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Massage an expanding healing ministry.

Sr. Nancy Vandeveer learned about the healing power of touch when a friend was hospitalized for surgical removal of a breast. Vandeveer visited on each of the four days after the surgery, rubbing her friend's arm with a bit of lotion. To Vandeveer's amazement, "that little bit of nurturing touch' allowed her friend to go without sleeping pills or pain medication. Vandeveer was hooked.

The Ursuline nun has joined a growing number of religious professionals, mostly nuns but also priests and Protestant ministers, making a full- or part-time ministry of therapeutic massage. She oversees a program at St. Mary's Health Center in St. Louis, a large hospital complex that employs six massage therapists in its community programs division.

In recent years, massage therapy - described by Time magazine in 1987 as America's favorite antidote to stress - has become a standard offering at many Catholic retreat centers. Advocates say it helps retreatants relax and get in touch with their bodies and facilitates prayer and transformation.

The Rev. Zach Thomas, a Presbyterian minister from Charlotte, N.C., founded an organization in 1989, aiming, he said, to "bless" the trend and help churches "reclaim a more visible healing ministry." Some 200 people, most of the experts in therapeutic massage, have joined the group, the National Association of Bodyworkers in Religious Service. vice. Members come from a variety of denominations - he estimates 30 percent cent to 50 percent ale Catholic nuns and former priests - and include both ordained and lay ministers.

A "bodyworker" is anyone who uses his or her hands with the intent of affecting a musculoskeletal problem, he said. Most bodyworkers are people outside the traditional health-care professions, such as nursing or physical therapy. Vandeveer estimates that more than 200 Catholic sisters are doing massage therapy as a primary ministry.

Thomas, a former hospital chaplain, is author of Healing Touch: The Church's Forgotten Language (Westminster Press, 1994). The organization collects stories that explain why people take up massage as a ministry. A common story is one like his own: A person gets a massage "and finds by surprise that old wounds or a mind-body split are healed.' People often "have a religious experience with that kind of compassionate, nonsexual touch," said Thomas, who believes the body has as much to communicate to the spirit as the spirit to the body. "They find it life-changing," he said, "and they want to pass it on in ministry."

Gradually the connection between therapeutic massage and Jesus' healing ministry is gaining acceptance. Thomas attributes resistance to a "mind-body split" that is deeply entrenched in Western industrialized culture. Some of the pioneers in the religious arena say overcoming that resistance was the biggest obstacle to their ministries.

When Vandeveer first asked her provincial about making a ministry of massage, she got a simple answer: no.

"She told me it really didn't fit into the charism of our order," which is primarily teaching, Vandeveer said. She also questioned whether massage therapy would produce income; and then there was the stigma problem - the negative image generated by sleazy "massage parlors."

But Vandeveer felt the call. She had been working for six years caring for aging and dying nuns in her order's infirmary. She was emotionally exhausted and ready for a change. She took some courses and did a lot of work on her own, learning not only technique but also anatomy and physiology, preparing for the American Massage Therapy Association's exam. Passing it meant admittance to the prestigious organization, which guarantees credibility.

Next, she offered free massage to Ursuline nuns making eight-day retreats at the order's retreat center in Frontenac, Minn., and asked for written reports of the beneficial effects. The result was "glowing reports," she said - some 55 testimonials in all.

"That's what finally convinced them to let me study formally," she said. Vandeveer took a 500-hour course at the Chicago School of Massage Therapy, which further enhanced her credibility and expertise. Next her provincial asked her to do some research on nuns doing therapeutic massage. How many were doing it? Where did they go to school? Where were they working? And the all-too-pressing economic question for religious communities m the late 20th century: How much income were their ministries bringing in? Finally, in 1990, with the research results on hand, Vandeveer's order changed their no to yes. She created her own job at St. Mary's, first at the Women's Well, a program center for women, and now as part of community programs.

If Vandeveer is a pioneer within her own order, St. Joseph Sr. Rosalind Gefre of St. Paul, Minn., is a pioneer of pioneers. "When I started, the regulations were really crazy," she said. Her fingerprints and mug shot were required to be kept on file with local authorities, who told her when to open, when to close. Needless to say, she resented this 'special treatment." At one point in 1983, she was closed down, making international news and prompting negotiations with the city.

Eventually her efforts were rewarded by an updating of the laws in St. Paul and by celebrity status, of sorts, for herself. She is often called on to help get laws changed in other cities and she speaks often - sometimes three times a day - at universities, state and city agencies, churches and "all kinds of groups" about "the value of touch and massage." Her religious order, once deeply skeptical of her work, now thinks "its the greatest thing that ever happened," she said.

In 1985, Gefre opened a massage school in St. Paul: Rosalind Gefre's School of Professional Massage. Several hundred people are now enrolled, she said. She recently opened a branch in Rochester, Minn. She also operates two massage centers and sends therapists to businesses. Her nonprofit organization employs 40 people. For the past three years, her therapists have gone to to baseball games in St. Paul to offer massage to fans. "We have four therapists at every game and we are sold out every time," she said.

Gefre, a nurse, said she discovered the benefits of massage while caring for her mother. She took her mother for a massage and had one herself. She found that her recurring chest pains suddenly stopped.

"I felt that was God's way of calling me into massage," she said. Jesuit Fr. Ted Tracy, campus minister at Loyola University in Chicago, gives massages at a Jesuit retreat center in Milford, Ohio. He has also used massage to help prepare Maryknoll missioners for work in cultures where touch is common.

Raised "a strict Irish-Catholic - no touch, a strict dress code, never mention sex" - Tracy found his first experience of therapeutic massage to be so "freeing" that he began to explore it as a ministry. The title of an article he wrote for Weavings in 1987 underscores his incarnate theology of therapeutic massage. The article was called "The Body: Pivot Point of Salvation," a title borrowed from a Latin expression of the second century bishop Tertullian: Caro salutis est cardo.

Gefre sees two reasons for the dramatic growth of massage therapy: It feeds a deep hunger in a society that avoids touch; and it offers an alternative for people who are tired of relying on drugs to cure what ails them. At St. Mary's, practitioners may use scented oils, and they often play background music, ranging from Gregorian chant to New Age sounds to jazz, depending on the tastes of each client. The aim is to "create a mood" that allows people to relax, said Carol Klein, one of the therapists.

Vandeveer said she views massage as "an extension of the touch of Jesus. ... I don't feel it's all me doing this. I truly believe it's God working through my hands to touch people. All of us are His hands now."

Pick massage therapist carefully, experts say

Massage therapists should be chosen carefully, people in the field advise, because only about 20 states require therapists to be licensed. Sr. Nancy Vandeveer suggests choosing a therapist who belongs to the American Massage Therapy Association, an organization with strict standards for membership and a code of ethics. The Rev. Zach Thomas suggests three additional options. Choose a therapist with: a state license (about 20 license therapists who meet set standards); a diploma certifying completion of a least 500 hours of training from a respected school in the filed; or certification from the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.
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Title Annotation:Ministries; nun develops the healing ministry of touch
Author:Schaeffer, Pamala
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 19, 1996
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