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“Religious Art… Conveys the Presence of God”: Sister Carol Keehan on How The Saint John’s Bible “Speaks Directly to the Human Soul”

“No other version of the Bible has accomplished” what The Saint John’s Bible provides to Catholic healthcare

Posted September 6, 2018 in Healthcare

Sister Carol Keehan’s passion for healthcare began at age 18, during her first week in nursing school – “and it’s only gotten better since,” she said. She’s right.

Since joining the Daughters of Charity sisterhood for social ministry in 1965, Sr. Carol has become a giant of healthcare. She has spent decades as an advisor and activist across the country, both inside and outside of Catholic tradition. As ninth president of the Catholic Health Association (a role she entered in 2005), she has consistently appeared in lists of the most influential people in healthcare and provided a crucial voice in organizing support for the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama.

One often overlooked aspect of Sr. Carol’s personal mission is her focus on the role of a patient’s environment in the quality and outcomes of their care. We asked her about the history of Catholic healing aesthetics, how art can have real effects on patient outcomes, and where The Saint John’s Bible fits in the landscape of modern healthcare.

When you visit any hospital—regardless of its religious affiliation—you will find art in many forms: sculptures, paintings, architecture and, quite often, music. What do you think that says about the link between spiritual healing and aesthetic beauty?

Those of us serving in healthcare recognize the critical role a patient’s surrounding environment plays in healing. Natural light, a low volume ambience and serene ambience, and color schemes affect mood and emotion. In Catholic healthcare, we also believe the environment must support the spiritual well-being of our patients. The use of good religious art, along with elements such as natural stone and water features, conveys the presence of God. We also need to recognize how aesthetic architecture and use of religious art provide comfort to our patients’ loved ones. The stained glass windows in a chapel, or a painting in a hall, can provide a focal point for prayer and reflection and help reduce the stress of our patients’ families and friends while they are visiting our hospitals.

For centuries, the Catholic Church has been blessed with an impressive artistic heritage. Do you see The Saint John’s Bible as a continuation of this history or as an innovative approach to providing a healing ministry in Catholic healthcare? Or both?

I think it does a fabulous job of contemporizing the long-standing tradition found among all faiths to use art to tell stories and glorify God. I’ve always been impressed with how well The Saint John’s Bible brings forth the story of Christ and His teachings in a vivid and engaging manner. It’s truly an amazing project.

The mission of The Saint John’s Bible—to ignite the spiritual imagination of people of all faith journeys—makes the case that this illuminated Bible for the 21st century seeks to reach out to all, regardless of their cultural or religious background. How is it that a Christian Bible can ignite inclusion of many faiths and cultures?

The appeal of art is that it transcends language and speaks directly to the human soul, regardless of one’s faith. I think the scale of each volume, the exquisite calligraphy and sketches, and the richly intense illuminations capture the imagination in perhaps a way that no other version of the Bible has accomplished.

Incarnate Grace: Connecting Art to the Spirit of Health Ministry
Supplementing Sr. Carol’s initiative to focus Catholic healthcare on the healing environment, the CHA recently published Incarnate Grace: Perspectives on the Ministry of Catholic Health Care, a collection of essays by theologians and ministry leaders that pinpoints the trends and spirit that have shaped healing ministry. Fr. Charles Bouchard, OP, S.T.D., edited the collection.

“The main purpose of [Incarnate Grace] was to write a book about theology and healthcare that included everything except ethics,” Fr. Bouchard said. “Usually, when people think of healthcare and religion, they think right away of healthcare ethics – which is really important, obviously. But ethics tends to deal with more of the problems we face – specific clinical problems. What about the other parts of our Catholic tradition?”

Among those other parts, Bouchard says, are the Bible itself, sacrament, and Christology, a theological branch specifically dedicated to studying the personage of Jesus. That’s why the authors of Incarnate Grace hail from a variety of backgrounds, including Scripture interpretation, ecclesiology, and more.

Bouchard said that Incarnate Grace uses its authors’ wider lens to “broaden the base of the theological foundations for Catholic healthcare.” That open-mindedness also led to the inclusion of illuminations from The Saint John’s Bible, which appear alongside the book’s text.

Bouchard, who considers The Saint John’s Bible “one of the most important things that’s happened to the church in a long time,” said the illuminations add another dimension to the message and format of Incarnate Grace. “When we were trying to think about how to present these essays, we wanted to make them visually interesting as well as theologically interesting so that when people read the words, they could also look at these beautiful images and say, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s something … that we can understand through art as well as the written word.’

“Because so much of what we do in healthcare has to do with human contact, with understanding, with experience, we thought art from The Saint John’s Bible would be a perfect way of raising that.”

Incarnate Grace is available now from the CHA Store.

In your own words, what is it about The Saint John’s Bible that is uniquely powerful in a healthcare context? What need does it fill that other initiatives don’t (at least, not as effectively)?

One of the most wonderful aspects of this project is that the volumes are not sitting in some gallery and waiting for people to come to them. You are taking them out to the people. In a sense the project is heeding the call of Christ – as well as many of our Catholic saints and even Pope Francis – to go out among the people and spread the good word. Those of us working in healthcare are making concerted efforts to the do the same and bring healthcare outside the walls and into neighborhoods. Catholic healthcare in particular seeks to go where there is need and be a literal and figurative “field hospital” for the Church. So, I think this project very much aligns with what we are striving to do. It also provides our clinicians and other colleagues an opportunity to interact with a profoundly beautiful work of Christian art in the workplace.

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Catholic healthcare in this country was founded by Catholic sisters who were passionate about delivering health and healing, especially to the poor. Even throughout the making of The Saint John’s Bible, scholars worked closely with the artists to highlight and celebrate strong female characters in the Bible. Are you seeing more young women emerge as leaders in healthcare? In other words, is history repeating itself?

We definitely are seeing more women assume leadership roles in healthcare, which is not only welcome but overdue. Our founding Sisters and sponsoring congregations instinctively knew that healing was about more than simply applying science to treatment plans. A nurturing instinct is more important than ever as medicine becomes more and more high-tech. The challenge for Catholic healthcare is getting more young people – men and women alike – to choose careers in healthcare for the same reason our founding Sisters chose the profession: to serve others and live the gospel through their daily work. I hope that history can repeat itself in this regard. To that end, we are working diligently to provide formation opportunities for young professionals working in, or seeking positions in, Catholic healthcare who want to grow in their careers.

Trinity Health System and The Saint John's Bible
Healthcare institutions like Trinity Health System use the Heritage Edition to enhance the healing environment for both patients and staff. Here, SVP Mission & Ethics Philip Boyle (left) holds an interactive, hands-on session with members of the Trinity Health Systems Office.

The Saint John’s Bible seeks to give voice and expression to those in need. This aligns perfectly with CHA’s shared identity statement which calls for special attention to “the poor, underserved and most vulnerable.” Do you agree that art and beauty can open hearts to the needs of the less fortunate? Have you seen it happen in your career?

Art and beauty should not be limited to those with wealth and means. What I think is so remarkable about this project is that it is a form of art that can be appreciated by all – regardless of income status, faith tradition, or ethnicity. Our Christian tradition centers on loving everyone as our neighbor. A profound sense of love and peace comes through so beautifully in The Saint John’s Bible and I really appreciate that this is a major art project that goes on the road and is among the people.

What is your favorite illumination in The Saint John’s Bible?

There are too many favorites to make a choice.