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. ]
Among the material gathered in preparation for the canonization of Brother André is an account of the following incident:

One 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.” [1]

Obviously Brother 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.[2] 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[3] 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.[4] Other times he simply told them to walk, to drop their crutches.[5] Sometimes he distracted them with a task, for example one that involved using limbs that were paralyzed.[6] Sometimes the effect was instantaneous; with others it was a long process, at times including several visits.[7] 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.[8]

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[9] 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….[10] 

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.[11]

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.

As 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.[12]

Suggestions made by the “magnetizer” were central to the process.

Sometimes 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 hypnotist.[13]

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.

According 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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16] He even did some stage performances!

Europe in the mid-18th century:

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.[17]

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.”[18] 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.”[19]

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 stages:  

The 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.[20]

By 1937, psychoanalysis had been firmly established as the leading school in psychology and its centre had moved to the United States.[21]   This was complemented by extraordinary advances since the mid-eighteenth century in physiological treatment of mental illness.               


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 necessary.

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.[22] 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 source;

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.[23] 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 and miracle.

[1] Lussier; See in Index Summarium 2, pa XIII, ad 20, page 351.

[2] George Ham, The Miracle Man of Montreal, Musson Book, Toronto, 1922 

[3] René Latourelle,  Du prodige au miracle, Bellarmin, Montréal, 1995.

[4] 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 André.

[5] Index summarium, vol. 1, p. 290.

[6] Catta, Étienne, Le Frère André (1845-1937),  l’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal,  Montréal, 1963, p. 290. See also Index summarium, vol. 1, p 202.

[7] Ibid., p. 343.

[8] “C’est Saint Joseph qui guérit, c’est Dieu qui guérit », Index summarium, Vol 2,  p. 337.

[9] 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.

[10] Ellenberger, op. cit., p. 112

[11] Ibid, 113.

[12] Ibid, 114.

[13] Ibid., 150f. 

[14]  Ibid, 151

[15] Abbé Faria mentioned above.

[16] Ellenberger, op. cit., 157.

[17] Ibid, 764.

[18] Ibid, 765.

[19] Ibid, 776

[20] Ibid, 808.

[21] Ibid, 854-860

[22] A story recounted by George Ham.

[23] On a few occasions he is said to have rubbed the affected part with oil or a medal. See Catta, op. cit, p. 290.

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