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Reflections on healing rituals, practices and discourse in contemporary religious groups.

This special issue presents contributions by writers who deal with the significance of healing in widely diverse religious and cultural contexts today. In out ongoing research on religion in contemporary Quebec (1) we have round that healing, or a certain conception of healing, is ubiquitous in contemporary religious ritual and discourse. This is most evident in religions or spiritually-oriented practices that have emerged among non-immigrant Quebecois in recent years, such as, for example, Spiritualism, neo-shamanism, including Druidry, Wicca, yoga and various forms of "Native spirituality" (e.g. Corneiller 2011; Normandin 2010) that are attracting many non-Natives, especially young people. (See Rosemary Roberts' contribution to this issue.) The same tendency can be round in longer-established religious currents such as Catholicism and the various offshoots of Protestantism (baptism, Pentecostalism, etc.), as well as in the discourse of some people who practice Islam (Mossiere infra). Besides the Charismatic Catholic healing rituals found in our study (e.g. Bouchard 2009, Ruiz, In press) and in earlier studies (Cote et Zylberberg 1990), there are the ceremonies whose goal is to provide comfort and support for victims of AIDs, as described in the research for our study of a Catholic parish located in Montreal's "Gay Village," whose ministry in general is seen as having a healing effect on parishioners (Koussens 2007, 2009 and Forthcoming). Though religious healing sometimes addresses physical diseases and pain, it also appears to offer psychological support and emotional relief.

Dericquebourg (1988) speaks of "healing religions" in his study of three relatively recent religions (Antoinism, Christian Science and Scientology); in fact, our research has found that healing is a prominent feature in many religious currents today. The near omnipresence of healing in contemporary spiritualities is hardly limited to Quebec, as is evident in the works of McGuire (1996, 2008), Csordas (1994, 2001, 2002), Aubree (2003), Corten (1995) and others, including Cristina Rocha, Cristophe Monnot and Philippe Gonzalez and Laurent Denizeau, whose work can be found in this issue.

Moreover, several of the contributions to this issue attest to the power of spiritual healing rituals and of practitioners to attract participants and clients across national and religious boundaries, leading to transnational networks of healing practitioners and clients; for example, Vodou priests and priestesses often circulate between Montreal, Miami and Haiti, as do those seeking their help (Drotbohm 2009). Cristina Rocha's article in this issue shows how Australians seek healing from a Brazilian practitioner, John of God, coming from a spiritual tradition (Spiritism) few of them know about, in a country few have ever visited, and who speaks a language that is not their own.

As the aforementioned examples suggest, religious healing takes many different forms; there are rituals of catharsis that liberate emotions and provide a social setting for emotional release (to be found, for example, in charismatic groups, both Catholic and Protestant), along with rituals oriented to healing individuals or healing the earth; for some, pilgrimage is a form of healing (Boutin 2008), while for others, yoga meditation in a group (McGuire 2008: 139) may have a similar effect. (2) In some cases, such as the "Soiree miracles" described by Denizeau in this issue, prayer (by the supplicant and the other participants) is an integral part of the techniques of healing. More generally, practices of bodily ascesis prescribed by religion may be interpreted as a means of healing for oneself or for others, as, for example, the fasting of Hindu wives for the good of their husbands and families (Betbeder 2009); as Geraldine Mossiere's article shows, the regulation of the body prescribed by Islam (modesty and dietary rules) are interpreted by converts as having psychic and physical benefits.

This brings us to the question of what healing really is. The sociologist Meredith McGuire (1996: 101) underscores the fact that healing goes well beyond a regulation of the body; rather, it concerns the transformation of the self. As Csordas (2002: 3) puts it, "The object of healing is not elimination of a thing (an illness, a problem, a symptom, a disorder) but transformation of a person, a self that is a bodily being." In short, healing is a holistic endeavour that restores the body-mindspirit unity ruptured by the processes of secularization (McGuire 2008). For the healers that McGuire interviewed, restoring this unity was the aim of their healing; Spiritualist healers in Meintel's (2005) study often experience such oneness--with self, spirit guides, God--while bringing about healing. Those receiving their ministrations often shed the silent tears of emotional release and say they find solace for feelings of stress, anxiety or sadness. (3)

