I have Tetralogy of Fallot, a rare series of congenital heart defects that has required multiple open-heart surgeries. Last spring, I spent a month in the hospital. Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle coined the aphorism “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Whether his 1945 death by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of Ie Shima should strengthen or weaken his wartime piety, only God can know. But similar—if similarly desperate—terms enshrine the infantry of the infirm: “There are no atheists in a hospital.” And nowhere does what Stephen Jay Gould called the “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and religion collide more violently than in medicine—the Latin word salus contains the meanings for both “health” and “salvation.”
During my recent hospitalization, a nurse counseled me. “The most important thing for open-heart surgery is to avoid cold, flu, and stress. If that doesn’t work, pray to God. Even if you’re not a Christian, pray to God.” I saw a priest in the hospital and wondered if he belonged to the chaplaincy service or was simply there to visit a friend. Then I wondered, can priests be just friends? Or must they always be friends with benedictions?
My mother had told friends and colleagues of my hospitalization, and thus a small network spread the good word and I became the object of organized group prayer. This form of medical worship is known as intercessory prayer or IP. Countless studies have attempted to gauge the efficacy of IP, beginning with an exhaustive 1998 study by the Templeton Foundation, a mainline Christian organization which funds “rigorous scientific research” into “spiritual realities.”
The Foundation’s IP study cost $2.4 million, spanned nearly a decade, and included over 1,800 coronary bypass-surgery patients divided into three groups: one knowingly received IP; another received IP but knew only it might be prayed for; and the third received no IP and did not, in fact, even know of its participation in the study. The first group fared the worst. According to the New York Times, “Patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications.” When I discussed IP with my parents, my father grumbled, “The 2.4 million dollars spent on the study could have provided a lot of medical care to kids who needed it.” My mother said of the countless strangers of varied faiths praying for me, “It means something to them. It’s a special way of loving in their minds.” It chagrined me to think them both right.
Doctor of the Church, Heal Thyself.
In 1553 Spaniard Michael Servetus, the first European to identify pulmonary circulation, was burned at the stake for his heretical beliefs, and in 1600 the Vatican burned alchemist Giordano Bruno at the stake for, among other charges, claiming an infinite universe. Four hundred years later, fellow infinite universe-proponent Carl Sagan—whom the Church mercifully spared—argued conciliatorily, “There is no necessary conflict between science and religion They share similar and consonant goals, and each needs the other.” Teleological fusions persist, but any codependency seems dubious, and the avoidance of hostility would require outright thaumaturgy of its own.
Physician Sir Thomas Browne acknowledged this inherent conflict in his 1643 Religio Medici, dryly noting that despite “the general scandal of my profession [I] assume the honorable style of a Christian.” His book promptly landed on the papal Index Librorum Prohibitorum. And even accepting religion and science’s “consonant goals,” their motivation and methodology could hardly be more dissonant. Cardinal Bellarmine, who adjudicated at the trial of Bruno (as well as Galileo), was not only canonized in 1930, he then received the exceptional distinction of Doctor of the Church, for demonstrating eminent learning and a high degree of sanctity. That condemning a visionary man to death constitutes learning, and sainthood its reward, marks the vanishing point of the religion-science asymptote.
Young Jesus in a Hospital, Himself He Cannot Save
My lifelong pilgrimage through the limbic unholy land of religion and medicine began at the age of ten, at Boston Children’s Hospital, where I was having my second open-heart surgery. My father and I sat in the little playroom with another patient’s mother. She lovingly looked at me then declared to my father, “He looks like the young Jesus.” Maybe it was the light in the room, maybe it was my shaggy dirty-blond hair. Whatever it was, it unnerved me. But, despite my discomfort I understood her utterance to be a compliment—and possibly even a compulsion. She saw something divine in me, something she couldn’t conjure or bear in her own child. Her proclamation miraculously cured me with life everlasting. But last spring while hospitalized and approaching Jesus’ final year of thirty-three, I revised my exegesis of her revelation: perhaps if I had assumed the role of Jesus, I could have died so her child could live.
Religion asserts proof of God in medical success. Science searches for divinity, if ever, only in the face of tragedy. When credited with curing a bishop of cancer, John Paul II—now on the fast track to canonization—demurred, “It’s the work of God.” Indeed, the “skillful Geometrician,” as Browne called Him, seldom goes unpraised for His heroics. Success has one Heavenly Father; failure is a sick child. My mother’s reaction to group prayer around a hospital bed resonates with the mother’s at Boston Children’s too: no doubt her demi-theophany meant something to her. But did it impact her sick child? What had Jesus done for her but send her some other sick kid who looked like a young version of him? And what relationship existed between her faith in Jesus and my illness—much less her own child’s?
When my friend and his eighteen-month-old daughter visited me in the hospital last spring, we ventured to the children’s playroom, an enchanting cubby with floor-to-ceiling murals, toys, and games. Inside was a platoon of very sick kids; children who were far sicker than I’d ever been; children who wore their sicknesses externally, like calamitous Halloween costumes. A nurse quickly informed us the playroom was for pediatric patients only. As we scurried out, I helplessly glanced at these pediatric patients, their fiercely twisted child-bodies obliviously ambling along, smiles abounding. “You can’t conceive, my child, nor I nor anyone,” said Graham Greene, “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Maybe not. But we can all conceive too readily the appalling strangeness of His apathy. With logic such as Greene’s, the enlightened voice of Yogi Berra reveals itself to me: “My God is such a merciful God, He afflicts all that He may spare all.”
So there I was, still sick and apparently now the image of the grown Christ, my own passions tormenting me. And, despite all the prayers of all the well-meaning people, I met no miraculous cure. Jesus didn’t heal me. I was that rarest of spiritual beings, an atheist in the hospital.January 10, 2010
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