By the time we reached the Middle Ages healing played a smaller and smaller role in church life. By the seventh century, western civilization had deteriorated significantly. Barbarian invasions plundered cities, and scattered, tortured, and murdered the people. Survival became a daily struggle and people looked to God and to the “saints,” the ones who made it into heaven, for their healing needs. St. Gregory the Great, leader of the Christian world, regarded sickness as a discipline sent from God. One could only hope for a better life in heaven. He taught that miracles had to be a sign of the “end times.” However, he believed saints could heal and he encouraged people to remember these holy ones as “friends at court” in heaven so they might intercede for them.
This teaching laid the foundation for pilgrimages to the burial sites or “shrines” of the saints. Holy people were venerated since they were in heaven and could reach across the veil of this existence to assist others. Going on pilgrimage meant traveling dangerous roads. Since few people could afford to stay in inns, they would try to walk to the nearest abbey or monastery for shelter along their journey. Here within those walls, the monks and nuns tended their healing needs in body and spirit.
Compassionate healing became a chief focus of many monastic orders. Monks and nuns practiced the healing arts that included surgery, laying-on of hands, healing herbs, essential oils and other holistic treatments for the wayfarers traveling on pilgrimage. The church however in an effort to separate spiritual healing from physical healing in the twelfth century, forbade monks from performing surgery. They were to be healers of souls only.
An outstanding Christian healer during this period was Hildegard of Bingen. She was a mystic, visionary, herbalist, scientist, composer, author, artist and consultant to kings and popes. All of the Benedictine Motherhouses of Europe would send representatives to learn from Hildegard how to treat all manner of physical and mental illnesses. Her abbey became a meeting place for healers across Europe.
The nobility in the Middle Ages all had their own private physicians and healers but the commoners had to rely upon each other for healing. They used “wise women healers” who knew about herbs and who had vast experiential knowledge regarding women’s cycles, childbirth and how to heal common ailments. The monks and nuns in the abbeys and monasteries likewise had vast experiential knowledge. They practiced a compassionate healing in the name of Christ and in the tradition of the early church Fathers and Mothers.
What can we learn from this piece of history about healing body/mind/spirit? Can a healing ministry help restore both soul and body to wholeness? Many think so and are “going on modern-day pilgrimages” to seek out complementary and alternative healing practitioners-especially those who are Christian focused.