A blog from Quebec dealing with Earth, eco-theology, social justice and Latin America.
Saturday, 25 February 2017
A Note on the Healings of [Saint] Brother André founder of St. Joseph's Oratory, Montreal
[This is not the sort of thing I have been putting up on my blog. However, I include it even though it is a rather academic reflection provoked by some reading I was doing about psychiatric history in Europe 1775-1945. Brother André (1845-1937) was a member of my religious order. He spent many years as porter-receptionist at a school in Montreal. ]
material gathered in preparation for the canonization of Brother André is an
account of the following incident:
day a man said to him, “You are Brother André, the one who does the miracles.” Brother
André replied, “I am Brother André, but it isn’t me who does miracles, it’s
Saint Joseph, the good Lord.” The man replied, “Do you do your miracles through
hypnotism or by prayers?” Brother André felt insulted and was ill for a week.”
André felt that he had been misunderstood. The purpose of my reflection is to
point out how the man in question could have posed such a question to Brother
André and why Brother André would feel so insulted.
The title of this reflection focuses
on “healings.” The choice of words is intentional and important. The first book
published about Brother André, that of George Ham, is entitled The Miracle Man of Montreal.
The healings of Brother André were numerous and widely considered to be
miracles. In fact, both the canonization and the beatification process included
a long investigation into cases which were official declared miracles by Church
authorities. A miracle is always situated in the context of faith in Jesus and
is intrinsically related to his mission. It is not the same as performing a
wonder or producing a medical healing. While there is a careful medical study
of cases of healing presented to Church authorities, the medical teams never
refer to the event as a miracle. Only a theologian may investigate that
dimension and only a Church authority may determine whether a healing is
miraculous. This process has its own criteria that are very different from an
analysis of the external circumstances. An examination of these criteria would
take us far outside the framework of the present note.
My intention then is to examine the healings of
Brother André and really only one dimension of those healings, namely the procedures
used by Brother André in his encounters with the sick who presented themselves
to him. This is a dimension Fr. René Latourelle
calls “facticity.” It is an important dimension since miracles are always part
of human history and therefore have a real presence in our human history even
though that does not exhaust their significance.
Let it be said right away, that Brother André acted in
different ways when the sick presented themselves to him. Sometimes he sent
them off to pray, to make a novena, to obtain some “St. Joseph oil” or a medal
to rub on the affected part.
Other times he simply told them to walk, to drop their crutches.
Sometimes he distracted them with a task, for example one that involved using
limbs that were paralyzed.
Sometimes the effect was instantaneous; with others it was a long process, at
times including several visits.
Never did he claim that he had worked a miracle or that he had healed anyone.
He always insisted that it was St. Joseph or it was God who healed them.
What inspired Brother André to act in this way? Probably we will never know. Brother André
did not speak of his sources other than his faith in God and St. Joseph. While
there is something very profound in this reference, it does not necessarily
explain the orders to use oil or a medal or to pray in the Oratory chapel or
why it sometimes took weeks or months to see any result while on other
occasions the recovery was instantaneous.
And why did the unnamed questioner ask him whether he
has hypnotizing those who came to him? To understand all this, we need to
explore the context of the times of Brother André from his entry at the College
Notre Dame in 1870 to his death in 1937. This context includes events in
Europe--France in particular--during this same period and that had echoes on
this side of the ocean in Quebec and the United States.
Europe in the
early period of scientific healing (late-17th century to mid-18th):
As a source of the first dynamic psychiatry, Henri F. Ellenberger
points to the importance attached to the concept of imagination since the time
of the Renaissance. In his Essays,
Montaigne insists that imagination
was a frequent cause of physical, emotional and
mental disease… Imagination could cause conspicuous physical phenomena such as
the appearance of the stigmata.… But imagination could also be used toward the
cure of physical and mental ailments.… Marvelous stories were published
everywhere about sleepwalkers who would write, swim rivers, or walk over
rooftops in full-moon nights….
He goes on to state that hypnotism is the “royal road
to the unknown mind.”
One of the first to attempt a “scientific” approach to
healing was Anton Mesmer who “magnetized” people in the 18th . Ellenberger notes:
From the very beginning, the peculiar
relationship between the magnetizer and the magnetized was the object of much
wonder and speculation…The magnetizer is thus calling forth in his subject a special
life of his own, aside from the normal life, that is, a second condition with
its own continuity, under increasing dependency on the magnetizer.