For veterans of the biomedical system of care, spiritual healing can be paradoxically empowering: by choosing to "surrender" to another source of power, as in the case of those receiving healing from the entities involved with John of God, or simply by taking the leap of faith needed so as to accept healing from a Spiritualist healer (Meintel 2005), recipients can feel a sense of agency often lacking in their dealings with the biomedical sphere; indeed, Dubisch (2005: 222) speaks of the (recipient's) body as a "locus of resistance" to biomedical regimes. Moreover, the majority of those coming for healing in the Spiritualist congregation studied by Meintel are seeking relief from distress that might be given short shrift in biomedical contexts (anxiety, sadness, depression, etc.). Implicitly, these needs are validated and given a voice in the religious healing context. In the same vein, Beguet's article shows that reframing the otherwise stigmatizing and marginal experiences of mental illness into the language of healing and spirituality invests them with positive value. Nonetheless, we do not wish to overemphasize the split between healing and the biomedical realm. For one thing, there is a growing critical literature within and regarding medicine, much of it concerned with the role of healing in medicine. (4) Moreover, in our fieldwork we have encountered workers and practitioners from all echelons of the health care system, ranging from M.D.s to home caregivers, in groups and congregations concerned with spiritual healing. These individuals sometimes tell us that their therapeutic approaches are frequently combined with techniques inspired by their spirituality; in fact, the Umbanda group studied by Hernandez (2010) in our research was founded by therapists interested in renewing themselves as clinicians. As Le Gall and Xenocostas' article suggests, the religiosities of immigrants are likely to have an impact on the health care system of the secularized societies where they settle and may thus contribute further to reflections on religion, spirituality and health in the health care sector. (5)

In her earlier work on Joao de Deus, Rocha (2009) has shown that healing only produces a sensation of emotional, spiritual and physical integration in those who receive it; in her article in this issue, we see that healing generates an almost ecstatic sense of union with the land and with Spirit. This would seem to contradict Brown (1999) and others cited by Dubisch (2005: 225) who criticize "New Age" spiritualities and healing practices as being too centred on the individual. In fact, as Dubish suggests, these spiritualities put forth notions of the individual that are quite different from the usual meanings of the word found in Western discourse, whereby the person is conceived of as a bounded and autonomous unit: Dubisch speaks of the individual body as an "energy field" for the healers in her study and we have encountered spiritualities that see the individual as a vibrational entity, as a multilevelled being (rather than as a solid, unitary mass), and as being connected by invisible webs to all creation and so on. As for the Wiccans Roberts describes in her contribution to this issue, rituals are aimed at creating renewed wholeness and union with the earth and with others; healing the self and healing the land are inseparable.

The process of healing entails special forms of knowing and experiencing the world and others; Csordas' (1993) notion of somatic modes of attention is relevant in this regard. Csordas, like McGuire, makes reference to Bourdieu's notion of "habitus" as regards the embodied component of social knowledge (Csordas 2002; McGuire 2008). Transmitting (6) and receiving healing, in a sense, involves absorbing a new habitus, one that must be learned via the body, (7) much as clairvoyant Spiritualist mediums learn and experience clairvoyance partly through a learned attentiveness to bodily sensations (Meintel In press). Given its social and cultural basis (Spickard 1995), healing is then centred on the body-mind as being inseparable from the political and social context from which its distress, suffering or disease emerges. At the same time, in the present era of globalization and rapid circulation of symbolic resources, healing approaches often involve a "new culture" (Dubisch 2008: 331), where one learns new views of the body, often along with notions of spirits and diverse dimensions of reality, etc. Rituals of healing also evoke connectedness to other bodies via our own; McGuire (2008: 112-113) refers to Schutz's (1964) essay on "Making Music Together" to illustrate the attunement of bodies necessary to produce harmony, for example, when singing in a chorale. Indeed, dancing a waltz or a tango, rowing as a member of a crew, or even walking hand in hand with another person all call for bodily sensitivity and reactiveness to others.

