This week we chat with fellow MA graduate, Sam Maclennan, all about his research – and some other semi-related topics. We chat stigmata, the canonization of saints, and the idea of “healthy” religious practices and if those labels are detrimental. We also chat a bit about COVID and its impact on religions and various religious practices.
Interview: Grad Chat with Sam Maclennan
You’re listening to Nearly Numinous, a podcast all about the religious side of life. We hope to provide our listeners insight into the lived experiences of everyday people as it pertains to any form of religion or spirituality. This includes embracing scholarly understandings of religion and sociology, but it also includes casual conversations and understanding real lived experiences. This podcast is hosted by myself, Steph, Jacqueline and Rachel, and we hope you join us every Monday for new episodes.
This week, we’re very excited to have Sam Maclennan. Sam was part of our class for our master’s program at Queens and he’s here to school us on stigmata, Catholicism and how the medical system interacts with religion. We also chat a bit about COVID and a few other topics we got distracted with.
Sam is an MA graduate of Religious Studies at Queen’s University hailing originally from Calgary, he completed a Bachelor of Science at Queen’s University and Life Sciences minor in religious studies. And he is broadly interested in examining intersections of religion and medicine. So hey, Sam, thanks for sitting down and chatting with us today.
Sam Maclennan 1:34
Oh my gosh, thanks so much to you three for inviting me.
Of course. So we’re really excited to have Sam on today because Sam was another one of the master’s students when the three of us got our master’s degree. And so we’re kind of used to a little bit of back and forth banter. So hopefully the episode’s good today. So Sam, do you want to maybe just introduce yourself a little bit and tell us about your research and your interests and kind of where you are at in life now post master’s?
Sam Maclennan 2:04
Yes, for sure. So yeah, I did my undergrad at Queen’s in life sciences and religious studies. And then I did a master’s with the three lovely hosts of the show for a year and we all—we actually convocated a couple days ago. And so since I’ve been doing an internship in Ottawa on the Hill, it’s called the parliamentary internship program. It’s a non-partisan internship, you work with two different members of parliament and just do research for them, do kind of legislative tasks for them, administrative tasks for them. So that’s been really interesting so far, but my research interests are focused mostly on the intersections of medicine and religion, and I look a lot at Catholicism specifically.
Fascinating. So Sam, you mentioned that a lot of your research involves Catholicism specifically. So do you want to kind of go into more detail about what your master’s thesis was on? And kind of where specifically, your research kind of took you?
Sam Maclennan 3:09
Yeah, for sure. So, um, I was looking at what’s called stigmata. So for people that aren’t familiar, I know Jacqueline, Steph and Rachel are familiar because I talked about it in literally every seminar. But for people who aren’t familiar, stigmata are the spontaneous manifestation of Christ’s wounds on the body of believers.
So people generally it’s Catholic women who claim them, will claim that these, the wounds of the crucifixion will spontaneously appear on their body, often, like it’ll coincide with the vision that they have, or when they’re praying. And there’s analogous kind of phenomena in other religious traditions that are similar. And so I was looking at stigmata, particularly in a medical context. So I was interested in how contemporary medical actors, so say, physicians and psychiatrists think about stigmata and treat them. And so when you, there was an interesting thing that I was kind of coming across a lot in a lot of the literature, like contemporary medical literature, and that was that every time stigmata was referenced, in these like well known medical journals, they referenced them, or they, they’d often diagnosed these stigmatic women as being hysterical or having histrionic personality disorder. And so to me, that just really jumped out. I just thought, like A) that’s weird that people are still calling women hysterical, and like, seriously, or even referring to it as histrionic personality disorder. So that was kind of my starting point. I was like, why does hysteria show up every time stigmata are referenced in medical literature? And what does that mean? So that was kind of the starting point for it.
And how—what did your MRE focus on specifically? What did you find when you did your research?
Sam Maclennan 5:02
Right, so I was looking, I tried to do kind of a historical inquiry into that. So I was like, where did that basically start, like the stigmata history association. And so I ended up going back to like, not personally, but my research, going back to 19th century, France, particularly the end of the 19th century. Yeah, too bad time travel’s not real. But anyway, it would have made the research easier.
Oh my gosh, don’t I know that.
