Thursday, April 02, 2009


A traditional fixture of Catholic piety is the superstitious belief that it’s possible to be healed through the virtue of a relic. Not surprisingly, this became a lucrative business. What are we to make of this claim?

One strategy is to simply deny that such healings ever occur. A certainly a lot of the hagiographic literature suffers from legendary embellishment, to say the least.

However, it isn’t necessary to deny every story in kind. We just need to draw some rudimentary distinctions.

For example, Naaman was cured by washing in the Jordan river. Christ made use of mud to heal a blind man. And Christians are told to anoint the sick with oil and pray for their healing.

What do these examples have in common? Well, it’s not as if the mud and oil and water have any inherent therapeutic or medicinal value. And it’s not as if the mud and oil and water have any magical properties.

God can assign a particular effect to a particular medium. The connection between the two is arbitrary. As a rule, dipping in the Jordan river is not a cure for eczema. And the number of times he immersed himself was arbitrary.

It’s not as if the Jordan river is holy water. It has no more sanctity than the Ganges or the Nile.

God sometimes uses props for their symbolic value. If God authorizes the prop, then you’re entitled to use it. If it lacks authorization, then you have no right to use it. And even if we’re entitled to use it, we should place no faith in the prop.

Likewise, Christians can be miraculously cured with or without a particular ceremony. Moreover, Christians belonging to divergent theological traditions can receive miraculous healing. There’s no one-to-correspondence between a miracle and a particular religious tradition, or between a miracle and a particular ritual.

The common denominator is the grace of God and the faith of the believer. God, in his sovereignty, heals whom he wills, while leaving others uncured or incurable.

When God answers our prayers, it’s often in spite of our faulty methods and assumptions. Remember Jacob’s exercise in husbandry? God blessed his misguided efforts. Jacob succeeded, not because his efforts in selective breeding were scientifically sound, but because God had mercy on his pitiful efforts. Jacob was successful despite his best efforts, and not because of them. God’s overruling providence was the source of his success.


  1. Interesting. What symbolism is tied to using oil to anoint the sick? Does it have any relation to or continuity with the Old Testament practice?

  2. "Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) 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." (James 5:14-15)

    The natural symbolism of oil for healing is seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan:

    "He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them." (Luke 10:34)

    Other uses of physical objects as instruments of God's healing power in the OT and NT:

    "Once some people were burying a man, when suddenly they spied such a raiding band. So they cast the dead man into the grave of Elisha, and everyone went off. But when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet." (2 Kings 13:21)

    "So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them." (Acts 19:11-12)

    Fr. Terry Donahue, CC