, and the importance of Jesus’s role as healer in early Christian Rome, it seems likely to me that Jesus is represented on this panel as handing down the healing and miracle-working staff to Peter and Paul. In this way, the image communicates to the onlooker a narrative in which the church is the location of physical healing and miracles.

What better place to advertise this message than on the actual doors of a church. The legacy of healing and miracle working is long in the Christian Church, echoed in scripture, liturgy, and art, evoking Origen’s words that beckon the suffering into the heavenly physician’s house, “Come inside his room of healing, the church.”

Lee M. Jefferson is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Associate Professor of Religion at Centre College.  He has authored Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art (Fortress Press, 2014), and co-authored and edited The Art of Empire: Christian Art in Its Imperial Context (Fortress Press, 2015), and contributed chapters to recent volumes such as The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art (Routledge, 2018). He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in religion from Vanderbilt University. His current book project focuses on the doors of Santa Sabina, Rome, and a particular panel featuring Peter and Paul.


[1] The work of Felicity Harley-McGowan should be consulted for crucifixion imagery. The most recreated images were of Jesus raising the dead, Jesus healing the paralytic, Jesus healing the blind, and Jesus healing the woman with the blood issue. Other nature-miracle images show Jesus feeding the five thousand and the miracle at Cana. For more data, consult Freidrich Deichmann, Ikonographisches Register für Reportorium der Christlich-Antiken, Band I, Rom und Ostia (Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1967); and my Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

[2] Jerome writes of this in his Commentary on Ezekiel (40. 5-13; PL 25; col. 375). Writing in 380 CE, Jerome’s commentary could be the earliest recovered description of a catacomb in Rome. Prudentius writes more descriptively of the tomb of Hippolytus in his hymn, see Peristephanon 11.153-60 (PL 60; see LCL 398).

[3] For more on the beard of Jesus in art, see Paul Zanker, The Mask of Socrates (Berkeley: UC Press, 1995); and Robin M. Jensen, Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 154–157.

[4] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).

[5] Thomas Mathews, The Clash of Gods (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 72.

[6] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15.736-41.

[7] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 22.

[8] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 49.

[9] Aristides, Oratio, 23.15-18. For complete testimonies on Asclepius, see Emma and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1945, 1988).

[10] Inscriptiones Graecae 14.966 (second century CE) see Wendy Cotter, Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 18.

[11] The raising of Lazarus occurs in sixty-five extant examples or Roman sarcophagi, far outpacing images of Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter, the widow’s son at Nain, or Jesus as Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones. See Deichmann, Bovini and Brandenburg, Reportorium der Christlich-Antiken Sarkophage, Band 1, pts. 1, 123.

[12] Pliny, Natural History, 29.1.3.

[13] Mathews concludes as much, see Clash of Gods, 54–89. Also see P.C. Finney’s rebuttal in “Do You Think God is a Magician” in Akten des Symposiums Früchristliche Sarkophage (Deutches Archäologisches Institut, 1999), 99–108.

[14] Origen calls Moses one of two men who have been given to the human race who performed miracles, the other being Jesus (Contra Celsum, 1.45).

[15] Acts of Peter 5 (Linus text). See David Eastman’s The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015).

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Jefferson, Lee M. (2019): “The Heavenly Physician: Jesus as Healer in Early Christian Art,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 5. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

Looking Again: Reflections Among the Trees

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

—Toni Morrison, in The Nation, March 23, 2015

Detail of Baltimore Oriole from John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

First, a flashback: I am five, walking down my grandparents’ New England street. Braving July heat, I pass beneath twin rows of elms, their columns shading the cracked pavement my bare feet press. Looking up, I see the soft pendant pockets of orioles’ nests adorning the trees’ hanging branches. A flash above reveals (in Emily Dickinson’s perfect phrasing) “One of the ones that Midas touched,” the “Meteor of Birds.” And their music recalls Dickinson again: “A Troubadour opon the Elm / Betrays the solitude.”[1]

Flash forward sixty years: Green Street, as it happens to be called, has diminished shade, cast by a few aspiring choke-cherries and swamp maples. The elms are long gone, victims of Dutch elm disease; gone, too, are my grandparents. Traveling this street, I feel these absent presences like ghost limbs.

The elms fell to a fungus that scientists believe arose in Asia and was accidentally introduced into North America in the late 1920s.[2] Dutch elm disease decimated urban forests as well as the pastoral landscape that animated my childhood. In the intervening years between then and Green Street’s decline, more trees of all species have fallen, reflecting the broader fact that the news about the planet, or at least humans’ place on the planet, is not good. Because of acid rain, sugar maples, New England’s signature species, have been succumbing to stresses they would normally have withstood for as much as 400 years.

Sounding the alarm, the contemporary Cherokee writer Marilu Awiakta begins “Dying Back” with stark images:

On the mountain
the standing people are dying back—
hemlock, spruce and pine
turn brown in the head.
hardwood shrivels in new leaf.[3]

Trees or, as the Cherokee call them, the Standing People, are among the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. A highway sign at the border leaving New Hampshire and entering Maine warns that foreign firewood is prohibited: in May 2018 emerald ash borer entered the town of Madawaska, which borders Edmonton, New Brunswick, and the insect quickly moved southward.[4] The Blue Ridge Mountains are faring worse than many northern locations; the metallic green beetle that has killed many million ash trees is endemic. Scientists have warned of these and similar problems for many years.[5]

American elm (Ulmus Americana), The American Cyclopædia

Insects are not the only tree destroyers, and the loss of old trees, particularly, has long been cause for both legal action and public commentary. Even the Puritans forbade “indiscreet fyring of the woods,” and by the mid-seventeenth century, regulations prohibited indiscriminate tree-cutting in the seacoast region of what is now Maine and New Hampshire.[6] In 1844, surveying what she called Scenes in My Native Land, the writer-activist Lydia Sigourney simultaneously celebrated some of the United States’ most venerable trees and raged against settlers’ clear-cutting practices. She understood such assaults on the nation’s great forests as wholesale destruction of future generations’ heritage, warning, in her poem “Fallen Forests,” “Man’s warfare on the trees is terrible.”[7]

But Sigourney did more than warn: like Awiakta, she used her power with language to help create change. She, and many other American women writers, understood that words can, in moving us to act, advance environmental healing. Ecofeminists have long connected exploitation of the planet with exploitation of those the dominant culture designates as Others: women, people of color, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, immigrants, children, animals. Understood as closer to nature, they signify corporeality, and thus, mortality. Othering enables the culturally powerful to displace their fear of death. Restorative projects must therefore think about “the environment” from many angles. Some of the most moving and perhaps most hopeful visions have come from writers who speak to children, including many voices from what scholars designate the long nineteenth century.[8] Their work speaks to everyone, and it speaks well beyond their own time.

We need to heed these voices. Because poetry can evoke powerful emotions, including empathy for non-human presences, it offers transformative potential. Female-authored poetry has been especially effective in shaping affective responses that can move us—literally as well as figuratively—to progressive action. One writer whose work still permeates popular culture is the working-class poet Lucy Larcom. Her “Plant a Tree,” which has long stirred participants in Arbor Day celebrations across the country, begins by imagining a healing future: “He who plants a tree, / Plants a hope.”[9] Subsequent stanzas conjure other elevating effects. Trees provoke “joy,” “comfort,” “peace,” “youth,” “love”; birds “throng” to their “shelter” and voice their “bliss,” while humans rest in the “blessèd” shade. Although Larcom insists that “[g]ifts that grow, are best,” she does not say directly what readers quickly intuit: trees inspire wonder.

Because poetry can evoke powerful emotions, including empathy for non-human presences, it offers transformative potential.

Children’s voices echo this idea. Writing from North Carolina in 1910, African American teenager Christina Moody composed “The Little Seed,” whose eponymous narrator “planned of days to come, / When his body would be great and tall.” When he breaks apart, “instead of death, a pretty stem / Lifted up his little green head.” Finally, “the seed that was wee, grew into a tree / ’Twas a wonderful sight to behold.”[10] Moody’s imagination of unseen marvels unfurling over many years articulates a transgenerational standpoint that urges children and their parents to respect nature’s generative power, and intimates human responsibility for growing beings. The poem conjures children’s increasing strength—and it underscores their agency.

Moody’s final exclamation summons a communal outlook, as does an 1896 Lizette Woodworth Reese poem that embraces immigrant workers’ experiences:

A Street Scene

The east is a clear violet mass
Behind the houses high;
The laborers with their kettles pass;
The carts are creaking by.

Carved out against the tender sky,
The convent gables lift;
Half way below the old boughs lie
Heaped in a great white drift.

They tremble in the passionate air;
They part, and clean and sweet
The cherry flakes fall here, fall there;
A handful stirs the street.

The workmen look up as they go;
And one, remembering plain
How white the Irish orchards blow,
Turns back, and looks again.[11]

Reese’s poem celebrates the conjunction of labor and transcendence. Labor is heavy, but the sky is “tender” and “[t]he convent gables lift” the viewers’—and readers’—spirits. Piled high, the fallen cherry blossoms create “a great white drift” that signifies spring’s rebirth. For the worker who pauses for contemplation, they conjure “white” “Irish orchards” and a return home. Appearing during a time of intense, violent anti-Irish sentiment in the United States, the poem teaches children (and its adult readers) how the trees’ beauty inspires an ostensible Other to re-see the past and the present. As readers too turn back, and look again, they share the worker’s admiration for the trees’ insistent loveliness, and they gain an amplified understanding. In bringing people together, the cherry trees elicit a desire for continuity, for a “clean and sweet” future that embraces both people and the earth. The effects are bidirectional: trees bestow curative powers through their beauty; the beauty animating Reese’s poem promotes care for trees—and for other people.