The relationship between the experience of healing and religious faith seems quite variable; Denizeau finds in his study of Evangelical healing in Lyon, France, that faith is "the only condition" for healing, while Monnot and Gonzalez's article highlights the importance of healing narratives in reinforcing faith. McGuire (2008: 144) mentions an American woman healer in her study for whom it was "not necessary that the person seeking help believe in the power of healing in order to experience its benefits." Similarly, Meintel finds in the Spiritualist congregation she studied in Montreal that those seeking healing are often not church members, nor are they sure that they believe in spiritual healing. Some, however, eventually join the church because of their experience of receiving healing, and for the healers themselves, transmitting healing reinforces and enhances their faith in the Divine source of this gift. Those seeking healing in this congregation do so more often for relief from emotional distress (grief, anxiety, stress, sadness, depression, relationship difficulties, etc.) than for physical ailments. In the discourse of mediums, ministers and congregation members, healing and forgiveness (le pardon) are often interconnected. Forgiveness (of self and/or others)--a theme to which we will return at a later point--appears as a necessary condition for personal healing, and to be able to forgive is often seen as an indicator of improved well-being. In general, our research finds that experiences of receiving healing are often a point of entry for new members of religious groups.

Before we look at healing beyond the conventional frontiers of religion, it is worth exploring the question of why healing is so prevalent in religious ritual, practice and discourse today. Beyond all that we have discussed so far--the integration, connectedness and empowerment that spiritual healing may offer--we suggest that it condenses certain themes found in religion today, among them being embodiment, emotion (Riis and Woodhead 2010; Mossiere 2007) and individual agency. The latter includes intention and attentiveness, along with considerable inventiveness; many healers borrow creatively from traditions other than their own (McGuire 2008, Meintel Forthcoming, Roberts 2009, 2010). As for the recipients of healing, their "therapeutic itineraries" often take them far afield from conventional medical care and from their religion of primary socialization. Such wanderings comprise the other face of the "subjectivation" of religious life (Hervieu-Leger 1999), the flip side of the individualization of spiritual life described by McGuire (2008) that results in the adoption of a personally chosen normative code of conduct and ritualized spiritual practices (Oestergaard 2009). Healers feel responsible for "becoming as clear a channel as I can be," as one of Meintel's interlocutors puts it; for the Spiritualist healers she has interviewed, this means avoiding negative influences such as drugs or excessive drinking and maintaining spiritual awareness through personal spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation. For their part, recipients must willingly accept healing and observe the rules of decorum required (silence, eyes closed and hands resting with the palms down). Some of them have already initiated extensive peregrinations among various therapeutic approaches and many frequent several types of healers simultaneously, whether biomedical, alternative/holistic or spiritual.

For scholars who study themes such as emotion, embodiment and experience in contemporary religion (Mossiere 2007 regarding Pentecostal rituals), the positioning of the researcher may well become an issue, in particular when she is invited to participate in healing practices, as was Meintel (Forthcoming). Can the researcher share the subjective, embodied experience of those studied and can this sharing experience advance our understanding of healing and other contemporary religious phenomena? Goulet addresses this question in the lead article of this issue, as does Meintel in various works on healing and mediumship (e.g. Meintel 2008 in press). We note that in recent years, a number of scholars have argued in favour of the value of reflexive researcher participation in healing (e.g. Dubisch 2008) and other activities, such as martial arts (Samudra 2008) or sports (Turner 2000), both of which require embodied learning.

Another important theme in contemporary religious currents is that of the gift, which is particularly evident in Evangelical churches, Charismatic Catholic congregations and Spiritualist groups where prophecy, clairvoyance and healing are all seen as gifts that proceed from a divine source and are to be used for the benefit of others. Similar beliefs surround neoshamanic healing, according to what we have discovered in our research (Normandin 2010; Corneiller 2010). Why the notion of gift should be so pre-eminent in so many spiritual currents today is beyond the scope of this article; suffice it to say that this theme is a recurrent one in social relationships in contemporary society, as many recent analyses attest (Godelier 1996, Caille 2000, Godbout 2000). As Gauthier's description of "Burning Man" in this issue shows, healing--and the "gift" exchanges it involves--extends beyond the usual frontiers of religion and spirituality. Along the same lines, let us mention the extension of healing into the political sphere; one thinks for example, of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (Wilson 2001), healing and reconciliation efforts in Rwanda (Staub et al. 2005), and various efforts by and concerning Native peoples. Some pastors of ethnic congregations in our study give sermons on the importance of peace and reconciliation in the home countries of members; for instance in the Pentecostal church studied by Mossiere (2008) whose members are from Rwanda and the RDC (Congo), among others. Such efforts to bring healing to the wounds of whole societies typically involve a great deal of emphasis on recognition, another type of "gift" exchange (Meintel 2008).

