Russian Along

Living at Nashotah House—if you haven’t been, trust me—makes one curious about Rasputin. While on the faculty there, his name was used as a common slur. When Brian Moynahan’s Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned came out in 1997 my wife and I bought it and read it together. Two decades on the details had become fuzzy and, having read about Aimee Semple McPherson and her faith healing reminded me of the famous Russian scallawag. For all his personal faults, Rasputin did seem to have genuine healing abilities. He was more shaman than orthodox, to be sure, and Siberia was the home of shamanism as well as Rasputin. For those who don’t know the story, in pre-Revolution Russia Grigory Rasputin rose from a Siberian peasant family to the most trusted advisor to the Empress of Russia, Alexandra Romanov. Her weak-willed husband, Nicholas, also gave credence to the mystic, despite the latter’s well known drunkenness and womanizing.

The fascinating aspect of Moynahan’s treatment is that it brings out the saintly side of this figure who’s grown such a notorious reputation. That’s not to whitewash his extreme lifestyle, but it is to acknowledge that he was far more complex than many critics make him out to be. He seems to have been sincere in his faith, and perhaps a little mentally imbalanced. He was kind to the poor, and charitable. He wasn’t a bigot, a sin quite common in his day. He was a working class mystic who took advantage of being inebriated with power. His influence over Alexandra was so strong that he could appoint Prime Ministers even in the midst of a world war. This is a fascinating personality.

Reading the book at this point in history, however, proved strangely unsettling. Many of us wonder how a rational, fairly educated and prosperous nation could tolerate the buffoons who inhabit Washington, DC. Daily we see insanity—with no exaggeration—on the level of the throes Tsarist Russia, or even of Rome under Caligula. Instead of taking steps to right the course, the Russian, excuse me, I mean Republican, Party does any and everything in its power to keep the illusion of normalcy alive. Even while foreign ministers of his own party tell the European powers to ignore their own president, American Rasputins just can’t survive without their daily power fix. The sad thing about that last sentence is that after writing it I felt as if I were somehow being unfair to Rasputin. And I lived at Nashotah House long enough to know what I’m talking about.

Heal and Farewell

What could Aimee Semple McPherson have in common with the devious Russian monk Rasputin? Apart from being contemporaries for a couple decades, they were both faith healers. Well documented cases exist for both of them, and the medical profession has started to come around to the idea that belief can, and does, heal. The stories of Sister Aimee’s healings, witnessed by thousands, make me fear being thought gullible just for bringing it up. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Cases exist even today where healing inexplicably takes place before scientific eyes. Often it occurs in response to religious stimulus. We may have proof that it happens, but we tend not to believe. This is a curious state of affairs. We trust in reason to the point that it may prevent us from being healed by faith.

Some object, of course, to the theological element. It’s pretty tricky to believe God has healed you if you don’t believe in God. The thing about faith healing, though, is that it seems to work no matter the religion of the person healed. This, it would seem, suggests we should be applying our rational minds to understanding belief. Instead we use it to find new ways to make money or to build smarter weapons to kill one another more efficiently. The more we come to understand the physical world around us, the less we know. As our research institutions take on the shape of the businesses that increasingly fund them, interest in this phenomenon shrinks. Medicine, in all its forms, is big money. Living in central New Jersey you can’t help but notice the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies, nor ignore the mansions on the hill they have built. If only we could believe.

Faith healing was this aspect of her ministry that propelled Sister Aimee to fame. She constantly underplayed it, not wanting to be considered a healer of bodies so much as a healer of souls. Rasputin, of course, had political motives. Both lived—not so long ago—when faith was taken very seriously. Judging from the posturing around the least religious president in decades, whatever faith is left has been sorely effaced. Maybe it’s our minds that have the capacity to heal, but even that well seems to have been drained with the leaky bucket of rhetoric. History can teach us so much, if we’re willing to invest in it. How does faith healing work? I have no idea. Nor, it seems, does anybody else. So it will remain until it becomes commodified.

All Saints

The movies of Guillermo del Toro, despite their success, must be watched with an astutely analytical eye. Although my movie watching runs a few years behind at best, a recent viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth left me feeling a little hollow and very reflective. The gruesome story is well told, and the fantasy world, even at the end, is hardly believable. Like most films that deal with disturbing issues, religious concepts are not far from the surface, or sometimes, the depths. In this case, the distinctly Christian trope of self-sacrifice opens a portal to a mystical world where a God-like father sits on a shining throne. But is it real? We are warned from the very first scene that this will not end well for young Ofelia, that “heaven” is but a fantasy seen through the hopeful eyes of a dying child. Even the faun (“Pan” of the English title) wears horns that suggest to modern minds the slightly diabolical, although he is in the service of the mystical king. I was so conflicted by end that I was glad the next day was a workday.