The restorative selflessness that “A Street Scene” cultivates emerges explicitly in an 1898 poem by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “Tree Feelings” evinces curiosity, astonishment, imagination, and exhilaration:

I wonder if they like it—being trees?
I suppose they do. . . .
It must feel good to have the ground so flat,
And feel yourself stand right straight up like that—
So stiff in the middle—and then branch at ease,
Big boughs that arch, small ones that bend and blow,
And all those fringy leaves that flutter so.
You’d think they’d break off at the lower end
When the wind fills them, and their great heads bend.
But then you think of all the roots they drop,
As much at bottom as there is on top,—
A double tree, widespread in earth and air
Like a reflection in the water there.

I guess they like to stand still in the sun
And just breathe out and in, and feel the cool sap run;
And like to feel the rain run through their hair
And slide down to the roots and settle there.
But I think they like wind best. From the light touch
That lets the leaves whisper and kiss so much,
To the great swinging, tossing, flying wide,
And all the time so stiff and strong inside!
And the big winds, that pull, and make them feel
How long their roots are, and the earth how leal!

And O the blossoms! And the wild seeds lost!
And jeweled martyrdom of fiery frost!
And fruit trees. I’d forgotten. No cold gem,
But to be apples—and bow down with them![12]

George Inness, The Elm Tree

The narrator begins with wonder and, as she imagines her own treeness with increasing intensity, expresses an ecstatic, passionate vision that ends with simultaneous plenitude and self-loss, an inevitable and ineffable elevation and bowing down.

Trees do more than offer hope: they embody a promise for the future. For beings who need oxygen, trees are literally the breath of life. Mature trees in particular perform irreplaceable ecological tasks, both for and well beyond human animals’ needs: cooling neighborhoods, offering beauty, sequestering carbon, providing habitat, feeding insects and animals, enriching the soil, fostering biodiversity, filtering pollutants. Without them, most earth-bound life could not exist. Healing and renewal, as the writers I’ve shared suggest, require that humans respect the natural world and appreciate its awe-some—and even awe-ful—power.

To be clear: the earth will heal without our help; we must first heal ourselves if we wish to continue receiving its gifts. As the poets I’ve shared insist, we must recognize our manifold affiliations, our kinships with others and our corporeal home. A nineteenth-century value, which Gilman’s poem performs so powerfully, conveys the necessary perspective most precisely: humility.

These writers’ words give me hope that we can renew our Green Streets. Although I’m not conventionally religious, I often find myself hiking in New Hampshire woods, where stone walls mark what were once fields. Maple, beech, birch, and oak shoulder aside boulders larger than houses, taller than church steeples. In the White Mountains, the trees wrap roots around rocks, reaching for the sky.

Karen L. Kilcup is the Elizabeth Rosenthal Excellence Professor of English, Environmental & Sustainability Studies, and Women’s & Gender Studies at UNC Greensboro. Kilcup’s work includes Fallen Forests: Emotion, Embodiment, and Ethics in American Women’s Environmental Writing, 1781-1924 (Georgia, 2013), Who Killed American Poetry?: From National Obsession to Elite Possession (Michigan, 2019), and “Stronger, Truer, Bolder”: Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Writing, Nature, and the Environment (Georgia, 2020). Kilcup is a past president of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers and currently editor of ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture.

[1] Emily Dickinson, “One of the Ones that Midas touched” (F1488B.1); “New feet within my garden go” (F79A), Emily Dickinson Archive, http://www.edickinson.org/editions/1/image_sets/240674, http://www.edickinson.org/editions/1/image_sets/235323. Dickinson characteristically flouts spelling norms with “opon.”

[2]  “Dutch elm disease,” APS [The American Phytopathological Society], https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/disandpath/fungalasco/pdlessons/Pages/DutchElm.aspx

[3] Marilu Awiakta, “Dying Back,” in Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1993), 5.

[4] Ed Morin, “Emerald Ash Borer Discovered in Aroostook County,” Maine Public, May 29, 2018, https://www.mainepublic.org/post/emerald-ash-borer-discovered-aroostook-county. “Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey (CAPS), Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), Agrilus planipennis,” Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, https://www.maine.gov/dacf/php/caps/EAB/index.shtml.

[5] Karen Chávez, “Invasive pests No. 1 threat to WNC Forests,” Citizen Times, May 12, 2016, https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2016/05/12/invasive-pests-no-1-threat-wnc-forests/84189454/

[6] Karen L. Kilcup, Fallen Forests: Emotion, Embodiment, and Ethics in American Women’s Environmental Writing, 1781-1924 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 84.

[7] Lydia Sigourney, “Fallen Forests,” in Scenes in My Native Land (Boston: James Munroe, 1845), 117.

[8] Although definitions vary, scholars often demarcate the long nineteenth century in the U.S. as the years encompassing independence to World War I.

[9] Karen L. Kilcup, “Education by Poetry: Robert Frost, Women, and Children,” in Robert Frost in Context, ed. Mark Richardson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014), 372-73. Lucy Larcom, “Plant a Tree,” in Over the River and Through the Wood: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Poetry, ed. Karen L. Kilcup and Angela Sorby (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 35.

[10] Christina Moody, “The Little Seed,” in Over the River, 36.

[11] Lizette Woodworth Reese, “A Street Scene,” in Over the River, 53.

[12] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Tree Feelings,” in Over the River, 31.

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Kilcup, Karen L. (2019): “Looking Again: Reflections Among the Trees,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 3. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

The Healing for Which We Long and Labor

In interviews that took place in Rome in 2013 shortly after he was elected, Pope Francis described the church as a field hospital after battle.[1]

The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. . . . And you have to start from the ground up.

As a member of the human family, each of us is weak, wounded, sick, and sore in so many different ways. As followers of Jesus Christ, our journey from wounded and sick to wholeness and holiness is a journey of becoming each day more and more the Body of Christ.

Come, you sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus, Son of God, will save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in his arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.[2]

Each of us has been invited into the embrace of Jesus who will heal us and transform us into himself. This is our vocation—individually and communally. This is what it means to live the Gospel life. This is what is means to become Christ. This “coming to Jesus” is a journey begun at Baptism. Our entire life is a journey of coming to the wholeness or holiness that is our Christian identity.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.[3]

The very first national convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians I attended was the second one; it took place in Chicago in 1979. Its theme was Prayer: Performance and Participation. Sometimes the word “performance” is misunderstood to mean “entertainment” or “showing off one’s talent.” However, whenever we celebrate liturgy we are engaged in ritual or ritual performance. And that is a good thing. Vatican II called it “active participation.”

Singing within the liturgical ritual we call worship engages the whole person—body, mind, heart, and spirit—when it is performed fully and consciously. Because it has “performative” power, this liturgical singing can be transformative. In other words, such activity—this singing that we are about—has an important role in transforming us individually and as a community—into Christ.

Performative Language Theory

Theologians and philosophers who work with performative language theory can help us understand and appreciate more deeply what we are actually doing when we gather for worship. They have concluded that in liturgical activity, when we speak or sing our prayer, we are accomplishing something.[4] Here’s a simple example. When we shout: “Look out!” we are  warning someone of impending danger. The power to effect or accomplish this something, according to John Searle, is produced not simply by words or word order, but by deep syntactic structure, stress and intonation contour.[5] So what is intonation contour anyway? Well, we don’t whisper sweetly “look out” when someone is in danger. We shout LOOK OUT! Performative language includes syntactic structure, stress, and intonation contour. Sounds like music to me.

A musical setting in combination with the text heightens the power of the words to do something or accomplish something in the singing of a hymn because of the presence of melody or pitch, rhythm and meter. In liturgy, the performative and theological meaning is potentially enhanced when music and text are joined. I can simply say “O Healing River send down your water.” Or we can sing it using rhythm and intonation contour:

O healing river, send down your waters,
Send down your waters upon this land.
O healing river, send down your waters,
And wash the blood from off the sand.[6]

Another characteristic of performative speech is that it can be repeated in new situations. Repetition can be a good thing! For Christmas and Easter and other liturgical events, we are happy singing the classic hymns and Mass settings again and again. These texts are not sung to provide us with information. Rather, they are sung to perform our faith, to express wonder and praise. Singing the hymn texts expresses, and actually helps to create a situation or facilitates the recognition of a situation. That situation may be praising God, asking for mercy, rejoicing that Christ has conquered sin and death or expressing our need for forgiveness.

Jean Ladrière points to another important aspect of the performativity of liturgical language. He claims that a performative activity, such as singing, awakens in the person singing a certain affective disposition that opens up existence to a specific field of reality.[7] An effect is produced. We speak an attitude.

O, Lord, hear my prayer. O Lord hear my prayer.
When I call answer me.
O Lord hear my prayer. O Lord hear my prayer.
Come and listen to me.[8]

This attitude of petition opens us up to prayer. We speak the attitude of pleading. An effect is produced: we accomplish the act of petitioning or asking.

