Monday, 1st October 2018Seminar Thursday 25 October 2018:
Shape of Water: ‘Medicine of Mortality’ in Patristic Pastoral Healthcare

This seminar took place on Thursday 25 October 2018, 4.30-6pm in Seminar Room C
(D/TH107, Dept. of Theology & Religion, Abbey House, DH1 3RS, Durham).

Dr Susan R. Holman, Academic editor & writer in medicine & global health, Harvard University (2007-2018); John R. Eckrich Chair & Professor of Religion & the Healing Arts, Valparaiso University (2019); Senior Fellow of the Harvard University Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality

To download the presentation’s Handout click here.

To watch the Lecture, please click on the video below:


Water takes many shapes in early Christian texts on healing and need: in baptism, healing springs, the therapeutic drink of fasting, merciful nurture, filth-prevention, and the civic or public service of funding baths. Water was a human entitlement based on theological ethics; Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, condemned those who forbade the sick poor from drinking from public fountains as if they poisoned them; and in the Egyptian desert, Abba Shenoute funded (and likely designed on sanctuary patterns) a massive well during a refugee crisis. Yet even when it is regarded as essential, water can kill: mixed in wine of the “wrong” group’s eucharist, infested with mysterious forces that trigger life-threatening vomiting and diarrhea, or simply by its absence, for example in drought that some, like Basil of Caesarea, blamed on sin and greed. Water’s connection with illness and death may seem to flow in provocative eddies with Ignatius of Antioch’s famous appeal to eucharist as the “medicine of immortality.”

Water is often the forgotten cipher in health care. Yet safe drinking water and basic sanitation remain key to global goals today in both health and development. As the late Steve de Gruchy reminded us in his 2009 essay on “Water and Spirit: Theology in the Time of Cholera,” “There is only one stream of water” in this world, “[t]here is no life outside this cycle and theology has to get real about it.” Isabel Apawo Phiri, in her 2018 Steve de Gruchy Memorial Lecture, called for the church to take a serious role in realizing the vision for comprehensive water justice. While such messages most directly speak to faith-based concerns about the global environment, they are also deeply rooted in both therapeutic and eschatological imagery relevant to pastoral engagement in health care. This paper will consider and tease at these cross-time and cross-disciplinary connections, asking: how might Christian constructions of water in late antiquity potentially inform scholarship, action, and community-based thinking about how we address medicine, mortality, and ministry today?


Susan R. Holman is a writer and scholar whose research explores the intersections of faith-based responses to disease and poverty in late antiquity with related issues in modern global health. Dr. Holman’s early studies in clinical and public health nutrition shape the narrative of her books on Christian history, including The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia (Oxford 2001), God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty (Oxford 2009), and Beholden: Religion, Global Health, and Human Rights (Oxford 2015, which received the 2016 Grawemeyer Award in Religion). She is also editor of Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (BakerAcademic 2008), author and co-translator of Basil of Caesarea: On Fasting and Feasts (SVS Press 2013), and co-editor of The Garb of Being: Embodiment and the Pursuit of Holiness in Late Ancient Christianity (Fordham 2019).