Sam Maclennan 5:30
Yeah. Actually though I don’t know if I’d want to be around for any of this. But so the end of the 19th century, in France is a really interesting period, particularly for psychiatry as a field. So psychiatry, at this point is trying to prove that they are a legitimate medical discipline, like the other disciplines that are more focused on physiology and focused on the body. And so in this period, you see, both like the founding of psychiatry, and using like scientific norms and principles, you also see the same actors trying to look retrospectively to the past to famous Catholic saints, especially because that’s, that’s the religious context in France, but also to famous Catholic people at that time. And these psychiatrists call these religious figures all sorts of names, often hysterical. And so it’s at this point that stigmata becomes associated with hysteria, because these psychiatrists are, are looking at stigmatics, people with stigmata and saying, like, “that’s not a real thing, these people are mentally ill, they’re hysterical.” So that’s kind of where they enter into association, it’s a way for psychiatrists to prove that they are a legitimate discipline that can explain other people explain the body. And there’s also like a political dimension to it as well, at the time. This is the period where the French government is trying to, or there’s movements within the French government to try and become more secular. So you have these secular republicans on one side who say that we need to become this modern nation, and do away with all the features of the old regime, including the Catholic Church. And so the French psychiatrists in this period, like, align themselves with this, this the secular republicans against these conservatives who want to bring back the monarchy. And so there’s this association of like, the Catholic Church with the monarchs against the republicans and the psychiatrists. And so there’s this political dimension too where the psychiatrists are trying to discredit these religious actors and these more conservative Catholic actors who believe more in these supernatural things, and so it also takes on that kind of political character, if that makes sense. So that was kind of the starting point. And then from there on, I was trying to trace the history of how do we think of hysteria? How does it change over time, because, like, I’m not sure if we’re all familiar, but hysteria in like 1980 is no longer considered a legitimate medical condition in the DSM, in like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association. So it’s no longer a disorder like nowadays, but it kind of breaks into a bunch of other disorders. So it breaks down into say, histrionic personality disorder, a bunch of dissociative disorders, conversion disorder. So it’s basically like hysteria in my readings still remains. But it just becomes all these, it becomes parcelled off into all these little diagnoses. And then if you look at contemporary literature on stigmata today, all the things that these stigmatic women are called are either hysterical or more likely, they’re called often, they like, that they have histrionic personality disorder, conversion disorder. All these things that hysteria broke into are the things that they’re called or diagnosed with. So like I was basically arguing there’s still this persistence of calling these women hysterical just by basically other names. And I don’t think the power dynamics necessarily change in terms of the goal, like there’s still an attempt to exercise a certain secular medical power over religious actors, I guess.
I find it really interesting that I would say that mine, my research and your research, are both looking at almost the exact same thing just in very different ways. So you talk about these women being seen as hysterical based on whatever diagnosis they’re given in whatever religious rituals they’re participating in. And my research focuses kind of on the idea of women, especially women that followed the cult of Dionysus being told they were manic and frenzied, and they weren’t in their right mind. And I think it’s very fascinating that you know, we’re still having the same problem over and over again, it just is under different names. So, you know, it’s called hysteria for so long. It’s called mania for so long. It’s called frenzy. You know, so are we just on a new frontier of a new name for it, rather than actually making significant progress? And maybe that’s a rhetorical question.
Sam Maclennan 10:28
Sam Maclennan 10:30
No, but totally, I mean, like, hysteria is just one of the things that, um, these religious women were called, like, I, from my understanding, and from my reading of it, it’s like the predominant diagnosis that’s attached to them. But there’s other psychiatric conditions that people try and come up with to describe these women. Like there’s even a term like Christomania, at one point in the 19th century, like this mania about Christianity, right? So it’s like, so totally, to your point, like, there’s a certain way that like these things get pathologized and like, turn out to be sick, like people will call them sick in some way. And it certainly, it doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily gone away. And it still hasn’t gone away in like, the contemporary literature on stigmata. Like that was the thing that shocked me the most is that doctors today still A) feel the need to like, diagnose these things and intervene and write case reports on women with stigmata. And B), there’s a sense that it’s like, okay, ethically to say that these women are just crazy. In short, like, yeah, you can say that it’s histrionic personality disorder, or whatever. But those things are all super gendered, like if you look up histrionic personality disorder, and like what it seemed to be, it’s, like, all the stereotypical feminine traits and a lot of study, like scholars of history note this that like, it’s all the stereotypes of femininity, but like, to their, like, most extreme. So like, they say, like if you’re histrionic personality, you’re neurotic, self-obsessed, dramatic, like all these things that like, Oh, it’s like, that’s just things that you think women are like and think are bad or something, right? Like, it’s just like, I don’t know, it just is shocking to me. But it’s like, oh, yeah, they’re like, this is an objective and real thing.
Yeah. So Sam. I’m interested. Studying stigmata is quite a niche research topic. And I was wondering how you first got interested in the subject?
Sam Maclennan 12:32
No, thank you. Yeah, it’s definitely uber uber niche. Basically, how it started was that I was in, I think, a third year class with Dr. Pamela Dickey Young at the School of Religion, who ended up being my supervisor for the master’s research essay. But I was in a class with her on, Dress and Bodies, I think, was the name of the class. And we were like, we each had to present on a different, like facet of religious dress, like a religious a dressing habit that people do, or a particular garment or whatever. And so I was trying to think of something that would make, would like make it complicated to think about, like, what is dress and what is not dress, like what constitutes something you choose to wear something you don’t choose to wear, right? Because you can think of like, say a nun’s habit or whatever, you could think of scarring your body, or like doing things to your body on it, that count as kind of dress and like some of the scholars were arguing that in this class that we were, we were looking at, but I think Pam suggested to me looking at stigmata, I think she brought it up to me and was like, oh, have you ever thought about this, and I looked into it, and A) it’s like super, stigmata are super gory and spectacular. Like, if you look at images, you can see like, images of like Therese Neumann with, she was a German stigmatic in the 20th century, and she, like had blood coming out of her eyes, right? Like, like, just rivers of blood. So it’s like, kind of horrifying and spectacular. So I was like, oh, that’s really interesting. And then I thought it was interesting, like at the time, like, if these people claim that the stigmata come to them spontaneously, and like by the will of God, is it dress like does that count as like, religious dress? If they’re saying, well, I didn’t really like choose to put this on or do this to my body? It just happened, right? But other people might say, you know, like, you harmed yourself to give yourself the appearance of stigmata, or you’re crazy, and whatever. So like, that was kind of how it started. And then it changed, I guess, over my third and fourth year and then into my masters.