Of course, sometimes when we go to liturgy, we may not personally feel the attitudes of a particular hymn or song. On any particular day, we may not be feeling grateful or joyful or forgiving. Nevertheless, like the small child who is repeatedly reminded by her parents to “say thank you,” Christian dispositions such as praise, love, contrition, gratitude, are learned over time, until they become our own fundamental Christian dispositions or affections.

But liturgical singing not only disposes individuals. It also constitutes a community. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM 2002), this is one of the intended goals of the gathering and communion processionals. Article 47 states that the purpose of the entrance chant or opening hymn “is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of priests and ministers.”[9] Article 86 states that the purpose of the communion chant or hymn “is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ (emphasis added) nature of the procession to receive Communion.”[10] In other words, one of the underlying ideas of both articles 47 and 86 is that the singing itself aids in situating the assembly in an experience of unity during the entrance and communion processions. (Instrumental music during the communion procession doesn’t do this, unless everyone in the assembly is playing an instrument!)

An experience of singing together is not only spiritual or mental. Rather, it is in a palpable way also physical. Through the participation of our bodies, whether singing, listening, moving to the rhythms of the hymns, we have a concrete, that is physical and real (mental or spiritual), experience of unity. Both the gathering and communion processionals are meant to bring the assembly together in a common sentiment, whether that be praise, petition, contrition, or thanksgiving. We are looking at language here, not as an object, but as an activity.

Why is unity so much to be desired in these liturgical experiences? Because we are all moving throughout life from the experience of fragmentation and isolation to becoming more and more, day by day, the one Body of Christ. This happens as we become more and more united with Christ. But our union with Christ also is meant to unite us with our sisters and brothers so that we can be the presence of Christ in our world. Hymn singing has the potential to assist in this transformation through the very act of singing.

In the Eucharistic prayer, the presider (on our behalf) calls the Holy Spirit to come down upon the bread and wine so that it may become the body and blood of Christ. But that is only half the story. The presider (on our behalf) also calls the Holy Spirit to come down upon the gathered assembly so that we may become one in Christ and with each other. Our singing situates us in that space where it is possible to experience that unity—however fleeting and fragile it may be—so that we might believe in the Lord’s call to unity and live in hope of its final realization.

Ubi caritas, est vera, est vera:
Deus ibi est, Deus ibi est.

In true communion let us gather.
May all divisions cease
And in their place be Christ the Lord,
Our risen Prince of Peace.

May we who gather at this table
To share the bread of life
Become a sacrament of love,
Your healing touch, O Christ.[11]

Yes, may all divisions cease as we become united with Christ and with each other. That is the true communion that we celebrate. In receiving the Eucharist, we become the sacrament of Christ, that is, we become Christ’s presence for each other in our wounded, sin-sick world.

Phenomenology: Disclosure

One of the contemporary philosophical disciplines that can help us grasp some of these ideas is phenomenology. Having a phenomenological attitude means that we look at things in their truth and in their evidencing. By evidencing we mean “allowing a thing to manifest itself to us.”[12] We have this experience all the time. For example, we can say that when the assembly gathers, it manifests the presence of Christ. At the same time, the assembly and each individual in it also receives that manifestation of Christ’s presence. Furthermore, the singing assembly can manifest the presence of Christ through the particulars of a hymn while also receiving a manifestation of Christ by means of the hymn singing.

Consider the first three stanzas of an ancient Christmas hymn.

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessed,
When the Virgin, full of grace,
Overshadowed by the Spirit,
Bore the Savior of our race;
And the babe, the world’s redeemer,
First revealed his sacred face,
Evermore and evermore!

This is he whom seers and sages
Sang of old with one accord,
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now he shines, the long-expected;
Let creation praise its Lord
Evermore and evermore![13]

One of the keys to the theological meaning of this text is the repetition of the phrase “evermore and evermore.” It highlights the notion of time and eternity that are part of the focus of the hymn. As singers and listeners, we stand in awe and wonder at what is disclosed to us: God the Father’s love, existing from the very beginning and forever. The image of the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet, the alpha and omega, capture this expanse. God’s love is the source and ending of everything that exists. In stanza two, God’s love is disclosed in the mystery of the Incarnation. The face of God’s love is revealed in the face of a baby. God’s love is disclosed so that we can experience it in our own human flesh. The third stanza reminds us that this disclosure of God’s love in human flesh was foretold and sung by prophets from of old. All creation responds with praise at the disclosure of this birth.

When a singing assembly is engaged in sung prayer, many truths may disclose themselves to the group and to individuals through the songs sung or listened to. In fact, the singing itself may be performing or articulating a state of affairs. So, for example, the truth of God’s mercy, or glory, or goodness may be manifested or disclosed. When we worship within a singing assembly, various aspects of our Christian faith are celebrated and made available to our hearts, minds, and our entire beings. This experience is part of the transformative power of liturgical music making.

Symbolizing Activity

As we all know, the liturgy consists of an interplay of many symbols that interact with each other to express or mediate theological meaning. This interplay includes sacred objects such as the altar and crucifix, bread and wine; gestures such as kneeling and standing; colors and fabric, art and architecture, sound and silence. Liturgical singing is one of those symbols. As symbol, ritual song opens up to us levels of reality that might otherwise be closed to us. It invites participation and points beyond itself. By shifting our center of awareness, symbols can change our values. This shifting can occur when a symbol invites us to look at ourselves or some aspect of reality in a new or deeper or broader way. This is what gives ritual song the potential to be transformative. This dynamic is constantly in process as the symbols of the liturgy offer us new opportunities to make sense of our world and to find our identity within it. As we are integrated or assimilated into the world of the hymns, we open up to the possibility of intentional self-transcendence: we can become different persons if we allow ourselves to be carried away by new faith meanings and orient ourselves in new ways within our faith world. By engaging with symbols, we build ourselves by building our world. This “building” of ourselves is the process of change that is involved in transformation.[14]

I began my doctoral studies at The Catholic University of America in the same month that Bill Clinton was inaugurated President for his first term. A few days before the Inauguration, tents were set up on the National Mall where we could hear a great variety of the music that is performed in the United States. Wynton Marsalis was playing in one tent, bluegrass musicians in another, and polka bands and other groups could be found further down. The folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary were beginning their performance as I managed to find my way into their tent. As I listened, I discovered that their songs had been part of the very fabric of my life. I felt that they were, in fact, singing my life as I had experienced it until that moment and now especially in that moment. For their final song, they invited us to sing along with them, but only if we sang the song like a prayer. The song was “We Shall Overcome.”

We shall overcome. We shall overcome.
We shall overcome someday.
O deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday.[15]

The power of that civil rights hymn and the great crowd of ordinary Americans like me singing it, the place in our nation’s capital, the moment in time just before the Inauguration, and the history of the singing of that song in our country was overwhelming. While everyone else sang full-throated, I stood there incapable of singing, as tears welled up in my eyes. All of these songs—but especially the civil rights hymn—sang not only my life, but our life, our world, our dreams, and our very being as Americans in that moment. As symbolizing activity, the singing “carried me away,” inviting participation, transforming and deepening my awareness, and further building my world.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience with other songs or hymns. By pointing beyond itself to a world where God’s justice flourishes, liturgical singing can challenge an assembly to live more just lives. By shifting our center of awareness, singing, as symbolic activity, can change our values.  This happens because music making, as ritual symbol, can form the imagination and the affections of the worshiping community. The worshiping assembly appropriates the symbol—in this case the hymn—and “dwells in” its meaning. The assembly is invited to inhabit the world of the hymn. When we engage in singing, playing, listening, or moving with the rhythms of the music, the song can mediate participatory knowledge, a living into the music that allows our bodies and our spirits to breathe with its rhythms and phrases in such a way that they reveal the saving presence of God and our communion with the entire assembly.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.[16]

When we sing this refrain to each stanza of “The Canticle of the Turning,” we inhabit the world of the hymn and dwell in its meaning. This is how singing together can potentially invite a worshiping assembly to deep conversion and transformation. Over many seasons and years, such hymn singing has the potential to transform us into just people: people who do justice.

Singing in the liturgy has the potential to transform us into more faithful followers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not only when we sing about justice and peace, but all the time. The dialogic call-and-response dynamic of the Gospel is ritualized in the liturgy and then lived out in daily life. We listen to the Word of God and we respond—often or usually in song. Our Christian agenda—if we can call it that—is to live the life of Christ who showed us how to respond to the poor and to instances of injustice. Christ’s life is the model for our discipleship. Luke 4:18–19 (echoing Isaiah 61:1–4) records Jesus saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Needless to say, our concern about justice cannot be focused only on the texts we sing. We also need to pay attention to how the community is ordered to worship and how it acts justly.

Why Sing?