In the beginning, Mesmer gathered groups under a tree
that was venerated by the local peasantry for its healing power and he
connected them with cords to the tree. He then engaged in a process of
suggestion that they were being healed. Often, many were.
to the means of inducing mesmeric sleep (which we shall henceforth designate by
its later name of hypnosis), the early magnetizers made use of Mesmer’s
technique of the passes – He used a baton that he waved in front of the
patients. But this technique was soon abandoned in favor of two others. The
first was fascination (a method already known to the ancient Egyptians, to
Cornelius Agrippa, and others). The patient was asked to look at a fixed or
slightly moving point, either luminous or not, or simply to look fixedly into
the eyes of the hypnotist. This was the method later popularized by Braid and
it was also used by the Salpêtrière School [in
Paris]. This technique was combined with the verbal one by the Abbé Faria,
who seated his subject in a comfortable chair and gave him the imperative
order: ‘Sleep!’.” Other hypnotists would
give the order in a gentler, lower voice. Faria’s technique was later adopted
by Liébeault and the Nancy School.
made by the “magnetizer” were central to the process.
but certainly not always, hypnotism acted through suggestion, that is, the
direct implantation of an idea into the passive mind of the patient. However,
this action has often been misunderstood. Hypnotic suggestions were not
necessarily forced upon the subject. It is true that there has been a trend of
imperative suggestion, which can be traced historically from Faria through
Noizet to Liébeault and the Nancy school. Such imperative suggestions were
found to work best with persons who occupied subordinate position in life and
were accustomed to obeying orders (soldiers and laborers) or with people whose
willpower was weak or who were eager to submit their will to that of the
Some discovered that it was not necessary to pass the
patient into a sleeping state. A waking state could be brought about in which
the patient was susceptible to suggestion. While in this state the patient was
aware only of the hypnotizer and had a heightened capacity for attention.
to him [Hyppolite Bernheim, who founded
the medical school at Nancy in France], the hypnotic state was the result
of a suggestion induced in view of facilitating another suggestion. Otherwise
there was no fundamental difference between suggestion under hypnosis and
suggestion in the waking state.
While hypnotism enjoyed a certain popularity among
certain medical circles in Europe, especially France and Switzerland toward the
latter part of the 19th century, it gradually fell into general
disrepute by the end of the century, perhaps because of those non-medical
entertainers who organized public séances in which they exhibited their
patients under hypnosis. At the same
time, there were cases of members of the clergy or members of religious orders
who engaged in practices of healing the sick as part of the tradition of “cure
of souls.” In some cases these people gained quite a following in Europe.
A few of them were adept in the “new approaches” being developed by these new
psychological approaches. Ellenberger recalls the experience of Charles
Lafontaine, born in 1803, who worked with patients experiencing a “lucid
sleepwalking.” According to this own account, wherever he went the blind would
see again, the deaf would hear, and the paralyzed would walk.
He even did some stage performances!
Europe in the
Jean-Martin Charcot, a neurologist who used hypnotism at
the Salpetrière School in Paris introduced a more empirical approach to the
practice. He carefully noted the history of his patients and the details of
their actions or words during sessions with him. Charcot was impressed with
patients who had been to Lourdes and were freed of hysterical paralyses, tumors
and ulcers. He concluded that “unknown, powerful healing factors existed that
the medicine of the future should learn to control.
Frederick van Eden… opened a clinic of suggestive
therapy in Amsterdam. He later called it Psycho-Therapy: “the cure of the body
by the mind, aided by the impulse of one mind to another.”
Today we would call this a psychosomatic understanding of illness.
However, by the end of the 18th century,
“all that pertained to hysteria, hypnosis, and suggestion was becoming
increasing suspect, and the word ‘psychotherapy’ was now the accepted term for
all methods of healing through the mind.”
Ellenberger reports on a novel written by Grete
Heisel-Hess called Die Intellektuellen
in 1911. It was the first fictional presentation of psychoanalysis in its early
doctor, who sits at his desk, looks at her piercingly for a while and silently
strokes his beard. Then he bids her to sit down, and with an encouraging
gesture invites her to tell her story. From now on the consultation evolved in
four phases. The patient tells her whole story while the psychoanalyst listens
quietly and takes notes. Then come the second phase: the analyst explains to
the patient that she has repressed painful sexual memories; thereupon he
strives to drag out these repressed memories ‘by means of a special technique.
…. He then hypnotizes her and gives her suggestions.
