3: Pilgrimage as acute care
How the quest for faith healing could shift to long-term care
This is the third part of a series. You can find part one here.
Michel de Montaigne made a pilgrimage from his home in Bordeaux to the Holy House of Loreto in hopes of curing his kidney stones in 1580. The house is where the Virgin Mary grew up and then raised Jesus, which was magically transported from Israel to Italy by angels. This was happening while the nobility in Geel were writing (or rewriting) the Dymphna story and everyone in Europe was living through plagues, wars, and the Protestant Reformation.
As I started reading reports of faith healing, I wasn’t getting the impression that saints are highly specialized. The same saints are invoked to cure people of all sorts of ailments, from paralysis to blindness. This was especially true in cases of demonic possession, since all saints are qualified to cast out demons.
The healing obtained through an exorcism appears to be something like taking antibiotics. The treatment addresses the source of the ailment — either demonic possession or bacterial infection, depending on which we’re dealing with. Because demons and bacteria can both cause a wide range of symptoms, the same treatment is an effective cure for many different ailments that have a common source.
Most antibiotics treat a range of bacteria, yet don’t cure all bacterial infections. It’s common for an infection to require more than one antibiotic, either simultaneously or serially.1 Its common for bacterial infections to recur after a cure, like with recurring UTIs or chronic bronchitis.
Similarly, the first exorcism or pilgrimage might not do the trick. Taking patients to various shrines may have been especially common for people with recurring ailments. Guille Cliquet’s family wrote this about him in the early 1400s:
“[he] had been furious and out of his senses for some time and for diverse intervals. Because of these things he was put in irons, chained, and taken to Saint Mathurin of Larchant and on other pilgrimages and sometimes he came to convalescence and afterwards he fell back into his lunacy. The which Cliquet, when he is in health, is a very good, diligent laborer and a man of great care.”2
Cliquet lived in a household that contained his extended family. He worked alongside them when he was able to.
Another story from the same source is that of Jehan de Moustier:
“His father, Perrim, took him to the shrine of Saint Titenerd at Gournay, north of their home in Saint-Denis. At the saint’s shrine, Jehan de Moustier was chained up and left to await God’s mercy, but he escaped from those chains and ran away. When he was recaptured, his family returned him to the shrine where they applied two sets of chains, but even this was not enough to hold Jehan, who had strength enough to escape from those as well. Clearly, the saint was not able to provide a cure at this time, and Perrim de Moustier took him back home.”
Ending an exorcism prematurely was considered dangerous. Once begun, the treatment needed to be seen through to completion. We’re also advised to take the full course of antibiotics, even if symptoms abate, due to the risk of contributing to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Some patients who were not cured were left in the community hosting the shrine, with long-term care arranged for them and paid for by the family or by the sending community. Others, like Jehan de Moustier, were brought home uncured. This suggests to me that acute treatment and long-term foster care were two separate, yet related, services. Today, the arrangement of long-term care is a separate process from that of acute treatment, which may be provided through the same medical conglomerate or a separate organization.
Hostels established for pilgrims were also used to provide long-term housing for the disabled. This makes sense, as monasteries and convents were the original nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The more I read, the more the continuity of our medical system — from its development in the middle ages through today — became clear.
Two pilgrimage sites: Fatima and Geel
Shortly after returning from Geel, I decided it was time to visit the shrine at Fatima. I wanted to understand the experiences and motivations of pilgrims and Fatima is a two-hour bus ride from where I was staying. Pope Francis I had just made the trip from Lisbon to Fatima a few weeks before, although he didn’t take the Rede Expressos bus.
As I was walking from my guest house to the shrine of Fatima, it became glaringly obvious to me that Geel was never a major pilgrimage site. Pilgrims take specific routes. The road to Fatima and Santiago de Compostela are internationally famous. Even local pilgrimages have marked paths. Geel, however, does not.
Pierre Dominique Kuyl, curate of Antwerp’s cathedral and author of Gheel vermaerd door den eerdienst der Heilige Dimphna — an exhaustive history and appendix of historic documents related to Saint Dymphna — tells us there was a huge influx of pilgrims to Geel in the beginning of the 16th century, without any indication of what he considers “huge.”
Byrne’s 1856 account in Gheel: City of the Simple makes it clear that his attempt to arrange transportation to Geel for a visit is viewed as a strange request. There are only two guest houses in Geel during his visit. Still, 1856 is hardly the heyday of exorcisms, so perhaps things were different from the 1200s to the 1600s.