Back in the 1960s, Victor Zuckerkandl posed the question: Why do people engage in singing? (On Sunday morning we might sometimes be tempted to ask why they don’t sing, as Thomas Day did several decades ago.) Zuckerkandl observed that people sing when they abandon themselves fully to whatever they are doing.  This abandonment, Zuckerkandl pointed out, is not for its own sake, that is, not to simply forget self. Rather, this abandonment is meant to be an enlargement of the self, an enhancement of the self that at the same time is an experience of breaking down barriers.[17] (The singing that occurs at Taizé is a good example of this.) In theological language, we might talk about this abandonment as an emptying of the self in order to be open to God or filled with God. In addition, this breaking down of barriers allows us to be open, not only to the OTHER (that is, God), but also the other, that is, a fellow human being. By being drawn into the activity of singing, we are carried out of ourselves. The result is that separation is overcome and transformed into togetherness. In the specific case of hymn singing, such an experience of transcendence (being carried out of ourselves) may allow for the possibility of an experience of the sacred or of God’s presence. We have all had these experiences. They have touched us so that we remember them long after they happened.

I have had the opportunity to visit the pilgrimage site in Taizé, France, twice. By means of short, simple, repetitive chants, the singing draws the pilgrims in, enabling them to participate. Since Taizé attracts international visitors who speak in a great variety of languages and come from many different countries, cultures, and political, social, and economic settings, the music of Taizé serves to break down barriers and overcome differences. This allows participants to experience a sense of unity and belonging. In a very real way, the group’s music-making becomes a type of “situating” speech. The symbolizing activity, that is, singing, invites each worshiper to participate and inhabit its world.

When we are willing and intentional in our singing or listening, the ability of music-making to break down barriers is particularly striking. Many years ago, I attended the funeral of the father of a good friend. This friend and his brother were both accomplished church musicians and wished to provide the best music possible for their father’s Funeral Mass. The local cathedral organist was also a friend and so they engaged him to play the Mass. After spending several minutes attempting to figure out how to turn on the organ and delaying the funeral, the brothers abandoned all hope of having organ music. The congregation was invited to sing a cappella (without accompaniment), except for some places where one of the sons accompanied the assembly on his violin with melody or descants. The voices carried the day. The singing was intentional and glorious in its simplicity. That ad hoc group of worshipers and music makers sang their hearts out in the most beautiful and inspiring way because they paid attention and deliberately intended to participate.

The theologian and musician, Don Saliers, points out that ritual music has the power of transformation by forming, over time, the imagination and affectivity (affections) of the assembly. It does this by “forming and expressing those emotions which constitute the very Christian life itself.”[18] Saliers is not talking about passing, superficial feelings, but complex, permanent attitudes and deep emotions. In other words, when we sing songs of praise or thanksgiving, contrition or forgiveness, we are being formed in these Christian affections. By exhibiting (or performing) these Christian attitudes, we participate—through our music making—in the process of being shaped or formed in these very attitudes. Over time, for good or for ill, assemblies will be shaped by their musical choices. The emotional range of their worship music will either enhance or inhibit their ability to enter into those praisings, repentings, lamentings, hopings, longings, rejoicings, and thankings that are peculiar to the heart of Christian worship.

Hymn singing by itself does not guarantee transformation or conversion or healing. Rather, it provides the possibility whereby hearts and minds are touched so that they might be open to the workings of Christ’s Spirit within the assembly. The one guarantee that we do have is the promise that Christ’s Spirit is present when we gather for worship.

We need to work at the craft of our music. It is one of the vehicles through which God’s grace works in our midst. Furthermore, the assembly’s dynamic engagement with the process of transformation is essential. This occurs over time when individuals and communities give themselves over regularly to worship. Such dynamic engagement is encouraged when the language and music are authentic and life-giving. The ultimate goal is the transformation of the individual and the assembly into the one Body of Christ. That is the healing for which we long and for which we labor.

Liturgical singing is not simply some pleasant extra that makes our worship more enjoyable—although its beauty and appropriateness are highly valued. No, liturgical singing is an essential part of our lifelong quest to transform the individual and the assembly into the Body of Christ. Announcing the Good News and building a just world are not optional goals for the church. Neither should our ongoing efforts to enhance and enliven the song of each liturgical assembly be optional.  The goals are the same for both. When in our music God is glorified, we can go forth into the world with Christ’s message of Good News. This is what disciples do in the field hospital we affectionately call “our world.”

Judith Marie Kubicki, Ph.D., is a Felician Franciscan Sister from Buffalo, New York and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. Sr. Judith has published three books, including  The Song of the Singing Assembly: A Theology of Christian Hymnody (GIA, 2017), and her articles and reviews have appeared in academic and pastoral journals, including Worship, Studia Liturgica, Theological Studies, GIA Quarterly, The Hymn, Pastoral Music, Aim, and Pastoral Liturgy. She is a past President of the North American Academy of Liturgy and a former Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. This summer, NPM awarded Dr. Kubicki their most prestigious award, the Jubilate Deo award.


[1] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: An Interview with Pope Francis. America (September 30, 2013). This article is a summary of three interviews that Spadaro held with Pope Francis in Rome in August 2013.

[2] “Come, You Sinners, Poor and Needy,” Text of the verses, Joseph Hart, 1712–1768, Hymns Composed on Various Subjects, 1759, alt.; refrain anonymous. [Editor’s note: This and all the hymn texts quoted in this essay were sung together with the whole assembly when this talk was first delivered.]

[3] “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” Text: Jeremiah 8:22; Tune BALM IN GILEAD; African American Spiritual.

[4] John Langshaw Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962), 5.

[5] John R. Searle, “Austin on Locutionary and Illocutionary Acts,” Essays on J.L. Austin, ed. Isaiah Berlin, et al. (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 151.

[6] “Healing River,” Text: Fran Minkoff.

[7] Jean Ladriére, “The Performativity of Liturgical Language,” in Liturgical Experience of Faith, ed. H. Schmidt and David N. Power, Concilium series, no. 82 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1973), 56–57.

[8] “O Lord, Hear My Prayer,” Text: Taizé Community, 1982.

[9] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 2002. No. 47.

[10] GIRM, 2002. No. 86.

[11] “Ubi Caritas,” Text: based on Ubi Caritas, 9th c. Tune: Bob Hurd; acc. Craig K. Kingsbury (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1996, 2004).

[12] Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 44, 64–65, 93.  See also Judith M. Kubicki, The Presence of Christ in the Gathered Assembly (New York: Continuum, 2006), 29–30.

[13] “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” Text: Corde natus ex Parentis; Aurelius Prudentius, 348–413; tr. by John M. Neale, 1818–1866 and Henry Baker, 1821–1877, alt.

[14] Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Patrick Madigan and Madeleine E. Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995, 84–85, 110–112.

[15] “We Shall Overcome,” African American Spiritual.

[16] “Canticle of the Turning,” Text: Luke 1:46–58; Rory Cooney.

[17] Victor Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol, vol. 2, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 23.

[18] Don Saliers, “The Integrity of Sung Prayer,” Worship 55 (July 1981), 293.

Reprinted from September 2019 (volume 43:5) Pastoral Music copyright 2019 National Association of Pastoral Musicians. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Recommended Citation: Kubicki, Judith M. (2019): “The Healing for Which We Long and Labor” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 8. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

The Church’s Work of Healing: Prayer, Laying on of Hands, and Anointing

Even a casual reading of the canonical gospels reveals that much of Jesus’s ministry was devoted to healing. His healing was of physical ailments (the woman with the hemorrhage, Mark 5:21–24)[1], or mental and spiritual ailments (“Jesus went about curing every disease and every sickness,” Matthew 4:23–24). He cured disabilities, such as the man born blind (John 9:1–12), as well as social maladies (the woman “caught in adultery,” John 8:3–11). Healing—making whole—was never an end in itself, but rather a means by which Christ led that person to resurrection and life (salvation). It was a sign of the reign of God begun. In all of the examples handed down to us, healing was a means to an end, as it always pointed to the presence and power of God.

The healings recounted in the gospels might remain simply stories of what Jesus did long ago and far away, except that the body of Christ, the Church, is formed through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and glorification of Christ, and born into all of that through the waters of baptism. The Church is charged with the command to continue the work he began—to “do this” until Christ returns: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19).

Stained glass depiction from St. Baavo Cathedral in Ghent of Jesus healing the sick. Photo by Thomas Quine.

To be a disciple—or perhaps better, an apprentice—is not primarily to learn a teaching that is external to one’s own being, but to pattern one’s life on the teaching, and imitate the actions, of the Rabbi. What may begin with a deep knowing (“let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . .” Philippians 2:5) is rehearsed and embodied socially, kinesthetically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. “Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:1–2). A chapter later in Luke, the charge to the original twelve followers is expanded to include others, an expansion that continues through the centuries to all those made disciples through baptism. “After this, the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. . .” “He told them “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:1, 8–9). And so the Church proclaims healing and the presence of the kingdom of God in words and deeds until Christ comes again. But how does the Church do that?

The primary New Testament text and description of the early Church’s care for the sick is embedded in the letter of James:

Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. (James 5:14–15)

The author of the letter of James gathered together three fundamental ecclesial practices—tools of healing—by which the Church would minister with and to the sick. The first is prayer, which is attested to in scripture and early Christian writing as the obligation of all Christians. But here, it is not prayer spoken at a distance: it is prayer “over” the sick, which joins prayer to the second fundamental ecclesial practice, the laying on of hands. Many years ago, Godfrey Diekmann suggested that the laying on of hands was the fundamental gesture or action for the communication of God’s presence in ritual and sacrament. He wrote that the “laying on of hands, understood as a conferring of the Holy Spirit, constituted in early Christianity the basic liturgical rite common to all the sacraments. In other words, this ‘prayer over’ is at the heart of the Church’s prayer for the sick, the ritual by which the Holy Spirit has been brought “into the center and heart of the sacramental rites.”[2] Finally, the letter includes a third element in the work of healing through the Church, and that is anointing with oil. All three of these—spoken prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing with oil—are forms of prayer. But how did anointing with oil become central to healing within the first century of Christianity, eventually becoming the primary ritual matter and action that gave its name to the sacrament of the sick?

