This past Lent got off to a dramatic start for me—though not in a way I’d have chosen if I had been given the chance. Ash Wednesday morning, at about the same hour I assumed many Christians in my area and elsewhere were filing into churches to receive the season-starting mark of their mortality, I received the first of my Covid-19 vaccinations at a local hospital. Fewer than 24 hours later I was back again, writhing away with nausea in its emergency department, the victim of a bowel issue that puzzled doctors but was likely vaccine related. A stomach tube was slipped into me, and I was admitted as a patient for several days to let it suction me back to a happier version of myself.
Threaded as it was through my nose and esophagus like a length of half-cooked spaghetti, the tube made swallowing painful. Sleeping, too, was difficult and came only in spurts. In good, Catholic fashion, I did my best to “offer up” the discomfort, if not for the souls in purgatory, per se, then for the emotional well-being of my wife, a physician herself, whose usual steadiness in the service of sick people went out the window when it was her husband who turned up ill.
Lying alone and listless in my hospital bed, I joined my passing distress with the true agony Christ must have known on the cross, a perfectly Lenten behavior in which to engage when not having to produce a finger or arm on the hour to be poked by some good-natured nurse. I had it easy, I thought, not a mark to show for my brush with serious pain but the plumb-colored splotches multiplying around my abdomen, the product of some quick pinches of a hypodermic needle. In no time at all, my restless mind had moved beyond tubes and abdominal bruises altogether to pondering the nature of the modern hospital stay itself, as explicit a reminder these days of the lengths and limits of one’s bodily existence as any of the church’s ancient rites.
Much has been made in recent years of the so-called “technologization of medicine,” its growing dependence on a whole range of machines that have erased the caring bedside manner doctors and nurses once offered hospitalized patients as an expected part of their care. Medicine has been depersonalized, the argument goes, its practitioners constrained by the demands of a bloated healthcare system that treats the ill among us less as people with names and stories than as an endless stream of problems to be fixed and cataloged as expediently as possible.
Neither assumption proved true during my admittedly brief time consigned to a hospital bed. Instead, I was treated to gestures of kindness too numerous to count by professionals of the sort we’ve been reading about for the past year, the ones manning the front lines of the pandemic at serious risk to their own health. To a person, from my transporters to the housekeepers who routinely tidied my room, each asked how they might make me more comfortable, a question I took to be sincere and not acquired at a corporate “branding workshop” or two. The floor to which I was assigned, in fact, had been one set aside for coronavirus cases, the doors of its rooms hurriedly retrofitted with windows to aid in monitoring their occupants from a distance. Ball-turret cameras, fresh out of the package, hung from their ceilings. The team of diocesan priests dispatched to the place for the benefit of Catholic Covid-sufferers were pressed to develop a speakerphone twist on the anointing of the sick. Such are the lengths to which the healthy among us will go to tend to those whose bodies fail them.
Most Americans nowadays are born in hospitals. Many, as the pandemic has made so abundantly clear, die in one ringed by doctors and nurses behaving as stand-ins for loved ones—as true a diaconate of persons, vested in lab coats and scrubs, as one can imagine. Though the physical grandeur of hospital complexes may greatly enhance the profiles of our cities, it is their metaphysical role that best defines their importance to us. They are, in a sense, our culture’s white temples, places hallowed by the rituals of birthing and healing and dying that unfold within their walls each day. Presiding over these are people of all stripes less intent on playing God with the souls in their care than on imitating the Divine Physician Christians take to be God’s Son. It is Jesus himself, disguised in a dozen different ways, who stands alongside the beds and gurneys of the hospitalized.
This has been the case for longer than even most Christians may imagine. It was the church that established the first hospes in the West, after all, places where compassion was shown those to whom society generally turned a cold shoulder. The hospital where I received my care bears the name of a Christian saint known for such a ministry, though any affiliation with the community of Josephite sisters who founded it in his name has long since ended. The nuns’ presence lingers there, nonetheless, as if their particular charism came to be absorbed into the fabric of the neo-Gothic building with the tabernacled chapel whose wards they tended for decades. Strong, clear-headed young women in their teens and 20s, initially, drawn from Europe’s northern parts, they were a force to be reckoned with as they maintained dozens of Catholic schools, orphanages, and hospitals in the communities throughout northwestern Pennsylvania. Today their graves form tidy rows in a nearby cemetery I’m fond of visiting, each inscribed with the name given them at their second baptism into a life of conventual anonymity. They’d be gratified, no doubt, to discover that their mission hasn’t died with them.
Hospitals—Catholic or otherwise—remain one of the few places in this country where the elderly are treated with compassion and respect. If my experience is any measure, they seem, too, to be among the most culturally diverse and integrated of institutions accessible to the public. Where else today except, say, on the campuses of the nation’s colleges or universities, can one find people originating from every continent, every religious tradition (and none at all), every racial or ethnic background or sexual orientation—all working peaceably together as if convinced they really are fulfilling an extraordinary, deeply human vocation.
Like academic campuses, too, hospitals can be likened to small cities, self-contained and abuzz with people engaged in serious work. In the end, it may be the “City of God” Saint Augustine imagined that they resemble most fully, a realm where the two commandments ranked the greatest (Matt. 22:36–40) prevail as more than trendy slogans. Love of God and neighbor is precisely what hospital staffers were in the habit of displaying long before the present pandemic was sprung upon us. In a culture that’s been on its way for some time to eliminating touch from its means of interpersonal communication, they’ve persisted in the necessary “laying on of hands” of their profession, something restorative in its own right to those who are its recipients. Face-masked and shielded beyond easy recognition, like medieval knights clad for battle, they’ve brought an unspoken gallantry to their vocation and recognition of the fact that the facilities in which they work bear the character of sanctuaries, of ancient temple sites numinous and rare, but filled with a sanctity freely traded between persons.
Michael E. DeSanctis, Ph.D. is retired professor of fine arts and theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He writes widely on Catholic church architecture and serves as a liturgical designer and consultant.