Gloria Ferguson closed her eyes, tilted her head slightly upward and suspended her hands about 10 inches above Lisa Hensley’s body as Hensley, a 40-year-old Springfield resident seeking relief from stress, lay on her back.
For almost an hour last week, Ferguson alternated between placing her hands lightly on Hensley’s knees, stomach, upper torso, neck and head, then hovering her hands above parts of Hensley’s fully clothed body.
With soothing harp and violin music playing in the background, Ferguson ended the session with a hand-over-hand flourish in the air behind Hensley’s head and feet. Ferguson later said she was closing up Hensley’s aura, or life-energy field, after providing therapy inside it.
No words were spoken during this session of Reiki therapy inside a room of Ferguson’s Springfield home decorated with plants and other items meant to relax and inspire her – figurines and portraits of angels, Jesus and Buddha.
“This is a form of prayer for me,” said Ferguson, 61, a certified master of Reiki.
Reiki (pronounced RAY-key) is a Japanese healing technique and form of alternative medicine that practitioners believe adjusts and replenishes “life-force energy” inside and outside the body to promote relaxation and the relief of pain and stress.
Often promoted and practiced by nuns, Reiki also is something the nation’s Catholic hierarchy says should be banned from Catholic institutions.
In a March 25 statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine says Reiki therapy is based on “superstition,” “not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence” and “inappropriate” for use in Catholic hospitals and other Catholic institutions such as retreat centers.
The document isn’t binding on individual dioceses, and individual bishops can choose to ignore or refuse to abide by it. But Springfield Bishop George Lucas’ decision to support the recommendations has prompted St. John’s Hospital to suspend Reiki training sessions by Sister Ann Mathieu at St. John’s Center for Living.
Mathieu, 69, is a nun who belongs to the Springfield-based American province of the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis. A Reiki master like Ferguson, Mathieu was one of the first nuns to receive Reiki training in Springfield. In the past 10 years, she has trained almost 240 people at St. John’s sessions on the use of Reiki.
St. John’s spokesman Brian Reardon said the hospital charged participants $150 apiece for the two-day Reiki training sessions, also known as Reiki “attunements.”
Reiki was introduced to the area in the early 1990s, when Mathieu and other nuns from the Hospital Sisters motherhouse just outside Springfield hosted a Reiki master from St. Louis, Ferguson said.
Mathieu declined a request from The State Journal-Register to comment on the Catholic bishops’ recommendations.
Ferguson and other Reiki supporters in the Springfield area – both Catholic and non-Catholic – said the bishops’ stance left them sad and upset.
“The energy is not coming from me,” said Ferguson, a retired graphic designer for state government. “It is coming from the Source of Life. If you can physically experience God, I have felt it with Reiki.”
Christians who support Reiki say the laying on of hands was practiced by Jesus and encouraged by the Bible. They believe God is working through Reiki practitioners.
“I try to follow the Church’s teachings as closely as possible… but I think on this decision, I’m going to have to take my chances come Judgment Day and continue the practice of Reiki,” said Leanne Collings, 48, a Catholic who belongs to the Church of St. Jude in Rochester.
Collings, a rental company manager and single mother who has received Reiki therapy for stress relief and has been trained in providing Reiki, called Reiki a godsend in helping her calm her 3-year-old son at bedtime.
“He asks me every night, ‘Mommy, please give me some energy,’” Collings said.
The Rev. Tom Weinandy, a staff adviser to the Catholic bishops’ committee, said Reiki “doesn’t seem to have a medical or scientific basis.” Rather than calling on the name of Jesus to heal, he said Reiki practitioners call on forces that are “not compatible with Christianity.”
The bishops’ statement notes that Reiki was invented in Japan in the late 1800s by a man studying Buddhist texts. The Bible doesn’t support the Reiki system of a “natural world as based on ‘universal life energy’ that is subject to manipulations by the natural human power of thought and will,” the statement says.
Reiki supporters said the bishops are misinformed and that the therapy isn’t based in Buddhism.
Weinandy said the bishops’ committee addressed Reiki therapy at the request of other bishops, none from Illinois.
He said the committee doesn’t have a problem with acupuncture and other alternative medical techniques rooted in Oriental cultures. Those techniques – while also lacking conclusive scientific evidence on how and whether they work – don’t call on forces from outside the body to heal, he said.
Ferguson, a former Catholic who still considers herself a Christian, said there are hundreds of practitioners and supporters of Reiki in the Springfield area, and most of them are Christian.
The American Hospital Association says 800 hospitals in the United States – 15 percent of all hospitals – offer Reiki therapy.
Lots of Catholic nuns have chosen to use Reiki because it helps them fulfill their mission, which is to relieve suffering,” said William Rand, president of the International Center for Reiki Training in Southfield, Mich. “Now, the nuns are not talking because they don’t want to get in trouble.”
Reiki sessions in the Springfield area generally cost $35 to $60 an hour. They aren’t covered by health insurance.
Reiki master Brenda Vandenberg, 60, of Rochester is a registered nurse. She considers the Reiki therapy she provides as a form of nursing and an extension of her Christianity.
“For me and most Reiki practitioners, it is God working through us, and it is the compassion that Jesus brings,” she said.
Gay Stinnett, 61, a Reiki master from Springfield who says she is nonreligious, said, “Any governing power that doesn’t listen to the current world is rather short-sighted.”
Reiki continues to be provided by trained volunteers in Memorial Home Services’ hospice program, but hospice director Sue Ellen Billington said she doesn’t know whether the bishops’ statement will prompt individual volunteers to change their practices.
“I consider Reiki to be life energy that is guided by the Holy Spirit and promotes a sense of well-being,” she said.
Hensley said she felt Ferguson’s hands warm up at certain points during her Reiki session.
“It had a wonderful effect,” Hensley said. “I felt much more relaxed than before. If hugs are healing, certainly ‘focused touch’ has to have some healing properties. There’s very much a spiritual dimension going on here.”
Ferguson wasn’t surprised by the results. Because she believes Reiki works, she doesn’t think nuns and others will stop providing Reiki in Catholic settings.
“They just won’t call it Reiki,” she said. “Once you are attuned to the energy, you just don’t turn it off.”