Do you have any idea why stigmata is so gendered and why more women have reported stigmata than men?
Sam Maclennan 14:51
Right. And I mean, I feel like this is kind of the reason that, like medical actors end up calling these women hysterical. So I think about 90% of people who claim stigmata or that we know of that claim, stigmata are women. So it is a highly gendered phenomena. Um, I think like, if you’re subscribing to like a medical point of view, and that’s how you’re trying to work through these problems, it was their point of view that this must somehow be then biological and linked to biological sex in some way. So, you know, there’s lots of references to women having weaker nervous systems or something, and that they’re easily like scandalized. And those things end up leading to them being susceptible to suggestion by religious people around them. And so they end up like, you know, meditating on stigmata long enough that their body produces them. So I don’t know, necessarily why women are more likely to have stigmata. I don’t necessarily think of it in biological terms, because I think that’s produced a bunch of really flawed analyses on why it happens. So there’s arguments, some people make arguments, I think that they’re ways for women who have typically been excluded from leadership roles in the Church, or who’ve been kind of excluded from the priesthood or anything else to have personal experiences with the divine and so on. So I think that maybe that perhaps is one angle on this, too, is that a lot of these women are women who are in like small rural towns, and there’s really strict gender roles often in these places. So that perhaps is one angle, but I really don’t have a good answer for you.
I think, just minor feminist rant for a quick sec. I find it absolutely fascinating that like how, like rhetoric and gender around rhetoric can change instantly in these sort of situations. Because I almost wonder if you see men in the church, having these divine experiences, talking about these divine experiences, and there may be different in some sort of way. But those experiences are then maybe proof that you know, this person has a better connection with God, this person has a more intact spirituality, versus, you know, if a woman has stigmata, that’s not necessarily seen as you know, a more divine relationship with God, even though that you know, you could probably flip that on its head so easily. And it’s just the choices we make and how we talk about different genders, right?
Sam Maclennan 17:38
No, and totally and like that, there’s this really weird relationship where the vast majority of stigmatics are women so like 90% but the very first like known, and I guess, recognized stigmatic St. Francis of Assisi, who received the stigmata in 1224. He was canonized, like shortly after his death, and has become one of the most popular Catholic saints in the world. And then you look at St. Padre Pio, who, another saint with stigmata, probably the other most famous person with stigmata in the world, also canonized, and that was deeply scrutinized, too. But it’s interesting that a lot of these very, like, the vast majority of stigmatics are women. But there’s more of an even gender distribution in terms of who gets canonized for that in a way that doesn’t make sense. Like, right, in other words, like, you know, 10% of these people are men, but they are disproportionately the people who end up, or they’re much more likely to be canonized and recognized formally by the church than these women are and I definitely think the whole hysteria diagnosis plays into that in a large way discrediting them.
You see a similar thing when you look at typically Christian women who are like retroactively diagnosed with anorexia mirabilis. There are lots of examples of men as well as women starving themselves, torturing themselves in the name of like God and to bring themselves closer to salvation. But it’s typically when a woman does that to herself, that’s when it’s seen less of, less of an example of her religious devotion and more of an example of her being, you know, crazy or hysterical.
Sam Maclennan 19:31
No, totally. And I mean, a lot of these stigmatic women also experienced some of those other things you mentioned, like, I think they call it Holy Aleteia, I think, is one of the terms they use where these women will only survive on like communion wafers, like they won’t drink, they won’t eat. And that’s kind of one of the other things that makes them famous. So Therese Neumann, probably like one of the other most famous stigmatics from the 20th century and she was said to only survive on communion wafers. She also had these spectacular stigmata. But that was another thing that she was criticized for. And there’s been a lot written on like, holy anorexia or whatever, these women that starve themselves. And again, like you mentioned, like, very highly gendered way of thinking about, I guess, asceticism in a way that men are always or are usually not scrutinized for.
Yeah, it’s just it’s so interesting that if men and women are exhibiting the same behaviors, historically, men are sort of exalted for it where women are criticized.
I think it’s interesting. So I did a little bit of research on early Christian asceticism, but I’m not sup—I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on it. So forgive me if I say anything incorrect. But it’s also interesting that when you look at kind of the origins of asceticism, it was very masculine focused, as well. And especially coming out of the ancient Greek kind of culture surrounding it, it was definitely, you know, if women were doing the same thing, and again, this is going back more towards my research, but if women were doing the same thing about, you know, going out into the forest, and just kind of looking for that divine experience, by neglecting your bodily needs, I guess just to summarize it shortly, it was kind of seen as that manic frenzy, and it was seen as like kind of the gods punishing you almost forcing you to kind of do this to redeem yourself in their eyes. Whereas, you know, then you look at it, it’s got a very different perspective, when you look at some of more the eastern traditions because you look at some of the more extreme Buddhist monks and what’s—bodhisattvas? Yeah. They, they will practice very similar asceticism, but it’s viewed completely different. So I think it’s very interesting that even you know, cross gender, cross culture, how we view these practices is so so different,
That—that word you used, that ascetics, women ascetics need to sort of be redeemed through their religious torture, that’s really interesting. You don’t necessarily, at least to my knowledge, always see that with men, when they must practice their religious devotion, it’s not really an example of having to redeem themselves in the eyes of God, when, when women have to bring themselves closer to God and salvation is that it does have that element of needing to be redeemed.
