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Broken Bodies: The eucharist, Mary and the body in trauma theology, by Karen O’Donnell

06 December 2019

Martin Warner reflects on a theology of the eucharist and Mary

THE image of “the womb as a grave site and the experience of death within the Trinity” is what triggered Karen O’Donnell’s exploration of trauma and theology.

The first three chapters sketch out some of the important reference points that touch on this. These include the emergence of the eucharist in the Early Church and the emergence of the place of Mary in Christian doctrine.

In some respects, this covers ground that is familiar in Marian studies, building on the work of Sarah Jane Boss, Tine Beattie, and Caroline Walker Bynum, though O’Donnell relates her Marian interest much more systematically to the eucharist.

These authors all tend to draw heavily from the Latin tradition, and it would be interesting to widen the discussion with reference to Margaret Barker’s attention to the importance of the Temple and a strain of Marian devotion which emerges more clearly in the Greek and Syrian rites.

The turning-point of Broken Bodies is a statement entitled Rupture. In a single paragraph, O’Donnell lays out the methodology of applying the wider, annunciation-incarnation framework of Christology rather than the event-based drama of the cross to our narratives about priesthood, sacrifice, and the eucharist.

The chapters that follow explore those three subjects, with extended considerations of sacramentality and embodiment. O’Donnell writes with confidence as a Christian feminist theologian, giving us a strong sense of the energy of trauma as it illuminates how women experience the processes of redemption.

This is an utterly stimulating, beautifully written, and properly disruptive book. It feels like the probing of a skilful consultant into a bodily condition that the patient does not fully understand and cannot adequately describe. Like the work of the Holy Spirit, it explores “the depths of everything, even the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2.10).

But, just as no medical diagnosis is, of itself, the exhaustive statement of a human being’s condition, so this exploration of trauma surely prompts us to widen its terms of reference and understanding.

For example, I was struck by O’Donnell’s description of late-medieval worship in the Western Church as a distortion of the eucharist because it was centred on the experience of watching the ritual of the eucharist. Receiving holy communion was not for ordinary people in ordinary times.

The importance of the full participation of the whole People of God in the celebration of the eucharist is, rightly, now widely accepted. But might our demand for participation, and the pamphlet-bound wordiness that this spectacularly seems to entail in much of the Church of England’s liturgy, sometimes be at odds with the effective televisual, drama-based communication of our time?

Finally, I also wonder how we should account for the somatic trauma of men in this exploration and how they relate to their bodies.

What sort of statement is being made when a man tattoos the name of his child on his body, as David Beckham has done? And if the male priest is presented as intrinsically linked with a theology of the eucharist which is destructive and violent, what does this say to men about their bodily identity?

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.

Broken Bodies: The eucharist, Mary and the body in trauma theology
Karen O’Donnell
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop special price £24

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