It is not difficult to notice that the heroes of the film are the female characters. Even the good men are generally ineffectual, but the strength of Ofelia and Mercedes bear the weight of showing any hope at all. Captain Vidal betrays his name of “life giver” time and again unless life is understood as unremitting pain and torture. Even the end of the film is set up as someone having to pay the price; the king demands innocent blood—will it be Ofelia or her baby brother? Of course, the girl must pay the price. In an interesting interpretation of the sacrifice of the only child, the daughter here becomes the savior.

Fantasy often has the power to heal. This is a key aspect that it shares with religion. Scientists have sought in vain a mechanism that would explain the brain’s remarkable ability to heal the body under conditions of belief. At times we’re reduced to name-calling, suggesting that somebody’s got something up their sleeve. After all, could a disreputable character like Rasputin really hold the key to physical wholesomeness (to say nothing of moral rectitude)? And yet, there are those who are made well by the most unlikely means.

The peoples of northern Europe believed that the veil between this world and the next was severely effaced at this time of year. Darkness is more prevalent than light. Pan’s Labyrinth begins and ends in darkness, and even the daylight—when it briefly occurs—is subdued. With Halloween behind us, the most veracious season of the year
lies ahead. Let us hope that this labyrinth contains fantasy.

Playing Doctor

Science, religion, humanity. People are a conundrum. Medical professionals have the unenviable task of sorting out what is wrong with this jumble of organic biological systems and also attempting to address the uniquely human aspect of their subjects. As far as life forms go, although we may not be on top of the evolutionary ladder, we are suitably, impressively complex. We haven’t yet sorted out how mental states figure into physical processes: a number of cases of “faith healing” seem to have been verified, but the mechanism remains unknown. Praying has been demonstrated to improve some physical conditions with the believer saying God is doing the work and the skeptic suggesting it is the healing aspect of our own minds. How do you treat a creature that may not even agree with you on the ground-rules?

A story in yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger revealed that New Jersey hospitals are experimenting with human subjects. The subjects, however, are doctors, not patients. In an effort to bring science and the humanities together, several hospitals are sponsoring reading groups for doctors. Like a garden-variety Oprah reading club, the physicians read a novel and discuss the human elements with each other. The theory is that it may help them understand the softer side of the science – how to touch the human reality of a field of study that has become very scientific. Specialists in the sciences and humanities have grown apart.

The humanities have long been assigned to the “less necessary” side of both university programs and the job market. Ironically, among those who are most famous in our pragmatic, make-a-buck world are musicians, actors, film-makers, best-selling novelists – in short, masters of one of the humanities. A darker side exists here as well; even celebrated humanities specialists can turn on one another. Contradictions and conflicts are part of human nature. Religion, one of the humanities, is a stellar example of the heights and depths of human behavior. As physicians attempt to discover what really makes us tick, reading novels is a good place to start. Attending religious services may be a bit more chancy, but like any human endeavor, one might get lucky and make a truly groundbreaking discovery. Did Rasputin write any novels?

Playing doctor, once upon a time.

Faith Healing

Having dissociative reading habits sometimes leads to fortuitous coincidences. My interests have always been widely dispersed, and although I have a few perennial favorites that I keep coming back around to, reading about new interests predominates. One of my favorite reading topics is science. Apart from the requisite intro courses in college, I have unfortunately had little formal training in the sciences, so I read extensively in the field. A number of my recent reading projects, books on widely divergent areas of science, have coincidentally mentioned faith healing. Being books written by scientists, there is little by way of physical explanation except that people who believe they are improving generally do. The mechanism remains undiscovered, but the phenomenon is well documented.

Faith healing has long lain among the taboo subjects of snake handling and snake oil hawkers. Those who approach the phenomenon from a religious angle claim that it is no less than divine power that causes a person to heal. Physicians and scientists who rely on empirical evidence, however, declare that a physical cause must exist, albeit a yet undiscovered one. With no way to test results, the objective approach simply must accept that it happens, we know not why.

A number of years ago I read a book about Rasputin (Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned by Brian Moynahan). At the time I was teaching at Nashotah House, a monastery-like seminary heavily influenced by Orthodox pretensions. “Rasputin” was a common slur on campus, particularly for a slovenly prelate-in-training. I had no idea who Rasputin was until I read this book. Apart from the distinctly creepy vibes his photographs give off, there are many documented cases of Rasputin’s ability as a faith healer. Few today would consider the “mad monk” as any kind of saint, but he apparently had a salubrious effect on those who believed in his power. This would shift the cause from supernatural to the suspect, unwashed hands of a notorious sinner.

Who wouldn’t want the ability to heal and make the world a place with a little less suffering? While faith healing has become a kind of holy grail for scientists, there are some not-so-holy religious folk who’ve unlocked a door that many never even suspected was there in the first place.