So Sam, in my mind, you’re an expert on saint canonization processes. I’m not sure that’s exactly true. But that’s kind of just my assumption in my head. So I was wondering, there’s this article that I came across. In this recent news article it describes a teen computer whiz that may become the first patron saint of the internet. For our listeners who haven’t read this article, the Italian teen, the 15 year old Carlo Acutis, died of leukemia in 2006. And in June Acutis was beatified by the Catholic Church. So being beatified means that the person is seen by the church to have entered heaven, and that they now can guide those who pray to them. It’s the first step towards sainthood. And Acutis is the youngest person in the modern era to receive this status. I know that the saints that you normally research are usually not contemporary, but I was wondering if you could explain to our listeners a bit about this process and how it works currently. And if you have any thoughts about modern sainthood?
Sam Maclennan 23:43
For sure, well, thank you for the question. I can’t say that I’m an expert in this or even close. But I tried to read a little bit about it for some of my master’s classes, and it’s deeply, deeply complicated, but, um, so I can’t really speak to it in too much detail. But, um, I guess like, just to back up quickly, like when we think about the origins of sainthood, it emerges from the early days of the church. And so on one level “saint” was a term that was often used to refer to members of the congregation. So on one level, it didn’t even have some sort of connotation of someone being in heaven with God that can intercede. And when you see practices in the early Christian church, where people would die, as martyrs, so from Roman persecution, and they’d be venerated by their local church, and they’d kind of be held up as these figures as models of virtue against persecution. So that’s kind of the historical origins of sainthood. And it’s like funny that, I guess, to think about sainthood now, because it’s now this like, process that the church oversees, very much in a global context, and they have all these rules in place to verify if someone’s a saint or not, but like, as it’s—when it started, it was very much a local process. And I guess it still is a local process today, but it’s much more controlled by the church. So, like a couple things about like, I guess what, how saints are verified by the church, like once you get into the Middle Ages, and the church starts to take more control over determining who’s a saint who’s not. So they look at the virtues of the person. So did they live their life according to a set list of virtues and to a heroic degree? That’s one of the criteria. So basically, can they be a model for the faithful for how to live? And they look often at their writings. So what did they write, did they write anything heretical that would be, I guess, bad for the church if they were sainted. And then, like, it came out that they were against some like key doctrine of the church. And then one of the other things that they look at is miracles. So sainthood is not—like sainthood, canonization and beatification, that’s the church’s way, I guess, of recognizing that a person is in heaven with God. But it doesn’t mean that that process makes them go to heaven to be with God, if that makes sense. Right? So like, the way I guess the church sees it is they’re uncovering a truth that exists or doesn’t exist, right. So the process of canonization doesn’t necessarily, like produce the saint, I guess it recognizes that these people are saints, but for you to be recognized as a saint, you have to go through these two stages, so first beatification and then canonization. And historically you needed I think, like, maybe three miracles or two miracles for each stage that would have to be attributed to your intercession after your death. And that would like prove that you are in heaven with God. In recent years, it’s very much moved towards, like it’s kind of been, I don’t want to say deregulated, but they’ve like cut a lot of, I guess, the red tape on becoming a saint. So you only need I think, one miracle to be beatified one miracle to be canonized. And then you’re kind of good to go. So there’s an interesting book by Kenneth Woodward, who’s a journalist who went into the Vatican and interviewed like the congregation that studies on causes for saints. And he argues that they’re kind of trending away from these miraculous intercessions as the basic for—basis for sainthood, towards more of like a virtue-based model. And so that’s kind of like, I guess, primer on sainthood. I think Carlo Acutis is really interesting because he’s seen as perhaps maybe going to be the patron saint of the internet, like he grew up watching Pokemon, he had like a PlayStation. And I think a lot of people who’ve been writing about him connect to him on that level. And so I guess it just reveals, I think the flexibility of the whole model of sainthood that it’s about everyday people, it’s about people’s connections to them. And I think it says a lot about our moment, that like there’s a potential like saint of the internet, which I think is kind of cool. Did that answer your question?
Yeah, that’s good. Is there anything about bodies?
Sam Maclennan 28:14
Well, there’s like a whole, there’s like a whole, um, I don’t know a ton about it. So but um, there’s a bunch of other like markers that kind of get, they’re not officially considered part of the canonization process, so say stigmata. Stigmata aren’t, like having stigmata are not considered officially as part of the canonization process. So if you look at someone like St. Padre Pio, who lived through both of the world wars, and he had stigmata, he had a massive global following because of the stigmata. But they’re not officially part of the criteria for what makes you a saint or not. So like the church didn’t consider that when they were canonizing him. But like, obviously, they implicitly did, because if they found that, like they did a bunch of studies to see whether his stigmata were real or faked, and obviously, if they were fakes, they wouldn’t allow him to proceed in the canonization process. Also, of course, like the reason he has this massive following is because of the stigmata. And so, there’s a lot of other like miraculous kind of body things that come about, like people having stones in their organs or different shaped organs, and people’s bodies who never rot people’s bodies who smell. It’s called the perfume of sanctity. And so these are all things like from my understanding that the church doesn’t officially consider when they’re looking for saints. Um, but they can be things I guess, that mobilize supporters of the saint who then pressure the church to canonize them, which is kind of interesting anyway.