Holy oils

Like many physical or ritual dimensions of sacramental celebrations, oil has a long history of biblical, cultural, and Christological associations that contribute to its centrality. Scripture describes oil used for various ritual and practical purposes, from simple cooking oil to the best of fresh oil used for offerings and exchanges, to scented oil mixed with expensive perfumes and spices used to set apart places and mark persons as holy.[3] In the New Testament, anointing with oil is described in two different ways: first as a pouring over someone, and second as an anointing that effects a transformation of identity in someone. The second use of anointing with oil is connected to the identification of Jesus as the Christed or anointed One, and is linked to the Church’s ongoing use of chrism. On the other hand, the oil of healing emerges from the term for the pouring out of oil, as seen in James 5 and in Mark 6:13 (“So they [the apostles] went out and preached that all should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.”) Culturally, especially in the climates around the Mediterranean Sea where Christianity was born, the natural healing properties of oil as an external unguent on the skin and on injuries, as well as the internal use of oil added as a medication or supplement to the diet, had already been well-recognized as an agent of healing long before the Christian adaptation of oil in sacramental practice.[4]

From here the Church begins a long history of setting olive oil aside through an episcopal blessing so that it is recognized as both effecting a strengthening of the individual and being an action of the whole Church, because the bishop was the primary ecclesial symbol of the Church’s unity. This oil is described in numerous stories throughout the first millennium of Christianity as being used by any of the baptized on any of the baptized as long as it was “confected” by the bishop.[5] The key is to distinguish between the healing by a charismatic individual, a tradition already evident in the Apostle Paul’s writing, and the healing office of the Church with its sacramental efficacy, regardless of who was doing the anointing.

In the ninth to eleventh centuries, the specific task of spiritual healing (forgiveness of sins) began to supersede that of all other healings, particularly physical healing.

The healing described in the letter of James is holistic: those who are sick will be healed and their sins will be forgiven. James makes clear that health—wholeness—is about strengthening and enabling the sick to cope with the ramifications of illness, whether these be physical or spiritual. Throughout medieval Western church developments, anointing was part of a larger set of practices which gradually grew more and more elaborate, and included the laying on of hands, communion, psalms, and scripture readings. In the ninth to eleventh centuries, the specific task of spiritual healing (forgiveness of sins) began to supersede that of all other healings, particularly physical healing. As this sacramental emphasis mixed with the changes in the sacrament of reconciliation, the anointing with oil became not so much a holistic and physical healing but a spiritual healing at the end of life. It became a sacrament of the dying. Scholastic theologians placed viaticum (one’s last communion) at the center of the final rites for the dying. These rites were re-ordered so that the anointing came last, in extremis, hence the term “extreme unction.” In Roman Catholic tradition this sacramental practice endured until the 1970s when the rite was reformed after the Second Vatican Council.

The return to a sacramental rite for the sick—and a holistic healing that points to the reign of God—has emerged over the past fifty years in many ecumenical circles. There was, for example, some thinking in Anglicanism along these lines at the beginning of the twentieth century, as a counter to the rise in spiritualism and various practices denying the importance of the Incarnation.[6] But official rituals emerged primarily from the work of Vatican II:

“Extreme unction,” which may also and more fittingly be called “anointing of the sick,” is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.[7]

The sick exercise a ministry to the larger Church by their witness of faith in Christ.

As similar sets of rituals have emerged in different churches, several key theological ideas have been more clearly articulated in recent decades. The first is to clarify the difference between curing and healing. Physical illness may be healed, since all things are possible for God, but even if an immediate cure is not apparent to the human eye, a sacramental healing has occurred, since “sacraments always work.”[8] This points to an essential distinction between curing an illness and healing the whole person. The Church’s ministry to the sick is to strengthen and restore relationships with God, community, and self; to overcome isolation, give hope and strength, and to know oneself in the love and mercy of God. The sick exercise a ministry to the larger Church by their witness of faith in Christ. They bear this witness both through their participation in the life and the suffering of Christ, and by praying for others from that position of greater knowing in Christ. The second clarification is to reiterate the difference between charismatic healing—the gift of healing given to an individual directly by God—and the healing office of the Church. Ecclesial communities have recognized the authority to anoint the sick based on different interpretations of James, some limiting the ministry to those in holy orders (deacons and priests or priests alone), and others to any of the baptized with suitable preparation. Above all, the blessing of the oil by the bishop (usually at an annual Chrism Mass) remains important for the ecclesial nature of the ministry and its sacramental efficacy. Third, recent decades have seen a growing understanding of the complexity of the human person. Using the insights of Christian anthropology, humans are understood not simply as dualistic (body and spirit), but psycho-social-somatic-spiritual beings for whom healing may mean social, emotional, and mental healing as much as physical and spiritual healing. The result is seen in expanded language of prayer and more frequent opportunities for the anointing of the sick.

“Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up.”[9]

The Rev. Canon Lizette Larson-Miller, PhD, is the Huron-Lawson Professor of Liturgy at Huron University College (University of Western Ontario). She is the author of numerous articles and books on the study of sacramentality and sacraments, especially on the rites with the sick and the dying. Her most recent book was Sacramentality Renewed, published by Liturgical Press. In addition, she serves as the liturgical officer for the diocese of Huron (in the Anglican Church of Canada), as well as on the editorial board of several journals internationally.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of scripture are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] See Godfrey Diekmann, “The Laying on of Hands: The Basic Sacramental Rite” CTSA Proceedings 29 (1974), 349–50.

[3] See J. Roy Porter, “Oil in the Old Testament” in The Oil of Gladness: Anointing in the Christian Tradition, ed. Martin Dudley & Geoffrey Rowell. (London: SPCK, 1993).

[4] Olive oil was a primary market commodity used for eating, drinking, light, healing, and more. For a spirituality based on all of these, see the beautiful hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, particularly his fourth hymn on Virginity (see Kathleen McVey, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).

[5] It was episcopal consecration that gave the “ecclesial virus” to the oil, making the anointing an action of the whole Church. That was the standard practice, but there are also examples in the first millennium of oil run through the tombs of martyrs and other saints as an alternative act of “consecration.”

[6] See Charles W. Gusmer, The Ministry of Healing in the Church of England, an Ecumenical-Liturgical Study. (Essex, Great Britain: The Alcuin Club, 1974) 10–20.

[7] Sacrosanctum Concilium 73, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html

[8] Thomas Talley, “Healing: Sacrament or Charism?” in Reforming Tradition (Washington, DC: The Pastoral Press, 1990), 49.

[9] James 5:14–15, New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE).

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Larson-Miller, Lizette (2019): “The Church’s Work of Healing: Prayer, Laying on of Hands, and Anointing,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 6. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

For What and for Whom Do You Pray? Coercion, Consent, and the Healing of Ableism

Whenever I teach a course on Christian worship, my students and I spend time together talking about healing prayers and liturgies. I prioritize these discussions both because liturgy can help to heal the painful webs of violence in which we find ourselves and because it is imperative that worship leaders reflect on the potential violence of ritual practices of healing. My hope is that future pastors and other leaders will imagine healing in ways that do not objectify particular kinds of body-minds and will foster liturgical practices that awaken our desires for the depth and breadth of what it means to be embodied together in relationship with God and others. Thus, I hope to identify some of the symptoms of ableism that shape many Christian imaginaries in order to liberate liturgical impulses as my students respond to harm and loss among the people with whom they worship. Such work requires making connections between the bodies of the people who gather for healing and the kinds of spaces that promote or prohibit nonviolent practices of healing.

My own liturgical imagination regarding ableism and healing was transformed by a community with whom I prayed regularly for many years, first as an intern and later as an ethnographic researcher.[1]  Sacred Family,[2] as I shall call them, was an unusual congregation where people with and without mental illness and other disabilities, many of whom came to the church from group homes and experienced poverty. They assembled throughout the week for Holy Eucharist, Morning and Noonday Prayer, as well as other special services. In addition to worship services, congregants gathered twice a week for day programs and meals, which included art programs, gardening, Bingo, singing, and yoga, among other activities.

During my time with this congregation I participated in a liturgical practice that was new to me. Every other Wednesday, during a service of healing, after scriptures were read and prayers spoken, many congregants eagerly went forward to offer their individual concerns and to allow another to pray for healing. One by one a deacon, priest, or lay leader would lay hands on each one prompted by a request from the person standing before them.

