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A Pilgrimage of Faith and Healing


Tessa Lavan ’20 spends most of her days in Lourdes, France, stationed at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, observing the people who pass through the Sanctuary and near the Grotto, a Catholic shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. Many she observes are sick and have come from long distances to be healed by the Lourdes water; others are loved ones and volunteers acting as caregivers for the sick pilgrim. Lavan seeks out the latter group, searching for caregivers who she can interview about their pilgrimage. It’s work that requires Lavan’s patience and self-reliance, but it also allows her to “explore the intersection of faith and healing,” of which she has a longtime curiosity.

Lavan, through interviews with caregivers on pilgrimage and participating in services and rituals at the Sanctuary, aims to better understand how they heal and find their own meaning during pilgrimage. She said, “Since the classic mode for understanding pilgrimage centers on the self, I want to further our knowledge of pilgrimage by exploring the caregiver’s sacrifice of self as they assist the sick, and how the bearing of spiritual, emotional, and medical burdens might impact personal healing of the caregiver.” Because women often take on the position of caregiver, Lavan said that she is also looking at the role of gender in caregiving.

About Tessa Lavan ’20

Majors: Religious studies and biochemistry/molecular biology

Hometown: Shrub Oak, N.Y.

High School: Lakeland High School

read about other student research projects

Hoping “to make the experience of caretakers more visible and understandable,” Lavan’s interest in caregivers stems from both academic and personal experience. A biochemistry and religious studies double major, she has taken several courses related to health and wellness and wants to pursue her interest in healthcare. She also said that in the last year of her grandmother’s life, she took on the role of caregiver and has since reflected on that experience.

“I watched as my grandmother and mother clung to their faith during this time which demonstrated to me the convergence of faith and healing. I also became very aware that the burden to take care of my grandmother fell mostly on my mother, my sister, and myself, not on my father or two uncles. This sparked my interest in the role of gender in caregiving,” she said.

Lavan’s adviser, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Quincy Newell, noted the significance of gender in Lavan’s project. She said, “Older scholarship on pilgrimage assumes a male pilgrim who is focused on his individual experience; Lavan's work will help us expand our understanding of how pilgrimage works by looking at the experiences of people, mostly women, who are focused on someone else's experience.”

Lavan's Levitt Center project attempts to address essential elements of health that often go unexamined. She said that her work will help religious communities better comprehend how religious faith impacts wellbeing. To her, “This is especially useful for pre-health students … to ground them in an understanding of culture and its impacts on health before they delve more deeply into the scientific world of medicine.”

Lavan ultimately perceives her project as a confluence of her interests. After graduation from Hamilton, she hopes to do work that, like her research project, combines her passion for medicine and religious studies.

In conclusion, she advised students to “Come up with any project that interests you—combine your interests or take the time to explore interests that caught you by surprise or that you just thought of as hobbies,” because they might turn into a fulfilling summer of research.

Lavan is one of 200 Hamilton students who are conducting research or completing an internship supported by the College this summer.

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