So, going back to Carlo Acutis, I thought there already was a patron saint of the internet and his name is Isidore of Seville. Have you guys ever heard of him?
Sam Maclennan 30:07
Yeah. So, um, I only heard of him because I went to a school when I was younger called St. Isidore. And there are two St. Isidores. The one I went to, he was a patron saint of farmers. But then there’s this other cooler St. Isidore, who is the patron saint of the internet.
Cooler St. Isidore?
Yeah. Would you rather be the patron saint of farmers or the internet? I would rather be the internet. But now I’m wondering why people are saying that little, little Carlo Acutis, not to steal his thunder, will be the first saint of the internet when there already supposedly is one.
Yeah, I’m a little bit confused about this too. The article says that Acutis first caught the Catholic Church’s attention as an 11 year old when he created a website that he used to document and catalogue miracles. And I don’t know maybe this is just like being really cynical. But like lots of people create catalogues and things on the internet. And so I’m a little bit confused why? I guess because it’s miracles. Maybe that’s what—
Maybe, it was maybe because he was specifically Catholic too. Because I mean, technically, you could say Wikipedia keeps a running log of probably like everything. But obviously, I’m sure. Actually, that’s a bad assumption to make, you know, maybe the creator of Wikipedia is Catholic. But I don’t know. All right. So I’m very curious, Sam about the fact. So I know you did your undergrad in life sciences. Obviously, your research surrounded kind of health and healing and miracles in the medical system. And I know, you’re still interested in medicine and health studies and everything surrounding that. So I’m kind of curious how you see the research, you’ve done kind of moving forward, like how do you see ways that you can kind of use this knowledge and research that you’ve done in your future?
Sam Maclennan 32:08
Right, like, I think the thing that it made me very aware of was how culturally dependent medical diagnoses can be and are. And like, I, we’ve talked a little bit about this, I feel like as a group, but like, or I guess we mentioned before, we called, but just like the way that certain religious practices get called healthy or sick, like, or sickening, I guess, like, I think that’s a very much a political distinction. So like, I guess, in the case of women with stigmata, or in the case of the women that you study Steph of these women that are called, like manic or crazy or whatever. And, like, I’ve been trying to look at that kind of in my everyday like, how does certain religious practices get called, like, unhealthy or sick for people? And what does that do? Does that reflect an actual empirical? Like, is that on an empirical basis? Or is that more based on people’s prejudices or biases or whatever? And so that’s definitely something I’m thinking about moving forward, and especially through COVID. I’ve been looking, I’ve been noticing that a lot. But there’s this huge debate, like, do we make exceptions, say for congregations of religious people, like when we’re having like limits on gatherings? Should we make exceptions for like, say going to mass? Or should we have exceptions for funerals or things that are kind of momentous in people’s lives that often have religious significance? And so I think that’s, that’s on one level, I’m interested in seeing how that all plays out, like I think in BC the other day, and I think Bonnie Henry excluded religious gatherings from the limits on social gatherings. Like she was saying, they’re not social. So like that on one level is interesting, right. And then there’s the other level of like certain places around the world that have had big outbreaks that are linked to religious groups like the Shincheonji Church in South Korea, for this gathering of Tablighi Jamaat preachers who are like a Muslim missionary group in India have caused a lot of backlash and a lot of hate towards these groups like they’ve been called cults or in the case of the Tablighi Jamaat, they were called jihadists and they were called Corona jihadists like there was this idea that they were waging some sort of like, war against, like the Hindu majority India, using COVID and like COVID with some sort of terrorist tactic and you see that a lot in the right-wing circles in India. Amar, Amarnath Amarasingam has a paper on it one of our profs, actually, it’s really interesting but so that’s kind of what I’ve, that’s how I’ve been thinking about it like now and I think it’s something that is useful for us all to think about as we go through COVID is like, just more generally like is the thing that we say is bad for public health actually bad for public health? Like on what basis? Or is it just something we don’t like? Like is it a religious group that we think is weird? Is it like, quote-unquote weird? Do they practice or pray or do things that we don’t understand? And so that’s why we’re calling them sick, or, you know what I mean? So.
No, I think it’s very interesting, because I think even you can take this outside of the COVID context in general. But I think, you know, just as a general rule, we tend to be okay with the things that we identify with, right? So I think you look at especially, there was a lot of backlash. I remember seeing a few interviews about groups of people going to these, like mega churches, I think, predominantly in the US, but I think it was also happening in Canada at the beginning of the pandemic. And so people were supposed to be isolating, they weren’t supposed to be going to large groups, and a lot of these people were like, Oh, well, no, God’s gonna save me. Or if I die, it’s because God dictated it to be so. And I think it’s interesting, because then the question is, you know, like, do we look upon that and think that that’s strange, because that’s not something I personally would do. Whereas, you know, when you think about it from a very authentic belief system, when, regardless of your opinion on if it’s correct or not, when you honestly believe that God will save you, and God will take care of you, how does that play into the discourse? Right? And I think it definitely, you know, this goes beyond COVID. But it definitely is, is very evident. And, you know, you gave a ton of examples there that this is happening all over the world.