I was initially wary of these liturgies. My suspicion was shaped by critiques from disabled scholars and activists. These criticisms identify the ways that healing rituals participate in the misnaming of disability as either tragedy or inspiration.[3] They expose the harm of healing prayers that would eradicate rather than the conserve disability. Disability scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder argue that Christian desires to imagine healing through the cure of disabled bodies and minds distracts from the more difficult work of imagining a world with the kinds of resources and structures of support that empower disabled people’s flourishing in the world.[4] Theologian and philosopher Sharon Betcher emphasizes the harsh effects on those often targeted by prayers for “the Spirit and its healing efficacy” as disabled persons are subject “to the fervor of its promise and the bite of its rejection when our bodies proved heretically resistant to cure.”[5] Even when some liberal Christian theologies deny supernatural powers to heal, they often promote other healing practices invested in ableism: “our close alliance with the miracle of modern medicine leaves us with a comparable anticipation of health as normalcy. But to wish me normal is no kindness, no generosity of spirit.”[6]

Informed by such powerful warnings regarding the violence of healing practices, I initially hesitated to participate in prayers with the potential to reinforce patterns of stigma regarding body-minds that do not confirm to social expectations. Only when a disabled Sacred Family congregant urged me to go forward for healing, assuring me that I could pray for whatever I wanted to pray for, did I choose to join the lines of people waiting to be prayed for at the front of the sanctuary. The eagerness of those around me to participate in healing prayer as well as their ways of reflecting on their own participation nuanced my understandings of the complicated relationships between desires for healing and the divides of ableism that shape many Christian communities.

Sacred Family congregants named for me a wide range of situations and relationships that healing prayers might address. Kayla explained to me that when she prayed for healing she asked for marriage for herself and for others as she anticipated the healing qualities of everyday companionship, play, and obligation that surpassed conventional bonds of friendship. Rose described healing as something that happened not only through prayers for healing but because of the kinds of help that people at the church received through food, clothes, and other forms of assistance. Miriam discussed the care and respect she received from people who helped her to choose life rather than death. Wallace prayed for healing for his friends and family.

The eagerness of those around me to participate in healing prayer as well as their ways of reflecting on their own participation nuanced my understandings of the complicated relationships between desires for healing and the divides of ableism that shape many Christian communities.

Ginny, a lay person who frequently offered prayers of healing for others, spoke of her work not as support for the eradication of congregants’ disabilities but as the intention to bring a complicated set of desires regarding health and well-being to God and to invite God to work with those desires in a way that only God could do. In her mind, healing prayers at Sacred Family did not seek to remove disability but played a role in the acceptance that congregants claimed for themselves and for others. She imagined healing prayers creating a safe space for desires that neither the petitioner nor the one who prays for healing fully understand. Those who came forward for healing prayers sought access to the wisdom and affirmation of God through practices of trust and through the help of another’s breath and touch.

While no single definition or experience of healing emerged among congregants at Sacred Family, those who participated in healing prayers resisted ways of speaking about their desires for their lives or the lives of others with the pity, condescension, or hopes for able-bodiedness that typify many worshipping communities. In my observation, non-violent practices of healing at Sacred Family assumed that those who gathered for prayer identified themselves and others through a wide range of names and relationships. Those who prayed for one another were not praying for “the poor,” “the disabled,” or “the mentally ill” but for those with whom they prayed together each week. Through growing in knowledge and love for each other in different ways across the span of a week, congregants with and without disabilities claimed the worth and beauty of their own lives together. rather than perceiving some people’s lives as problems to be solved or saved by others.

Sacred Family’s liturgy thus raised a broader set of questions for me about the communal conditions that foster ecclesial practices of consensual rather than coercive healing.[7] What kinds of healing practices might shape desires for the transformation of one’s body-mind in ways that were not constrained and defined by dreams for normality or ablebodiedness? In what ways do communities refuse to use some kinds of bodies to imagine the healing of others?  From my vantage point at Sacred Family, weekly practices for consensual healing prayers were made possible because of other forms of solidarity that happened across the week as those who gathered transformed their attitudes regarding mental illness and neurodiversity. For these Wednesday prayer services were only one small movement in a life together that extended across the week and month. Such rhythms included Sunday Eucharist, Wednesday services, morning and noonday prayers as well as day programs, and many, many meals together. Without congregants singing, praying, sitting, eating, painting, playing, doing yoga, laughing, and arguing together across a week-long liturgy, the healing rites might not have emerged from daily artistries of social interaction and from relationships of trust and mutuality. In this sense, consensual healing necessitated proactive attention to the wounds of ableism; such “creative attention”[8] involved the intentional creation of spaces where congregants could bring both their dreams and their experiences of loss and pain without fear that another would turn them into an object of pity or charity, or as some congregants put it, that someone would “treat them like a child” or “throw their lives away.” Such practices helped to liberate the hopes and dreams that those who gathered had for themselves and one another.

Without congregants singing, praying, sitting, eating, painting, playing, doing yoga, laughing, and arguing together across a week-long liturgy, the healing rites might not have emerged from daily artistries of social interaction and from relationships of trust and mutuality.

At the same time, status and power dynamics in the community continuously challenged desires for relationships that fostered consensual healing. As one congregant, Aisha, explained to me, while she had experienced powerful transformation in herself and others through her interactions with others Sacred Family, she was also frustrated with constraints on the relationships she was able to have, particularly with those who came to work at the church for a season and then left. When I asked her what made it difficult to be a community here, she talked about building trust:

I don’t like how you may build a real friendship, but there are statuses, and when the person has a certain status, you can probably keep up with them, but it’s not the same as a true friendship where you could go and have dinner or lunch or hang out. It’s not that type of friendship. It’s more like I care about you, but we’re a different status, so that hurts.

She expressed hope that in time she might share more permanent bonds with people of a different social status outside of ecclesial space and time. I observed the tensions in her experiences of herself within this community, a community that is a church, and yet where some congregants still experience themselves at times as “clients” rather than as persons who are desirable to, and on equal standing with, others. Aisha acknowledged that the boundaries of church space serve as the boundaries of some “friendships”: “I feel like the people I come to see, as long as I come here I get to see them, but if I don’t come here, I don’t get to see them.” While she wanted to identify her relationships with other Christians as experiences of blessing and mutuality, she was also frustrated by the implicit rules that govern relationships in times and spaces outside church gatherings, when some congregants returned to places where others would never live or socialize.

In speaking with Aisha and others, I noted that the consensual practices that seek to heal ableism within the boundaries of the church are often threatened or undermined by clear divides that occur outside the spaces and times of the church. Relationships formed within the congregation did not significantly transform other patterns for living and healing together outside the church. Thus while Sacred Family offered vital spaces for transforming practices of ableism both within and outside of its formal liturgies, it also illumined the persistent violence of a city in which some congregants lives are worth more than others and where social statuses and material resources continue to divide those who gather for prayer. To establish the conditions for consensual healing within congregational time and space also meant the more difficult work of interrogating and transforming coercive practices of ableism into which congregants are sent. [ix]  Sacred Family fostered dreams for the healing of relationships between people with and without disabilities, yet it also anticipated a different kind of ecclesial work that is necessary to create the conditions for the consensual healing of all who gather for prayer.

Dr. Rebecca F. Spurrier is Associate Dean for Worship Life and Assistant Professor of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary. She is interested in a theology and practice of public worship that reflects the beauty and tension human difference brings to Christian liturgy. Engaging ethnographic theology, disability studies, and liturgical aesthetics, her research explores the hope of human interdependence and the importance of liturgical access for religious practice and Christian community. She is the author of The Disabled Church: Human Difference and the Art of Communal Worship.


[1] For a more detailed account of this research, see Rebecca F. Spurrier, The Disabled Church: Human Difference and the Art of Communal Worship (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).

[2] The name of the church and all names of persons have been changed to protect confidentiality.

[3] Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 70–75.

[4] David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “‘Jesus Thrown Everything Off Balance’: Disability and Redemption in Biblical Literature,” in This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, ed. Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 178–79.

[5] Sharon V. Betcher, Spirit and the Politics of Disablement (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 70.

[6] Betcher, 71.

[7]  I borrow the phrase “consensual healing” from Claire Cunningham. See Claire Cunningham, “Consensual Healing,” Guide Gods Digital Collection (audio), August 22, 2019, https://www.clairecunningham.co.uk/guide-gods-digital-collection/consensual-healing/.

[8] I draw on the concept of “creative attention” in Simone Weil’s writings. See Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009), 87, 91–92.

[9] See also Julia Watts Belser, “Violence, Disability, and the Politics of Healing: The Inaugural Nancy Eiesland Endowment Lecture,” Journal of Disability & Religion, 19, no. 3 (2015): 177–97.

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Spurrier, Rebecca F. (2019): “For What and for Whom Do You Pray? Coercion, Consent, and the Healing of Ableism” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 11. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

The Making of Street Symphony

“Son, don’t you know any songs we know?”

I had just finished playing Bach’s glorious Chaconne in D Minor, the violinist’s Mount Everest, for about two hundred hospital inmates in San Bernardino, California. The Patton State Hospital was one of the last remaining state hospitals and had a notoriously dark history: according to a 2017 article in The Atlantic, “During the height of the eugenics movement, California sterilized tens of thousands of patients deemed feeble-minded or insane.” Records retrieved from Patton indicate that nearly 20,000 patients were recommended for sterilization from 1919 to 1952.[1] Everyone incarcerated at Patton today has been involved in an offense—often a violent one—directly related to a severe mental illness.

The question was posed to me by an inmate, an older black man, wearing a brown jumpsuit. I was shocked: after the epic fifteen-minute Chaconne, I couldn’t think of any songs that he might know—at least any that wouldn’t be horribly cheesy or inappropriate to play for that audience. I felt like a failure as a musician. What the hell was I doing there?

