Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Beloved Physicians: St Luke, Thomas Dent Mütter, and Jesus

Thomas Dent Mütter
We acquired the patronage of St Luke here at Berkeley Divinity School by a somewhat strange means. The Gospel of Luke has various associations that could inspire theological education: the Gospel’s emphasis on God’s action in history, and on the poor and marginalized, not least. Saint Luke is even, according to some accounts patron of students - but no that wasn’t it. He is also patron of artists, and butchers - and, of course, of physicians.

The first St Luke’s Chapel, at the former Berkeley campus in Middletown, Conn., was the gift of Mary Alsop Mütter in memory of her late husband, the physician Thomas Dent Mütter. Mütter - subject of the 2014 New York Times bestseller Dr Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz - is buried in Middletown, but his name is probably better remembered in Philadelphia, where the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians is named for a man who was one of the leading figures in medicine in the nineteenth century.

Mütter died in 1859, at the age of 48; shortly after, his grieving widow, whose family were from Middletown, gave the Chapel to the fledgling seminary, its dedication to St Luke a reflection of her departed husband’s achievement and of his faith. As Berkeley’s founding Dean (and later Bishop of Connecticut and Presiding Bishop) John Williams put it in his sermon at the dedication of the Chapel in 1861, “He (Mütter) was a 'beloved physician,' ministering not to the body only, but to the spirit also. And so, from the 'beloved physician' of the Scriptures, this chapel takes its name: and ...because, here, they are to be trained, whose duty it will be, to minister 'the wholesome medicines of the doctrines,' by which 'the diseases of our souls may be healed'" - quoting Thomas Cranmer's Collect for St Luke as it appeared in the then Prayer Book of 1789.

Mütter was a pioneer of plastic surgery; not cosmetic surgery, but the restoration of mobility and functionality to people who whether congenitally or as often by horrific accidents such as industrial burns were not only disfigured but impeded from mobility and other basic functions. He not only developed and practiced new techniques of surgery but advocated for the equally novel and controversial practices of anesthesia and antiseptics. Some of Mütter’s contemporaries and colleagues were opposed to anesthetic in particular because they believed “pain [was] a desirable, salutary, and conservative manifestation of life force.” (Dr Mütter's Marvels, 193). As a practitioner of surgery that improved quality of life and as advocate of humane and wholesome practices, Mütter was thus a “beloved physician” worthy of commemoration.

The idea of the Gospel as medicine, and of ministry as healing, is as old as the Gospel itself. While sickness and injury have cross-cultural force, Mütter’s challenges help us understand how much more powerful and confronting it might have been, and might yet be, to describe the Gospel as therapeia as Luke does - as healing. Healing is not necessarily painless - in fact it is rarely so.

Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 study Soul Searching described the religion of American youth as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” In that worldview, there is a God somewhere (that’s why it’s described as somehow “deist"), who wants us to be nice (that’s the “moralistic" part) and who can help we have need, and who in their words “provide[s] therapeutic benefits to [the] adherent.”

It's too easy however to use this kind of analysis as part of some narrative of decline from a supposed pristine past, when everyone believed the way they were supposed to - "let's make the Gospel great again,” I hear you say. It was 80 years ago however when our late colleague here at Yale Richard Niebuhr performed a similar diagnosis when he famously spoke of belief in “a God without wrath (who) brought [people] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America, 193). The issue is not about youth - it is about people.

Smith and Denton have, like many of us,  given up the word “therapy” as a hostage to the enemy in trying to describe a problem. To quote them again, God is in the worldview of moralistic therapeutic deism "something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he's always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process” (165). In fact therapeia, the healing for which people come to Jesus, is not merely the work of the butler and the “therapist” in Smith and Denton's modern sense, but is the costly service of transformation.

The work of a theological school is arguably two-fold; it is to train healers, but also to be a place of healing. The great Origen of Alexandria called Jesus the "chief physician" who called as pupils those who were "to be physicians of the soul in his Church" (Exp. on Ps. 37). We are here as committed to the training of those spiritual physicians; not the therapists of popular imagination, nor the reckless barber surgeons of the pre-modern era, but of those who will, with the chief physician as guide, offer their skills to lead communities of healing and wholeness. They can only do that work of healer as knowing themselves healed, or as still being healed. The therapeia of God is true, transformative, continuous, and not without pain, and goes on in this place in the service of the Holy Trinity, and under the patronage of St Luke.