When I managed to find numbers, they are not impressive:
“Although the earliest records have been lost, the Liber Innocentium written between 1687 and 1797 reports that around 4000 people (coming from the Flemish and Dutch provinces, from Germany and France) performed the novena in that period of time.”3
That gives us an average of just over 36 pilgrims a year. Even if they all came at once, I’m pretty sure we could find space for them to sleep in Sint-Dimpnakerk. In fact, I’m certain I’ve hosted that many people in my one bedroom apartment in the course of a year.
Kuyl tells us:
“In the past, the sick room was sometimes crammed with insane people, so that they often had to stay entirely with the citizens before they could be accepted into the sick room. When the papal nuncio, Petrus Vorstius, Bishop of Acqui, visited the whole on June 2, 1537, there were six senseless people in the sick room.”
I understand how six guests can feel like a lot. Still, this is a place that built a hostel to accommodate pilgrims and a time when it was common for people to share beds, even in inns and hospitals. It was also a time when pilgrims slept on church floors.
An 1838 report said that the “insane” in Geel were always fewer than 400 until incurable patients began to be transferred from other Belgian asylums to Geel.4 If we’re going from six to a little under 400 between the 1500s and 1800s, there should be records of how, when, and why this happened.
So if Geel was never a pilgrimage site, what was going on? My hunch is that the “pilgrimage” was merely the annual celebration of Saint Dymphna’s feast day. There was no pilgrimage route because people were coming from the parish or perhaps the next parish over.
Documents from the 1400s discuss the annual procession of the relics, without any mention of managing a flood of pilgrims who need to be housed temporarily. Feast days are a big festival and you were granted indulgences simply for showing up.
I suspect that Saint Dymphna’s shrine receives more pilgrims today than it did in the middle ages. Today it’s an easy day trip from Antwerp for those who are so inclined, which is good since Geel has only one hotel and one bed and breakfast.
In Fatima, I wondered why people came from all over to be cured of all sorts of ailments and complaints. The famous visions that led to it becoming an internationally known pilgrimage site were about global politics and didn’t involve any miraculous healing.
Surprisingly, the healing at Fatima is left out of the short version of the story. The first miracle to occur in Fatima took place in the 18th century, when the Virgin Mary appeared to a mute shepherd. The mute girl was suddenly able to speak. A statue of the Virgin mysteriously appeared at the place of the miracle and the girl’s father built a chapel on the site in 1758. I’m told it became a place of pilgrimage.
Most of those who visit Fatima today spill out of tour buses, tour the huge pilgrim complex downtown, view the homes of the three shepherds, and climb back on the bus. A smaller trickle of tourists walk to the site of Fatima’s original miracle. The chapel is prepared for them, with votives to light, wax effigies to offer, and public toilets. As far as I know, none of them leave their nonverbal children behind if their tongues are not loosened by Our Lady.
It’s easy to visit Fatima and only learn about the miracles that took place in the 20th century. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Ortiga, where the mute shepard was healed, is a seventy minute walk from the complex with Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima. You only get an indulgence from the pope for your pilgrimage if you go on the first Sunday in June.
Annie Macmanus: “Allow friendships to come and go. Don’t cling onto friendships because they are old. Cling on to them because they bring you joy and comfort and laughter.”
Fran Lebowitz: “The level of comfort that people seem to feel they need is like a level of comfort that you would have while taking a bubble bath. You don’t need to be that comfortable all the time.”
Heather Havrilesky: “Incredible sadness carries with it an ability to touch the purest strain of joy, to experience an almost ecstatic release, to see an almost blinding, undiluted beauty in everything. Your dad will always be a part of your life. I hated it when people said that kind of thing before my dad died; I thought it was a sad lie told by needy liars. But it’s true.”
“Attempts to cure madness most often involved visits to saints’ shrines. Often, the mad would be taken to several shrines when a cure was not forthcoming. Just as shrine records sometimes included stories of failed medical cures that were triumphed over by the successful spiritual cure, remission letters tell us about ultimately unsuccessful pilgrimages. Although there were saints considered particularly good at curing madness, most of the pilgrimages recorded in remission letters were focused locally, at shrines close to home. This is unsurprising, particularly when one considers the potential difficulties of traveling with a mad person. Foucault’s image of solitary mad people wandering the roads and waterways of Europe on their way to shrines is not supported by the evidence in these letters, which suggests rather that pilgrimages would be undertaken in groups of at least two, including one healthy individual, generally a member of the family.” https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/315/oa_monograph/chapter/2815097