Somewhat paradoxically, today's many forms of healing mirror to a certain degree the market economy from which they emerge. On one hand, healing involves a social exchange that stands in contrast to market exchange, and not only because it often involves God or spirit guides as agents, but rather for the fact that healing includes an element (more or less pronounced) of gratuitousness and self-giving. On the other hand, healing gives expression to individual agency and choice (two important features of the market economy) and is made accessible by mass media, often on a transnational scale, where adaptation to and borrowing from other available resources, often from widely disparate sources, is the norm. (See Gauthier et al, In Press).

This brings us to yet another issue, namely, that the frontiers of spiritual healing are very hard to define. "Spiritual but not religious," as per the title of Fuller's (2001) book on the subject, describes many healers (8) working today, notably the "energy healers" that Dubisch (2005) has studied, including Reiki and Shin Jin Jyutsu practitioners, as well as some of the "holistic" healers described by Meredith McGuire (2008). We find a similar emphasis on wholeness, body-mind-spirit unity, and emotions, as well as a degree of ritualization in healing practices that are not usually thought of as religious by those practicing them, although some practitioners may see them as "spiritual." For example, many yoga classes begin and end with prayers, meditation or chanting. The many varieties of yoga practiced in the West are generally seen and presented as holistic, embodied practice with healing benefits. On the borders of the religious in our ongoing study, we find many "personal development groups'' (9) that seek to enhance well-being and interpersonal relationships. Often these groups have a strong element of non-denominational spirituality and seek to enhance the "consciousness" or "awareness" of their clients. In many cases, they encourage embodied practices such as breath work, meditation and so on, and extend them into everyday, "profane" practice.

A number of scholars have suggested that we are perhaps witnessing a re-enchantment of the world, where religion plays a major part. (See, for example, Csordas 2007a and b.) Such a re-enchantment, as Maffesoli (2007) sees it, goes far beyond what is usually recognized as religion or spirituality. (It should be noted that Maffesoli gives important consideration to the gift in the ethics of sharing that he sees emerging from contemporary socialities.) Healing may be an important element in this re-enchantment. Indeed, it may be that not only the body and its care are being re-enchanted, but also religion itself. The term "miracles" so often heard in Evangelical discourse (as in Monnot and Gonzalez's and Denizeau's contributions to this issue) indicates something of the re-enchantment that contemporary healing practices and beliefs bring to religion, as well as to issues of health, well-being and the body.


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Deirdre Meintel

Geraldine Mossiere

Montreal University

(1.) The study is funded by the Fonds Quebecois de la Recherche sur la Societe et la Culture (FQRSC), Quebec, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Ottawa, and directed by Deirdre Meintel. Co-researchers include Marie-Nathalie Le Blanc, Josiane Le Gall, Claude Gelinas, Francois Gauthier and Khadiyatoulah Fall. Geraldine Mossiere is the project coordinator.

(2.) Another kind of healing silence is that observed by the Canadian Evangelicals, described by Wilkinson and Althouse (2011), when practitioners are "soaking" (the Divine) while lying on the floor ("carpet time").

(3.) See Meintel (Forthcoming) for further details on healing in this congregation.

(4.) A conference on "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" was sponsored by the Harvard Medical School in 2007 ( 00271464/00271464.htm; consulted on July 20, 2011).

(5.) We note the recent case of a Shawinigan physiotherapist who put pamphlets of the Church of Scientology in his waiting room and was reprimanded for proselytizing by his professional order (Tauzin 2011).

(6.) Spiritualist healers, like the energy healers studied by Dubisch, are encouraged to think of themselves as channels for healing rather than its source.

(7.) See, for example, Samudra's (2008) study of the embodied learning of a martial art known as White Crane Silat.

(8.) Indeed, many who frequent the Quebec religious groups in our study define themselves in these terms, including Spiritualist healers interviewed by Meintel.

(9.) The "Meetup" website ( offers many examples of these.
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Author:Meintel, Deirdre; Mossiere, Geraldine
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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