By 1937, psychoanalysis
had been firmly established as the leading school in psychology and its centre
had moved to the United States. This was complemented by extraordinary
advances since the mid-eighteenth century in physiological treatment of mental
From 1775 on, some medical specialists and a few
aristocrats claimed to have found a way of healing certain forms of illness,
including some forms of paralysis, through a scientific process that replaced
the earlier rituals offered by priests. At first they thought it was a question
of passing an invisible energy from the healer (the medical doctor) to the
patient. It is to be noted that electricity was a newly discovered scientific
force, not entirely understood as yet, that fascinated the medical world. Also
to be noted is that, at this time most of the patients came from the lower
working and peasant classes. Even in that period they were very aware of the
element of suggestion involved as well as the importance of the rapport between
healer and patient that rendered the suggestions of the former so weighty. In
some cases, suggestion was more of a command.
It was discovered that the process could include that
of passing the patient into a special sleeping state that came to be called
hypnosis. Schools in France and later elsewhere in Europe were established
using this technique. Even Sigmund Freud favoured it for a time. Later it was
discovered that placing the patient into a sleeping state was not always
Medical circles interested in this field of
psychological healing considerably advanced their skills and knowledge of
different forms of illness. New fields of endeavor appeared called psychoanalysis
and psychotherapy. Some medical circles, especially those more inclined to
treat patients through physiological means (including medicine, surgery,
special food or work regimes), looked down on this “dynamic psychology.”
However, it managed to retain its place alongside more neurological approaches.
It is not surprising that someone might approach
Brother André to ask about a possible connection between his healings and these
various currents in Europe. Clearly, Brother André was not pleased to see himself
set in that context. Whether or not Brother André was aware of psychosomatic
approaches to illness, his own approach to the sick or paralyzed had very
different and very specific qualities that were much closer to the accounts of
the miracles of Jesus and much more in line with the tradition of the Church’s
“care of souls.” He only dealt physical illness and the immediate circumstances
around them. Brother André never dealt with mental illness. On the other hand,
people like Mesmer, Charcot, Bernheim and Janet concentrated on physical
ailments that appeared to be the result of a mental disorder. They never dealt
with patients who had suffered severe physical trauma such as a crushed foot
after an accident while working. Also,
it was extremely rare for anyone to be healed without direct physical presence
of the healer with the sick person. Brother André, on the other hand, sent
someone who had come to him on behalf of his wife back to his home to find that
his was was well.
While Brother André’s approach included what may be termed suggestion, it had
significant differences from the way suggestion was used by the European
psychotherapists. That difference includes the fact that Brother André never
tried to induce any form of hypnosis or special sleep state, nor did he submit
those who came to him to extensive sessions in which they had to recount
experiences in their early life. Brother André’s suggestions to the sick
resemble much more the “facticity” of Jesus, who commanded the sick to pick up
their pallet and return home, or to stretch out their withered arm.
a.Brother André never attributed the
results of his interventions to himself or to any medical or psychological
b.There is no indication that Brother
André knew about the currents of psychotherapeutic research at the time;
c.Brother André was nonetheless a
member of a community of educated, professional teachers and lived in a local
community in an institution where the ideas of that period surely circulated;
it cannot be excluded that he had some rudimentary idea of such developments;
d.The procedure of Brother André
corresponds in some respects to practices in Europe (and to some extent in
North America) at the time though his explanation of them is always exclusively
in religious terms;
e.Contrary to Protestant-Evangelical
healers, he did not normally touch the sick.
He always attributed the healing to God through the intercession of St. Joseph;
f.To think that the healings of Brother
André can to some extent be explained through the theory of rapport and
suggestion does not in any way lessen the openness to the dimension of faith
Lussier; See in Index Summarium 2, pa XIII, ad 20,
George Ham, The
Miracle Man of Montreal, Musson Book, Toronto, 1922
 René Latourelle,
Du prodige au miracle,
Bellarmin, Montréal, 1995.
 Accounts of such
events can be found in the book by George Ham, in that of Etienne Catta and in
the Index summarium (Vols 1 and 2) among others. This latter is a summary of
the documentation prepared for the Beatification and Canonization of Brother
 “C’est Saint Joseph qui guérit, c’est Dieu qui
guérit », Index summarium, Vol
2, p. 337.
 Throughout this
part of the reflection my references will largely be to a classic study of the
rise of psychoanalysis between 1775 and 1945 : Henri F. Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious : The
History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry, Basic Books, Harper
Torchbooks, New York, 1970, 932 pages. Prof. Ellenberger was professor of
criminology at McGill University at the time of publication. It should be noted
that the book is filled with references to primary sources. Ellenberger spend
10 years searching out those primary sources. Decades later, the accuracy of
these references has never been questioned though some of his interpretations
of theories and world events have been occasions for comment. His work
reinterpreted our understanding of major figures in the history of psychiatry
including Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud.