Hospitals are spaces of birth and death, and of hovering between the two. For the acutely sick, they are disorienting and frightening places. For medical professionals, they are busy workplaces. In the gap between the expertise of doctors and nurses and the existential anxieties of patients are mixed emotions and strategies of interpretation, including those that invest suffering and healing with religious significance. Buildings where people traverse natality (Hannah Arendt’s term) and mortality, are hospitals also sacred spaces?
Focusing on “formally secular” US hospitals, Wendy Cadge shows how spirituality travels visibly and invisibly for patients and professionals alike. While the chapel is the most obvious space of ostensibly neutral non-denominational spirituality and chaplains its most obvious purveyors, even some nurses and doctors invoke God when at the bedside or holding the scalpel.
Much of Cadge’s book recounts the rise of chaplaincy and the work of contemporary hospital chaplains as a largely liberal Protestant movement – a dominance that may be partly attributable to her northeastern US focus. Despite their professionalisation beginning in the 1920s, chaplains still face resistance and indifference, and are often considered expendable when hospital budgets are tight.
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