Sam Maclennan 36:44
And like, I’m not trying to like I’m not trying to fully relativize public health measures like I’m not like an anti-masker anti-lockdown, like government infringing on our freedom of religion, whatever like, because I think, if you’re thinking on an empirical basis, like COVID is a highly communicable disease, any large gathering of people, if you can have a super spreader event very easily. So I’m not trying to say, of course, that like, Oh, it’s all part of this, like, hatred for religion or particular religions, when there are lockdowns that maybe prevent having gatherings, but just say, if we go back to the example of the Shincheonji temple in Korea, they’re a new religious movement, a Christian offshoot, and there had already been a lot of media attention around them as a cult, before the pandemic, and then you see, like, after the super spreader event, that there’s this huge, like obsession on their particular modes of practice, how close they are to each other, etc. And again, I’m not trying to say like, you know, we shouldn’t physically distance or whatever, but when you start calling a religious group, a cult, and you start really obsessing over the minutiae of their practices, and think that they’re backwards and disgusting, and whatever. I think that’s where we have to start thinking, Okay, is that like a legitimate criticism that would be equally applied to other religious groups? Or does this just more reflect the fact this is a religious group you think is weird? So I’m just trying to caveat for the listeners. I’m not like, I’m not anti-mask anti-lockdown.
No, no, I think though it is, it’s important questions to ask nonetheless. Yeah. Well, I think too something that I’ve been really fascinated in was, is kind of the ramifications. And this is maybe outside your scope of research, Sam. But I think it’s just an interesting topic in regards to like religion and COVID. But like how people adapt their religions in the time of COVID. And especially, I think one of the big ones that was absolutely fascinating to me was, I guess it wasn’t cancelled, but like the cancelling of the Hajj this year, so the pilgrimage to Mecca, because that normally brings in millions and millions of people all around the world, to one location. And obviously, that wasn’t something that would have been necessarily smart to have this year. But I would be really fascinated to know more, especially if any of our listeners have something to say about this. What kind of ramifications that has for your own faith in your own belief system. You know, even maybe more so on a closer to home level. I even think about the fact that, you know, you can’t go to, at least in Ontario, you can’t sing at church right now. And especially my whole research was about the impact of music, and dance and singing together and participating in this ritual, and how that has an effect on the broader community. So I think it’s quite fascinating to look at how, even just from an internal perspective when you do make those changes how that impacts your religion and your faith as well.
Yeah, I think I think the Hajj wasn’t necessarily cancelled though was it. It was just you couldn’t travel from—
Yeah, they closed their borders to it. Yeah. So if you were already in Saudi Arabia, you could participate in it, but you couldn’t come from outside.
Because I think I saw some pictures of where they had done the arrows and everything to kind of direct it and still maintain physical distancing somehow.
I just remember seeing that picture come up on my newsfeed. Yeah. That would have been a lot of arrows to put down everything.
Yeah. Because how long is the distance for that? I think it’s, it’s miles. Like, it’s a very far distance that they walk. And they participate in different rituals along the way, right? So like, even at the different, I guess, stations, you could call it, you’d have to have certain things in place, right?
That’s a really cool example of how people are trying to accommodate their faiths and practices in like a really safe way during this time when restrictions kind of make any sort of social gathering, any ritual, communal practice, you know, not okay.
So, you know, I think, again, I was kind of mentioning that. So when you’re not familiar with a religious belief, or faith, it’s easier to kind of stand on the outside and either A) refuse to understand it or B) not want to understand it. But I think that’s really interesting, too, because then when you stand outside of a religious belief, or religious faith, you know, the other option is to start to bring it into your own life. And I think that’s, that’s potentially problematic as well, because I think we can stand on the outside and call something a cult and say that that’s unhealthy, that’s not a good practice, etc. But is it then better to instead go that’s a great idea, I’m gonna bring it into my own life. And I think you can see that in, you know, and this is completely outside of COVID. By the way, this is an entirely different area. But, you know, we talked about, in our first episode in “Down to Earth,” we talked about participating in ayahuasca ceremonies. And what does that do?
Sam Maclennan 42:09
I don’t want, I like, I feel like that’s a good—I feel like that’s a really good point, like, just because something like we’ve talked about all the ways, or not all, some of the ways that some religious traditions get deemed as unhealthy and how that might relate to their social position that’s marginal in some way, right. But like you say, stuff, like when we deem a religious tradition, or practice healthy, that isn’t necessarily an automatic good either. And I think you see that really, in a broad sense, with a lot of what we might understand is Eastern religious practices, right. And with yoga, with meditation, and with the use of these things, as health practices removed from their cultural context, you see that a lot. And to your point about indigenous medicines that have been taken up by a lot of white like wellness seekers, like just because there’s a sense that these practices are good and healthy, doesn’t mean that that can’t have negative ramifications, for example, for the people who rely on these, the availability of these medicines, to do their own practice, when like when it becomes something that is like sold on a larger scale, and kind of appropriated in that way. So yeah, I definitely think just like calling things healthy and calling certain religious practices healthy isn’t necessarily the antidote either because that has all sorts of negative ramifications, I think, in particular ways, not saying that. yoga and meditation are bad things either to like to do or anything like that. There’s like an economy, I guess, to some of these things, right? Like there’s an economic dimension to like, who has access to indigenous medicines and who doesn’t, and how these,
I think this is a very good summary of what it’s like to study in the humanities, where you’re like, this is a problem. They’re like, well, but the answer is also a problem. And everything’s basically just a problem.
