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Trauma and the Eucharist

Review: Karen O’Donnell, Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary, and the Body in Trauma Theology (SCM Press. Pp. 236. £65)

Review by Neil Dhingra

In her fascinating Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary, and the Body in Trauma Theology, Karen O’Donnell tells us that “ancient liturgies were infused with the scent of trauma and trauma recovery” and can aid in recovery from the ruptures in bodily integrity, time, and language that define trauma. Feminist theologians have described such recovery as “wound meets wound” in the sharing of painful stories at a veterans’ group and when “broken speech” is “knit together in the space of divine speech” as survivors pray the Psalms (Shelly Rambo. Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Aftermath of Trauma [Baylor University Press, 2017], p. 135; Serene Jones. Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World [Westminster John Knox, 2009], p. 54).

Here, O’Donnell looks to liturgical theology for recovery, especially as liturgy is necessarily attentive to bodies. For if traumatic experience inevitably has to do with injured bodies, it is through the body, particularly Mary’s body, traumatized and then full of grace and capable of bearing the Christ, that healing may finally and blessedly occur.

From O’Donnell’s perspective, Mary underwent trauma. Her body, even with her fiat, has a disruptive “sudden presence” within it; her experience of time, in which pregnancy should logically follow intercourse, was ruptured; and she simply has no words for what has happened to her: “How can this be, for I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).

All the sacraments are traumatic for us in similar ways. Our body is no longer completely our own, our present is interrupted by a foretaste of the eschatological banquet, and the sacraments ultimately are beyond any adequate verbal description. These traumas are not negative events. They can spur post-traumatic growth as Mary and all of us, her children, recover and rediscover unity and integrity. Mary discovers a new identity in a new world and strikingly new language in the Magnificat. The liturgy is likewise traumatic and a site for subsequent growth for us, after which we may reconnect with society in our own newfound integrity: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

O’Donnell centers the Annunciation and Incarnation as the focus of theology and liturgy, as they show rupture and eventual reconnection, trauma and the possibility of healing. She recovers the striking image of Mary as, in the words of Andrew of Crete, the starter dough for the “bread made for the remodeling of the race.” As Mary nourished Christ with her flesh, blood, and milk, Christ now nourishes us with his body and blood, the latter of which O’Donnell associates with breast milk that we drink as newly related brothers and sisters.

As might be expected, O’Donnell’s eucharistic theology, if disruptive, ultimately emphasizes bodily integrity. This is not merely the enduring unity of Christ human and divine, which for her is re-enacted in the eucharistic mystery as bread and wine are revealed to be concomitantly body and blood. This is also the unity of Christians, who through receiving the Eucharist become no less than siblings — the Body of Christ. Finally, it is the bodily integrity of Mary, who, once “greatly troubled” (Luke 1:29), can finally bear the Divine as Theotokos.

This is the basis of a strikingly revisionist liturgical theology. If the Eucharist is imagined as breast milk, the priest can be strikingly envisioned as a Marian figure. Here O’Donnell draws on sources ranging from a claim of Pius IX that Mary was called “the Virgin Priest” by some Church Fathers to typology that reveals Mary to be the “Temple of Temples” to artwork showing Mary clothed as or performing the actions of a priest. Thus, at the liturgy, the priest re-enacts a life-giving Marian self-offering on behalf of the entire congregation, “calling on the Holy Spirit to overshadow these gifts as Mary was overshadowed by the Spirit.”

If the eucharistic sacrifice is a remembering of the maternal body of the Theotokos, the reception of the Eucharist becomes a truly embodied experience. For O’Donnell, the Eucharist is both material and Divine, bread and wine indwelled by the presence of Christ, and shows Christ’s affirmation of the “goodness of the bodies who receive him” — all of them. O’Donnell notes the desire of some medieval mystics to imagine eucharistic reception as distinctly if disconcertingly Marian, as a physical union with Christ akin to pregnancy. Our reception leads us to live eucharistically — just as the Eucharist is the site of the non-competitive unity of material and Divine, our lives must show that differences can finally be brought into holy unity. This is what growth and recovery after trauma may look like. This is also what liturgy and theology that are attentive to bodies may look like.

O’Donnell ends affectingly, by writing with candor about her miscarriage. She once felt disconnected from her body, from the ecclesial body that had once asked her excitedly about the baby to come, and finally from the theology that she had studied. As such, this deeply Marian book is her “reconnection,” a “survivor’s gift,” a “call to love the body: my body and the bodies I encounter.” She had not expected to write it.

Given that trauma is not meant to be a perspective among others but a lens, an experience of the real that is meant to destabilize, it should be expected that O’Donnell’s work is challenging, especially in its wide range of sources. However, even assuming the lens of trauma, I wonder about O’Donnell’s relative (not complete) displacement of Jesus’ death from the center of liturgical theology in favor of the Annunciation-Incarnation event.

She worries about the centering and perhaps glorification of “immolatory, destructive love.” This is a legitimate concern. Nevertheless, Serene Jones, on whom O’Donnell draws, depicts a woman, Rachel, traumatized by a “genocidal war crime,” who is only able see “the fractured, tortured shape of her traumatic existence” in the crucified Christ. “He assumes her reality, speaks the unspeakable in his own loss of speech, and then returns all of this to her as he witnesses to what she believed would be forever unknown” (Jones, Trauma and Grace, p. 123). I’m not quite sure where Rachel (and some of the other women Jones describes) would necessarily fit into O’Donnell’s book; this is a deeply Marian book but without the Pietà.

Furthermore, there isn’t a sustained discussion of forgiveness. This may be because the perpetrators of trauma are largely absent from this book. To be sure, there wasn’t a perpetrator of O’Donnell’s ectopic pregnancy. But we can imagine, say, a political context to other miscarriages — Jones mentions, for instance, the societal demonization of the “mothering bodies” of marginalized women (ibid., p. 133). Therefore, as Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger writes, we must hope for an end to not only the “terror of human trauma” but also the “anguish of human guilt,” which brings us back to the foot of the cross (Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel, and Pastoral Care [Eerdmans, 2015], p. 15).

But no book can do everything. All this is to hope for a sequel as fascinating, moving, creative, and challenging as this book.



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