ALMIGHTY God, who called Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul: May it please thee, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Aptowicz, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. New York: Gotham Books, 2014.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Kingdom of God in America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Writing on the Heart: St Matthew

Caravaggio, Inspiration of St Matthew
[From Community Eucharist for the Feast of St Matthew, Evangelist, including Matriculation for Berkeley Divinity School 2016]

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them round your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.

You will write a lot of words while you are here. Some will be more important and lasting than others. The word or two that constitutes signing one’s name here tonight may however be among the more important acts of writing undertaken by those matriculating at Berkeley and Yale.

What are these who sign this evening doing, exactly? The ceremony of matriculation stems from the medieval universities of Europe, where the matricula was a roll containing the names of all the students who, having joined the community, were able to exercise the privileges of membership as well as to accept its responsibilities. Matricula, a diminutive of matrix, means a womb or source; writing where many others have done before at Berkeley, going back to 1854, these students now experience a sort of untimely birth-through-writing into a new community of scholars, an alma mater which claims them as its children. The matriculants do not merely write a name, they join and form a community with the act of writing.

So what shall we write together, other than our names? We meet today under the patronage of a writer, St Matthew the Evangelist. Matthew is commemorated in the lections in two modes tonight: one is the references or allusions to scripture and its writing, in 1 Timothy and the passages from Proverbs and Psalms that refer to the writing and teaching of the righteous way of the Lord; the other is in the story of Matthew’s call away from his desk and his earlier ways of writing, and the ensuing banquet at which Jesus must defend his own taste in community, saying "I came to call not the righteous but sinners” and, quoting Hosea, “learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’"

The words about writing and teaching the way of the upright sit awkwardly with the raucous banquet scene, and the lines from Proverbs and Hosea in particular seem to struggle together in our matrix: Proverbs writes of the steady unflinching forward path of loyalty; Hosea - followed by Jesus and Matthew - describes the winding but upward road of mercy.

In fact they are referring to exactly the same thing with “loyalty” and “mercy” - it’s even the same Hebrew word. This hesed can otherwise more wordily be rendered as the covenant faithfulness of God. One of the reasons we write here - and write, and write more - is because of the desire to understand such niceties of biblical and theological language and literature, and to share them. But the more fundamental reason is to understand that same particular thing of which both Hosea and the sage wrote - and then to write it ourselves.

The covenant faithfulness of God writes us all into the matrix of a community, that “beloved community” so often spoken of. This notion, which emerges from the the thought of Dr Martin Luther King, but also before him from that of Josiah Royce and Howard Thurman, focusses on the love, the agape, to which the Gospel calls us. The beloved community is a form of life before God and with one another that is marked both by loyalty and mercy, which arise from the most fundamental virtue of love, which is not only God’s gift but God’s nature. Loyalty, because you cannot be merciful from nowhere; mercy needs a community. Mercy, because loyalty alone means just corporate selfishness.

Matthew was already a writer when called from the tax collector’s booth. He was recording names, and numbers next to them, creating a matricula of sorts - a record of exploitation under the cover of violent occupation, an accusatory list of the names of those who would then despise him for his complicity in their oppression. And now too, there are other matriculae being written under the hands of other forces; the names of Terence Crutcher and Keith L. Scott were tragically matriculated this week so far into one of them; last week twenty-nine people in Peshawar, Pakistan, whose names you would struggle to find in any news source, but are known to God and remembered and loved, were added to another such list of despair.

And so, in response, in anger and sadness and joy, we write our lists and our stories, believing these are the truer and the more powerful. We write of love and justice, of God’s grace and salvation, of the depths of sin and the glory of hope. And always we write of loyalty and of mercy, of God’s covenant faithfulness.

To write our names on this matricula at Berkeley or any list does not free us from complicity in the oppressions of our own time; rather it testifies to our willingness to receive and to give mercy, and to feast with the complicit as well as the righteous, to be part of and to build the beloved community. We choose this action, while others have their names written where they would not be, drawn into communities pf violence. We who write our names receive this gift of beloved community not to hoard but to give; to place our loyalty at the service of mercy.