Through my baffled silence, he sang out in a clear baritone:

I know Jesus is on that mainline
Tell him what you want
Jesus is on that mainline
Tell him what you want
Jesus is on that mainline
Tell him what you want
Call him up and tell him what you want. . .

And if you’re feeling down and out
Tell him what you want
Call him up and tell him what you want. . .

It was, by far, the greatest music lesson of my life.

Seventy miles west of Patton lies the largest county-jail system on the planet: also, effectively, one the planet’s largest psychiatric institutions. In America today, our de facto “treatment” of mental illness is, in many cases, incarceration. Los Angeles warehouses over 17,000 prison inmates, nearly a third of whom experience some form of mental illness. There is a revolving door between being incarcerated in a county jail like Men’s Central and Twin Towers and living down-and-out on Skid Row—a  fifty square block area within walking distance of the downtown incarceration hubs that make Los Angeles the epicenter of the crisis of homelessness in America today.[2]

Many people emerging from incarceration in prisons all over California are dropped off in the heart of Skid Row, at the intersection of East Fifth and South San Pedro streets, known as The Nickel. They step off a Greyhound bus only to be greeted by thousands of people grappling with crime, prostitution, and addiction; and welcomed by demons that have been haunting them and their families for generations.

In late August of this year, Darrell Fields, a guitarist who brought joy to the Skid Row community by deftly covering Jimi Hendrix songs for celebrations at the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), died of injuries sustained from being set on fire inside his tent.[3]

For many, Skid Row is the end of the line.

Within walking distance of hip downtown restaurants and galleries and just over a mile from the shining beacon of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, live the people that we think of as the least among us, people we throw away. They are mostly poor and people of color, shattered by lost hopes and broken dreams, recovering from decades of being locked away in cages real and metaphorical. We easily dismiss them as the Other, the bum, the “problem.” They live on the other side of the American Dream and make our glitzy lives a little less glitzy. “Not in my backyard,” we say.

During the past decade of making music in this community, I have found that we ostracize the most fragile and vulnerable among us, because we have, in some way, locked away the most fragile and vulnerable parts of ourselves. The Skid Row outside us reflects a Skid Row within: a place of dark shame, neglect, fear, and our not-enoughness. This is the place we must look if we want to heal. It is the fertile womb of our humanity, the place of our connection. Skid Row is the beginning of that healing, at least for some.

It was the place where I was taught the meaning of a Hindu aphorism I grew up with but always took for granted: Namaste. Namaste, or Namaskar, is a word colonized by well-intentioned hippies and the yoga industry. It is a phrase that I assumed was merely a formal greeting—something found in the sacred texts I chanted as a child. It literally means “I bow to you” and is usually presented with folded hands pressed to the chest.

But the people of Skid Row have taught me the true meaning of this word. Deprived of homes, they nevertheless create a sense of place and community. Abandoned at the terminus of a collective, learned apathy, they nonetheless forge resilient cultures. Stripped of creature comforts, they find their humanity. And they share their lives generously.

Block Party 2019 – A community celebration in Skid Row, featuring six musical ensembles performing from a flatbed truck. Pictured here: Las Colibrí, an all-women Mariachi ensemble. In collaboration with The Midnight Mission, Block Party served over 2,000 members of the Skid Row community with food, dancing and live music. Photo by May Rigler.

Skid Row has been for me a place of friends, guides and teachers, of community members like Christopher Mack and Brian Palmer[4], musicians whom I met through the Urban Voices Project, a Skid Row community choir. Christopher, a Skid Row outreach worker says, “Skid Row is the beginning for some. Leave a man with his dignity; he’ll come around.” And Brian Palmer says, “Listening is an act of love.” Skid Row is the home of Sir Oliver, a reggae DJ, and Linda Leigh, a vocalist, artist, activist, and community member. Skid Row was the place where the composer Benjamin Shirley found his pathway to recovery and a new spiritual life.

This is a community where I get to make my music—the community of my greatest musical and human teachers. It is a place where listening, paying attention, and showing up wholeheartedly is an act of radical, transformative love.


In 2007, in the last free days after my final exams and before graduation as a Master’s student at the Yale School of Music, I auditioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I had never played an audition for a professional orchestra in my life. Although I believed that a career in music, especially in the tradition of Baroque performance practice, was unlikely for me, I thought, what the hell.

They offered me the job.

Joining the Philharmonic was a dream I didn’t even know I could have: a life performing with the greatest living conductors and soloists, an opportunity to play ”the repertoire” with musicians of my teacher’s generation and even a generation older. The musicians adopted me, brought me into their families, guided, taught, cajoled, and accepted me wholeheartedly. As a kid who had often felt unseen, I felt as though I finally belonged.

I met my family in that circle, but I hadn’t yet met my city. Skid Row was as far away and foreign and Other to me as a foreign country. I acquired the learned apathy characteristic of what I thought it meant to live in Los Angeles: I learned to clench my jaw and double-check that my doors are locked at Freeway underpasses and exits; to walk by quickly when someone asks for money on the street, my eyes blankly focused on some far horizon; to not to let my nose visibly wrinkle when I walk past the smell of human excrement.

I had to show up with my humanity first, and my ideas about musicianship second. This was a place to come and own my shadow—to stand fast in my own utterly fragile and vulnerable humanity and connect to others through it.

In 2008, several months into my probation period at the Philharmonic and on my way to earning tenure, I met Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, the brilliant, Juilliard-trained musician who became the subject of The Soloist, a book and subsequent movie by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Many members of the Philharmonic family, including my orchestra colleagues and then-public relations director Adam Crane, became Nathaniel’s bridge of re-connection to a musical life—a community that he thought had thoroughly rejected and ejected him after decades of homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles. He now pushed his instrument-laden shopping cart to the concert hall for rehearsals, concerts—and eventually for violin lessons with me.

Nathaniel’s story as a performer was told far and wide. But for me and my colleagues, Nathaniel became our first guide in the world of Skid Row, and to the vibrant community that exists there. Through Nathaniel, I encountered a community, not just a slum. Nathaniel taught me to walk in that community in humility. This was not a place to celebrate my own virtuosity or expertise; this was a place of dialogue and transformation. I had to show up with my humanity first, and my ideas about musicianship second. This was a place to come and own my shadow—to stand fast in my own utterly fragile and vulnerable humanity and connect to others through it.

When professional musicians, or other Good Samaritans who are dedicated to charitable acts, show up in places like Skid Row, the outside world regards us as heroes. We are celebrated for deigning to come “down” to that neighborhood. It can be an easy and gilded path to self-congratulation, one that is rarely questioned or challenged. I began to see that typical view of outreach as “drive-by Beethoven.”

Audience members and social workers, however, would always look at us a bit warily when we entered with our instruments and music stands—with polished shoes and shiny instruments—wondering when we were going to bail. Even when, in 2011, I tentatively started a non-profit organization dedicated to making music in Skid Row, it was difficult to gain the trust of audiences and clinicians: they smiled brittle smiles. They wondered when we would get tired of them and depart, filled with self-congratulation. They had seen it happen many times before.

Street Symphony Fellow Christina Collier, a member of the Skid Row community, performs a solo at Messiah Project 2017. The Messiah Project is a free singalong of Handel’s Messiah at Skid Row’s The Midnight Mission, a 12-step recovery shelter. Photo by Kat Bawden.

People in places like Skid Row, or even those underserved communities in nursing homes, or Veterans Administration hospitals, become conditioned to think that they somehow matter more on the days when our public consumerism reaches an apex during the year-end holidays. Our guilt consumes us, and we want to “do something for the homeless.” We show up with turkey, a bag of clothes, and temporary good cheer. We’re often making it worse: we reinforce the myth of separation between “us” and “them.”

I have been told that the morning after Thanksgiving is one of the saddest days on Skid Row. The thousands of pounds of free turkey leave six-foot high mounds of rotting trash, a haven for rats. The smell is overpowering. My mentors challenged us: “You really want to help? Come by on the morning after Thanksgiving. Come when you’re not gonna be congratulated for it. Come after the photo-op. Stay. Learn about us.”


One time when we took a string quartet by Robert Schumann into Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles, an inmate in the front row said, “You know why I love this classical music? All those composers went through some real shit. Bach was an orphan, Beethoven’s dad beat him . . . and Schumann? Schumann died in a place like this. You can hear it in the music, man.”

He wasn’t wrong. Schumann did indeed die in an asylum. He heard choirs of angels in his head and, at the end of his life, demons. He wrote music in a manic frenzy—at a pace that even outstripped Mozart. “You can hear it in the music, man.” In that moment, Schumann was no longer a marble bust of some dead white guy in a conservatory textbook. We were connected—performer, audience, composer—by that glowing thread of music.

Schumann’s deeply human, fragile, devastating story is what I personally love in him: this is the soul and pathos and realness of the music that I felt for myself as a performer. But I had never imagined that Schumann’s devastated psychological landscape would be a connecting point for an audience member.

Sharing a deeply personal understanding of this composer’s life and music simply would not have happened under normal circumstances. I had even felt a little reluctant to share my own passionate regard for Schumann with my colleagues, masking myself in didactic conversations about technique and intonation and type of vibrato. Yet this man wearing a yellow jumpsuit in a county jail—a man I’ll probably never see again—somehow saw into the core of my musical heart in a way that no paying audience member had ever expressed. We left the jail in tears.