Sam Maclennan 44:05
For anybody interested, there’s this really amazing book called Mindful America by Jeff Wilson. And it really goes into this topic about how mindfulness and meditation and sort of Buddhism, in general, has sort of been picked up from Eastern countries and brought to the west and medicalized, commercialized all that sort of thing. So if anybody is interested in how mindfulness and meditation and, and other practices that are sort of exoticized, but then also brought into our sort of alternative healthcare system, Mindful America’s a great book for you.
Now, I want to read that.
It’s a great book.
Um so okay. I just mentioned the Zac Efron episode that we did, and I’m actually very curious, Sam, have you watched that documentary?
Sam Maclennan 45:06
Okay, no. So I’ve only, I only know that from what I know, I know, I know. I’m sorry. I only know that from what you guys talked about on your episode. So like, I kind of, I guess I have a second-hand knowledge for a series, I guess.
Well, I’m curious then. Do you have any thoughts? Um, specifically with your background as well about these? What was, in Lourdes?
Yeah. So if you have any thoughts about Lourdes, and that kind of, the decisions they make surrounding what’s a miracle, what’s not, the kind of authority system they have with that? I don’t know if you know anything a bit more about that.
Sam Maclennan 45:48
Yeah, so like, I don’t know a ton of specifics about Lourdes, but like the church in general has long used physicians, or I guess, kind of like the people who came before physicians were even like a professional community. But the church has long used physicians to verify miracles. And actually, the vast majority of miracles, I think it’s like 90% or more, are medical miracles. So there’s actually a prof, a former prof at Queen’s, Jacalyn Duffin, who studied this and wrote a book called medical miracles. She did, she’s a doctor that did hematology, but then she went into history. But she showed that like, she tracked basically every single miracle since like, I think, the 16th century, the vast majority are medical miracles. So the vast majority of miracles that end up resulting in saints getting canonized, are medical miracles. So there’s this whole apparatus that’s developed around like verifying if a medical miracle can be explained in natural terms, which means it’s not a miracle. It’s just like a normal medical process. It’s not miraculous. Or if it’s outside the limits of medical knowledge, then it’s considered a miracle. So there’s like, I think there’s a council that that sits in the Vatican, that reviews medical case reports from potential miracles. And so they’ll look at the, all the case file, and they’ll determine whether or not these people like say, their miraculous recovery from an illness, could that have happened in a normal course of illness? Or does it look like something, not necessar—it’s not their job, I guess, to say if something else happened, but their job is just to say, is this outside the bounds of medical knowledge? And then it goes over to the theologians who say, based on everything else, we know, this person is a saint. So it’s an interesting kind of, like balance for them of trying, I guess, to respond to contemporary pressures of medicalization. Right? Like they can’t completely ignore medical actors and be like medicine doesn’t exist is not real. Like we don’t care what you say about this person, like it was a miracle or wasn’t because that’d be really easy to disprove and would be bad for the authority of the church. Right. So they’ve included medical actors and have for a long time, but they have a very specific role in that all they do is say, this is medically explicable, or this is not. And then if it’s not, then it’s passed on to the next stage. And theologians make the final determination, that that was like a genuine intercession, I guess. And thus, that person could be considered a saint so I think that’s a really interesting thing. Obviously, there’s lots of power dynamics too and having like, these people authorize if someone genuinely interceded or not like, there’s someone who believes that you, you pray to a saint and they intercede and you recovered, but the church is like, No, they didn’t. I can imagine that would be quite frustrating or upsetting too so yeah, there definitely is that power dynamic too.
But if a miracle isn’t medical in nature, what else could it be? What are the other examples of miracles?
Sam Maclennan 49:08
So I’m trying to think like, some of them are, like, say the multiplication of foods was one of them, that I can think of from Dr. Duffins’ book. So like the multiplication of food, and, like a dramatic change in weather was another one. I’m trying to think of others. Like, those are the only two that I can remember she has a section in her book, I highly recommend it, Medical Miracles, really interesting. Um, and she has a section on I guess, like all the non-medical miracles, but there’s a very few number of each because most of them are, are medical. And so and I guess they’re things that maybe are also, especially nowadays might be harder to claim and then seem legitimate, right? Like if someone claimed multiplication of food, not that it would be discredited, but it might be almost scandalous for the church on some level, right? Because I think they’re always dealing with that. How do they accept the fact that in their theology, miracles are real to a lot of believers, that miracles are real and important. But at the same time, there’s a huge part of the world that thinks the church is backwards in some way. They think that miracles don’t exist. They think science is the only way of knowing things, whatever. So there, I feel like there, it’s, um, it’s a balance, maybe. And perhaps that makes it difficult for those other miracles to be claimed.
I’m curious, though, because obviously, medicine has developed significantly, even over the last century, let alone the last couple of centuries or a couple of thousands of years. Have they ever kind of gone back to something and been like, Oh, actually, that wasn’t a miracle that was just this happening because of these factors?