So write your love and insight and anger and hope into papers these two or three years or more, of course; write it in blogs and in articles, write it in books and tweets, write it on paper napkins and chalk it on walls. But even then you will not have written it where you will find it most needed. Scripture itself witnesses, as Proverbs does this evening, to this strange and wonderful image again and again, of writing on the heart:

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them round your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.

Write it on the heart. And may the Spirit of God guide your hand.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Vanishing into Glory: Saint Bartholomew

Gary Oldman as Sirius Black,
from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenis.
Popular culture is filled with evidence for the persistence of heroic myths of suffering and deliverance, of dying and rising. You can take your pick even of contemporary movie franchises: The X-Men or the Avengers, Thor and Loki, Gods of the Egyptians, Superman and Batman.

But of course there is an older story, a deeper myth, that came before and that will remain after these have long been forgotten:

I refer, of course, to Harry Potter.

There are many significant moments of pathos in the Harry Potter books, not least moments of actual death. For me the most fearful and confronting of these was not Snape's death or Cedric Diggory’s death, or even Dumbledore’s death; it was the death of Sirius Black.

If you haven’t read the Order of the Phoenix book someone else may have to spell this out for you in detail afterwards, but during a battle among wizards Sirius falls or is pushed through a portal, a crumbling ancient doorway that stands by itself in a room in the Ministry of Magic with a ragged curtain hanging in it, but that seems to go nowhere. In fact that is all too true - it is a door to oblivion, through which no-one who passes can return. Falling through, Sirius has ceased to be, is annihilated.

Oblivion may be our greatest fear. Our efforts to protect or enlarge our personal empires - of family, profession, intellectual achievement, or material wealth - are efforts not merely to protect ourselves from outrageous fortune but in particular to be remembered. We may even have come to terms with death, in the straightforward sense, but we are scared of an oblivion greater than death itself.

One of the things regular users of Lesser Feasts and Fasts become used to is a phrase something like this in certain of the biographies of saints it provides: “little else is known of Saint X.” This is a strange challenge, an implicit rebuke even I suggest, to current efforts to reform the sanctoral calendar into an adequately didactic or informative and representative collection of people about whom we are supposed therefore to know enough to count them worthy of emulation. In any case, if early one morning as Morning Prayer lurches into motion in this Chapel you hear words like these through the gloom of semi-consciousness, there is one thing you can be fairly sure of about a saint so described: it is an apostle.

This is a strange thing to consider. If we asked a different question of our collection of saints, something like “which of these are the foundational figures, those to whom the Gospel was first and definitively committed, those by whose witness the faith was first commended to the world” and so forth, we would give the same answer surely: the apostles.

St Bartholomew whom we commemorate today is one of these shadowy apostles, a name in a list only, and otherwise a figure quite lost to us - and certainly no more accessible through the collection of embarrassed legends devised later by well-meaning Christians who could not abide this stark vacuum.

But the oblivion of Bartholomew, his vanishing from memory, is not or not only a failure of the historical record. It is a sign to us of the character of apostleship and how it differs from our attempts to avoid oblivion and be remembered, even in the life of faith. Jesus describes this truth in today’s Gospel clearly enough: “A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which... was the greatest. He said ‘the kings of the gentiles lord or over them and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so among you…'” (Luke 22: 24-26) And Paul provides a striking job description of the obscure apostolate: “hungry and thirsty…poorly clothed and beaten and homeless…the rubbish of the world” (1 Cor 4).

Apostleship does not seem to be about establishing name or reputation or leaving a legacy in any recognizable sense; and what we have observed about the fate of the actual apostles bears this out in a striking way. Apostleship is not about being remembered - or not, at least, about being remembered by us.

There is of course another whose memory has an altogether different character and significance. The prayer attributed to Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill is telling:

“O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not forget me."

Our truest and deepest need is not to fend off oblivion by our remembered achievements, but to be remembered by God. This is the one to whom Jesus himself, facing his own oblivion, offered his memory and who was thus called back from beyond that portal into our remembrance.

This then is the apostolic call: to abandon fear of oblivion and the false forms of achievement to which it leads, living our lives in love to be remembered by God, and thus like Bartholomew vanishing into glory.