Broken Bodies: the Eucharist, Mary, and the Body in Trauma Theology. By Karen O’Donnell. (London: SCM Research, 2019. Pp. 224. Paperback isbn 978-0-334-05837-3.)

This book originates with the author’s doctoral thesis on trauma theory and sacramental theology, and is informed by her search to make sense of personal reproductive losses. Drawing from a wide variety of sources, while grounding her theology in the work of Cyril and building on Serene Jones, the author employs a hermeneutical method of “rupture” to interrupt texts and doctrines. It is through the notion of “rupture” that she relocates eucharistic theology in the Annunciation-Incarnation event and reframes somatic memory in the person of Mary. The author’s stated goal is to “[allow] the hermeneutical lens of trauma to destabilize narratives and challenge assumptions” (13) in order to (re)construct a eucharistic theology of embodiment, which she does.

Beginning with a literature review of trauma theory, and extending to an introduction to how theologians have taken up the study, O’Donnell proposes an exploration of “somatic memory of the Christian faith.” (14) She identifies the Eucharist as the place where bodies and memories come together in practice then proposes, not the cross as the site for somatic memory, but the “Annunciation-Incarnation event” instead. She then goes on to interrogate three key areas of liturgical theology—priesthood, sacrifice, and Real Presence—under the rubric of “rupture” as informed by trauma theory. The rupture of trauma, according to the author, impacts the body, experiences of time, and language. Trauma recovery, then, seeks to address somatic-cognitive schism through bodily integration, narrative of remembering, and connection to society. Establishing the pattern of rupture and integration aids the reader in following along as O’Donnell rereads the above mentioned three key areas in light of the body of Jesus, and the bodily experience and participation of Mary, as Theotokos. Thus, she is able to put forth substantive claims regarding the priesthood of Mary by comparing Marian and priestly typology; the nature of Marian sacrifice as Trinitarian self-offering focused through the incarnation of Jesus Christ; and the “transformation of the elements into the Real Presence [as] re-actualization of the Trinitarian self-offering glimpsed in the Annunciation-Incarnation event.” (117) The author demonstrates soteriological and epistemological implications for extending the logic of Marian priestly functions through to Eucharistic practice as an important set up to the discussion that follows on materiality.

What is perhaps most generative in O’Donnell’s study is the various ways she approaches eucharistic theology from the site of the Annunciation-Incarnation event. By moving the theological locus away from the cross, away from the death and resurrection of Jesus, she thoroughly investigates critical implications for resituating “somatic memory” fully in Jesus’ entire life span—particularly as his life begins within Mary as Theotokos. Bringing in Mary’s body both as having experienced a traumatic event (pregnancy at a young age), and as having participated in an essential way to Jesus’ life, offers a significant trinitarian correlative. By the time she unpacks the concept of perichoresis in the Eucharist (chapter six), there is already an interpenetration of persons present in Mary as mother of God by the Holy Spirit in Jesus. The author’s work exemplifies critical theological construction most notably in the sixth chapter, “The Materiality of the Eucharist,” in which she links trinitarian perichoretic interrelationality with the elements of communion, the notion of Real Presence, then turns to examine the somatic memory of the Eucharist as discoverable through the feminine body, motherhood, and miscarriage.

This is a scholarly work, though not without a deeply personal side that manages to make accessible some complex theological notions. Clergy who are voracious readers and students of theology—particularly those interested in theologies of embodiment and trauma—will find O’Donnell’s work meaningful and clearly articulated. She provides periodic summations of her argument, which read as helpful path markers, even if they sound somewhat redundant in a few places. Occasionally she draws from obscure references when building evidence for her claims–such as the writings of Andrew of Crete–which can be a risk in some scholarly circles. Yet it also demonstrates the rich diversity of metaphors and understandings throughout Christian tradition. The theological support for her Christological argument comes from Cyril’s concern for the unity of the body of Christ (chapter three), and she is able to maintain continuity throughout the text from Cyril’s theology. The final chapter, “Body: A Love Story” could be shared at the lay level in any number of ways: congregational women’s support group for reproductive loss, in pastoral care settings, preachers seeking examples and illustrations for sermons that seek to promote an embodied theology, and more. In all, Broken Bodies is a significant contribution to the developing field of trauma theology, and offers much needed insightful discussion around embodied theology and reproductive loss.

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