Sam Maclennan 50:56
No, and I think that’s such, that’s such a good question. Like, I don’t know off the top of my head, if they have but you see that kind of thing happening with stigmatics to go back to my, my favourite perennial topic. And they do that with like, St. Padre Pio. who died in? I think the 60s or the 70s? No, yeah, the 60s or the 70s. And there’s still medical articles written about him. And there’s like biopsies done on Therese Neumann and other stigmatic on her, not biopsies, but they do like scans of the blood on her gloves that she wore to determine like, was this a disease we have a marker for or not. So these things are still debated, I think on the side of the medical community to an extent, perhaps with the goal of like proving like, oh, the science is bad, then we know better now and kind of trying to disprove the fact that they’re saints. But these conversations are still ongoing. But I think my understanding is that you can’t be removed as a saint. Like I don’t, I don’t think that’s been done. And if it’s been done, I think it’s been done very rarely, but I don’t think it’s ever been done. The problem though, as you point out with medical knowledge advancing, some people argue it gets harder for there to be medical miracles, right. Because if the limit of what determines a miracle is what we know, and what we don’t know, the more we know, makes it a lot easier to explain certain things and thus to preclude them as miracles. So Kenneth Woodward, who did this, a whole series of interviews at the Vatican and with the congregation with the cause of saints, he argues that this might be one of the things I think that’s pushing the church away from miracles as a basis for sainthood towards virtues, is that as medical knowledge advances, and there’s even greater scrutiny of miracles, it’s harder to prove without a doubt that they aren’t, perhaps natural course of illness or intervention or medicine, whatever. Um, so yeah, that is kind of an interesting development to the shift, perhaps away from miracles altogether.
That reminds me of that story of the miracle in India with the Hindu deity Ganesha, where people would, where people would bring statues of him some milk as offerings, and then the statue would appear to drink the milk, so the milk would be gone by the next day. But then, what the scientific explanation was for that was just that the stone I guess was like sucking up the milk via like capillary action. So there, I mean, it seemed like a really miraculous thing that was happening, like the offering that I’m giving to this god is being taken by them. But then through science, it was explained away.
Battle between religion and science continues.
Sam Maclennan 54:02
Yeah, and it’s interesting. Sorry, go ahead.
I was just gonna say like, do you think that that being explained makes in the mind of the practitioners it less miraculous, do you think? Or is it just would they say, that’s like, that’s the scientific means that this miracle is happening by but like it does it?
That’s a very good question. I think that some people would say that, that means it’s not a miracle. But I mean, I think in the minds of practitioners, that doesn’t necessarily preclude it from being a miracle, just because the mechanism is explained.
Yeah. And maybe this is not like the full picture. But I think when you think about it, science itself is miraculous. The whole idea that like, and this is maybe getting very, very meta, but the whole idea of like how the earth functions and how everything kind of just works is miraculous. So I think too, there’s maybe a perspective that even when science explains certain things, and I’m sure this is not really the perspective of maybe the Catholic Church in defining miracles, but I think just from like a broader sense, just looking at how the earth and things happen on earth is still a miracle in itself.
Though, yeah, that’s just the way what, one of the ways that religion has, like accommodated science over the years by saying, like, religion, sort of, or maybe gods act through scientific processes, because the way that the world works is so beautiful, so, it’s unexplainable sort of. And then even when we do find an explanation for it, that doesn’t mean that it’s not religious or miraculous in nature, anyway.
I was reading a book on evolution and Christianity awhile ago, and I remember because there’s often this view, especially in more conservative circles that like evolution and Christianity are not, like they can’t go together. And what this book was saying was that religion answers the why and science answers the how, and so just this idea for certain practitioners maybe that are more accepting towards scientific ideas that they’re not exclusive, because they’re separate things that do, that do interact.
Sam Maclennan 56:33
No, and a lot of like the doc—a lot of the doctors that like work for the church that do this miracle verification are like, they’re all extremely devout Catholic people, right? And like, so they genuinely, they don’t find, necessarily, I think a conflict between those things. And like even there’s an Italian psychologist, Agostino Gemelli, who is kind of like in the 20th century was like, one of the most famous critics of stigmata was like really nasty towards St. Padre Pio, towards Therese Neumann and a bunch of other stigmatics saying that, you know, they’re hysterical, they faked their wounds with chemical burns like blah, blah, blah. But he genuinely believes that St. Francis of Assisi’s stigmata were real and genuine and like a miracle. And so you have like tensions too even within people who fully believe in the scientific method or science, like capital S, whatever, that like take some things as like legitimate beautiful miracles and other things as like, hysterical. So he was an interesting case because he did both right. Like he’s like, you’re like, some of you are hysterical, that have stigmata. And some of you are like, not at all and that wasn’t in conflict, I think for him.
Well, thanks so much.
Sam Maclennan 57:47
Well, thank you, guys! It was nice to see you guys.
Sam Maclennan 57:52
I hope all is well with you. I’m listening to your episodes every week, so.
Glad we have at least one fan.
Yeah, well we have definitely two.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Nearly Numinous. You can subscribe on all of your favourite podcasting apps, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Stitcher. Just search for Nearly Numinous. You can also find us on social media under the same name. Have a topic you’d like us to talk about? Would you like to be a guest on a future episode? Reach out to us at email@example.com. Don’t forget to tune in next week for another episode.
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