Again I heard the mysterious call and invitation from our audience: get to know us. Stay. Keep showing up.

I started an organization called Street Symphony. We were going to play intimate, monthly chamber music concerts at a Skid Row clinic. The concerts quickly became conversations, and we started to see how that dialogue challenged us to think more deeply—to go beneath the veneer of our professionalism, the bright lights and formal attire, and into the heart of why we became musicians in the first place, and why the composers wrote the music that we performed. We were challenged to think about how a place like Skid Row could ever exist, and why we felt more connected to audiences in clinics and shelters and county jails than we did in concert halls . . . and of all things, why, why it was that we left after experiencing such deep, soulful connection to our audiences, often to never see their faces again.


We began to challenge learned apathy in our daily lives. We couldn’t drive or walk past someone pushing a shopping cart on the street and not wonder about their story. What was life like for Malek, or Shugga, or Linda, or Christina, or Will, or Mick, or Kayo? When we talked to affluent friends or donors they would sometimes tell us the stories of their pain or addiction too. We came to wonder about our own histories of trauma and abuse. We began to honor each other more and see each other more clearly.

Ashe Asé Drummers from the Heart, perform at Block Party 2019. A community celebration in Skid Row, featuring six musical ensembles performing from a flatbed truck. Pictured here: Ashe Asé Drummers from the Heart, a West African drumming ensemble. In collaboration with The Midnight Mission, Block Party served over 2,000 members of the Skid Row community with food, dancing and live music. Photo by May Rigler.

As our community of musicians grew to encompass musicians from jazz, mariachi, and choral traditions, we began to see the effect of Street Symphony’s programs on the dozens of professional musicians who joined us for programs in county jails and shelters. Musicians would tell us that at Street Symphony programs the audience affirmed them as human beings, asked them how they were feeling that day, and welcomed them to come back. Our former Composer in Residence, Reena Esmail, found that “for people living in Skid Row, music wasn’t a form of entertainment. It was a lifeline.”

Our generous audiences welcomed us into that lifeline, and compelled us to move from outreach into engagement: from that armored one-off “benefit concert” into the willingness to embrace what we couldn’t control. The musical events became as much about our need to transform ourselves as they were about how our music transformed our audiences. We were compelled, by the sheer force of raw humanity and generosity of audiences in clinics, shelters, jails and prisons, to embrace the unexpected, vulnerable mutuality of what it means to be most human in this world: to listen and receive, and to show up wholeheartedly.


When I started attending Juilliard Pre-College, one of the first CDs that my dad bought for me was Robert Shaw’s recording of Messiah. I learned every chorus as a boy soprano, delving into this world of Handel as a safe haven, a way of understanding what it meant to be a musician. As I developed a love for Baroque performance practice, I found myself listening to the recordings of Christopher Hogwood, in which he sought to recreate the vocal and instrumental style of the mid-1700s in a more pure form of period performance practice. This was the first time I heard the glorious sound of instruments with gut strings, the A tuned down from a frequency of 440 to 415, and singers like Emma Kirkby.

But, as I learned how to make phrases with a Baroque bow, I wondered how it was that, despite being dedicated to recreating the artistic parameters of the period of Handel, Vivaldi, and Bach, we didn’t take into account the social parameters that gave life to the pieces we venerated. Why had we, in our modern, affluent, conservatory-trained wisdom, chosen to divorce ourselves from the very community-based conditions and practices which made these works root themselves in a cultural consciousness for centuries?

Vivaldi’s Gloria would not exist without the orphaned girls of Ospedale della Pietá. Bach’s Cantatas and Passions wouldn’t exist without the devoted Lutheran communities who knew the hymns he included within them. In the same way, Reena Esmail’s “Take What You Need,” a collaborative work for community choirs and professionals to sing with their audiences and tell their stories, would not exist without the Skid Row community of Los Angeles.

Street Symphony’s annual “Messiah Project” seeks to make a new Messiah for our time. Excerpts of Handel’s oratorio are interspersed with offerings from the Skid Row community and the wide network of Street Symphony’s artists: we start with a set from an all-women Mariachi ensemble. Our Vocal Fellows, members of the Skid Row choir, sing the solos—either selections from Messiah, songs from Broadway musicals, or their own compositions.

Street Symphony Founder/Artistic Director Vijay Gupta and 2018 Composer-In-Residence Reena Esmail perform Take What You Need, written by Reena Esmail, at Messiah Project 2017. Photo by Kat Bawden

Patrons from beyond Skid Row who come to hear Street Symphony don’t get preferential parking. They walk through the neighborhood guided by the sound of West African drums, before arriving at The Midnight Mission, where they will have a chance to sing the beloved choruses with community members who have attended our free workshops in advance of our final performance in the gymnasium. We sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” because our community asked to sing it.[5]


A few years after the event I played at the Patton State Hospital, I couldn’t shake what happened in that room. I had considered my performance in that event a quiet failure, and I kept thinking of what the man had asked me: “Son, don’t you know any songs we know?” What was he really asking for?

Years later, as I looked up the history of “Jesus on the Main Line,” I realized that this elderly black man wasn’t asking me to entertain him; he was asking me to see him. He was asking me to acknowledge that while I stood on that stage, I also had the opportunity to make room for his history to matter. “Jesus on the Main Line” was one of the freedom songs, sung during the Civil Rights marches by Dr. Martin Luther King and his companions as they rallied for freedom.

The issue wasn’t that he didn’t want to hear Bach. It was that he wanted to hear why Bach mattered to me. And it wasn’t even that I should care about “Jesus on the Main Line”; it was that I should care about why that song mattered to him.

So now, when an audience member asks, “Do you know any songs we know?” we respond, “Well, why don’t you share something with us?”

We’ve had women in prison sing some of Adele’s songs, men speak their poetry and tell us about their love of the late Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle, and we’ve made arrangements of Bob Marley for string orchestra and Reggae DJ to perform at Jamaican Independence Day celebrations in Skid Row parks. We learned how to use our expertise to become part of an existing culture—to write a new definition of how we, as classically trained musicians, might be part of making something beautiful with the community we serve.

Before our 2017 Messiah Project, a man who had spent the night in the courtyard didn’t want to come up to hear us play Handel. He muttered something in Spanish about gringo music as he reluctantly entered the hall. We didn’t tell him that we started Messiah with a thirty-minute set from Las Colibrí, an all-women Mariachi ensemble, but he soon found out. As they sang “Guantanamera,” he stood up in the back row and wiped tears from his eyes. He asked a violinist in Las Colibrí, our coordinator Jazmín Morales, how they knew to sing “his song”? He hadn’t heard it live since he left Cuba, and was certainly not expecting to hear “his music” in Skid Row.

This is our performance practice. As artists in our world today—a world filled with growing disconnection, alienation and violence—we serve as bridges, cultural translators, and meaning-makers. As we discard the brittle armor of artistic “product” and embrace the artistic “process” that informs the collaborative power and grace of the music that we love, we provide a pathway to belonging—for ourselves, our patrons, and our audiences. As we move from outreach and engagement into the radically mutual space of exchange, we become part of the creation of new cultures—restorative spaces for us to feel, to heal, to be.

Vijay Gupta is a violinist and social justice advocate. An esteemed performer, communicator, educator and citizen-artist, Gupta is a leading advocate for the role of the arts and music to heal, inspire, provoke change, and foster social connection. Gupta (Yale School of Music M.M. ’07) is the founder and Artistic Director of Street Symphony, a non-profit organization providing musical engagement, dialogue and teaching artistry for homeless and incarcerated communities in Los Angeles.

Vijay Gupta is a 2018 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow. Gupta is a passionate and dedicated educator, and an active recitalist, soloist and chamber musician.


[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/01/california-sterilization-records/511718/

[2] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-08-24/jail-replacement-mental-health-facility-inmate-supervisors-criminal-justice-reform

[3] https://www.lataco.com/darrell-fields-beloved-guitarist-living-in-skid-row-burned-to-death-while-inside-his-tent/?fbclid=IwAR0ix8zPVVv49Si2EcSavCdX9YiNHOuNJhdmythGQRxu-lN1RV8vPipIGmI

[4] “I celebrate the resilience of your ever-expanding souls, and I pray that you see the light within you, and give it permission to shine.” —Brian Palmer

Since the writing of this essay, the Skid Row community and Street Symphony family experienced the loss of our friend Brian Palmer, who died due to an accidental overdose. Brian was a member of Urban Voices Project, a Skid Row community choir, and had come to Los Angeles in 2015 with a month clean from a seven year heroin addiction. In 2017, Brian began a vocal fellowship with Street Symphony, and performed the aria “The People Who Walked in Darkness” from Messiah, and received critical acclaim for his performance in The New Yorker in a piece by Alex Ross. He sang that Handel aria as if it was his own story—because it was his story: Brian taught us how to shine, how to love, and how to listen. In exchange for his friendship and fellowship, we learned human lessons—that the daily work of our lives is in connection and relationship, to ourselves and the world around us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eH8-nhIlocA&t=165s (cued to Brian Palmer singing “The People. . .”)

[5] Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sw-KyglMNoQ

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Gupta, Vijay (2019): “The Making of Street Symphony” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 9. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu