Life is a hospital, in which every patient is possessed by the desire to change his bed.

  • Baudelaire. Paris Spleen.

The whole earth is our hospital/Endowed by the ruined millionaire,/Wherein, if we do well, we shall/Die of the absolute paternal care/That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

  • T.S. Eliot. “East Coker” from Four Quartets.

 

“You know what’s wrong with Catholics?”

I’m in St. Joseph’s hospital, so the question seems a bit sacrilegious. My cantankerous roommate, who’s recovering from bariatric surgery, is barking the question at me. With his IV still in and a large circle painted on his gelatinous torso like he’s some Druidic offering, this bear of a man pulls back the tiny cloth curtain separating us and repeats his question, louder: “You know what’s wrong with Catholics? They put these little statues in every room, like we’re all religious or something.”

I think he’s angry, but then he lets out a loud, enigmatic laugh, passes gas—in a way I’m tempted to describe as “dismissively”— and pulls the curtain shut (a curtain which is not, I realize in dismay, designed to contain flatulence). I hear his bed creak and soon he’s snoring. I guess he didn’t really expect an answer.

Annoyed, for several reasons now, I open my eyes, still groggy with drugs and pain. I look at the wall to see what he is talking about. Sure enough, a tiny, gold Crucifix hangs on our otherwise nondescript wall. Amidst posters about various infections, and wall-mounted hand sanitizer stations, there’s Jesus. He’s splayed out upon the Cross, head hung down, looking upon my roommate and me with anguish and sorrow. As you might after a dream, I start to recall dimly that a similar but larger Crucifix had also been placed on the wall of the surgical theater into which I had been wheeled hours earlier.

Funny how time works in a hospital. So much waiting and waiting. The ineluctable drudge of chronos. Seconds, minutes, hours drip, drip, drip into one another. Like casinos, hospitals have few windows by which to “feel” time’s passage, so you must rely on the mechanized clock. Eventually, there is a certain fullness of time that is reached. The waiting is over, and you’re under the bright lights of the surgeon, completely exposed and, if I’m honest, scared about what comes next. There’s inane chit-chat as the surgical team stands by ready to get to work. A few deep inhalations from a mask and then… time stops. The next thing you know you’re awake, in another room, with only a lingering memory of your former pain.

But before time stopped in St. Joseph’s something else caught my attention: that odd Crucifix. I’m a Christian and in that moment I found it immeasurably comforting to see those sad eyes of Jesus looking at me. It was good to be reminded that God knew pain. That God had condescended to creaturehood and even my tiny stomach troubles were not some abstraction to him. He had suffered in His very blood and bones.

But then I wondered how strange this might seem to those strangers of the Gospel. Imagine having a bas-relief of a man with his head in the guillotine or of an oil painting of a woman in a steel cage being drowned, or a lithograph of a child having their fingers smashed in a gulag. If I didn’t really know what Jesus was all about, I’d be more than a bit concerned about going under the knife in a room full of such sadists. Who else would choose the snapshot of one of history’s most gruesome torture devices as the sole décor of a surgical ward?

Perhaps it is what so unsettled my roommate.

***

St. Joseph’s is one of those fascinating Canadian institutions that, because it is publicly funded, most assume is as a-religious as an ice cream cone. But it’s not. And there’s an interesting narrative the building communicates for those with eyes to see. The star of Bethlehem—easily mistaken for the Dallas Cowboys logo—adorns the top of the hospital, a beacon of hope that the Creator has put on flesh and comes with healing in His wings. Then, a large bust of St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers and the sick, greets all who enter. This is also a fitting memento mori, since he’s the saint of the “happy death,” believed to have died in both the presence of Jesus and Mary. Christ on the Cross looks upon you from multiple rooms. All this takes place through an inaudible language that most don’t have the ears to hear anymore. And we not only forget that this health care system in Ontario is itself an extraordinary accomplishment, we forget exactly what motivated it and who took up the work.

The St. Joseph health network, one of the premier health networks in Ontario, exists because of the work of the dedicated order of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Their story goes back to Revolutionary France when their order was being extinguished by an atheistic zeal that cried “No God! No Master!” in the streets. In fact, many of the Sisters were guillotined and more would have been if it had not been for the fall of Robespierre on the night before those executions were slated.

With the release of the captive Sisters, they set to work in France and in the New World, helping the most vulnerable and weak. Several of the Sisters eventually set up in Hamilton, Ontario and attended to the cholera outbreaks spreading quickly among immigrants and the harbour community. It was not care organized by the State as we might imagine today. It was purely voluntary and came at a very real risk to all involved. By the late 19th century, they had established an entire health network in Kitchener, Dundas, Guelph, Brantford, and Hamilton. Today we are still thriving on the fruits of the seeds they planted.

***

“If you think you’re getting in front of me Pig, you’ve got another f—ing thing coming.” 

The words come from a giant of a man wearing a leather Ti-Cats jacket, torn jeans, and bright pink headphones. He’s what we sometimes call “Hamilton’s finest.” He’s clearly drunk and talking to a police officer, who has just walked in with a suicidal patient on the verge of having a Meth overdose. The police officer doesn’t engage. I’m waiting for my CT scan, doubled over with abdominal pain, and trying to lean my head against a wall. It’s 10 p.m.  The Ti-Cats-jacket-wearing Hamiltonian looks around the room for any allies. Not being quick enough to avert his glassy stare-down, he calls to me, “Hey, son, if these pigs think they can just f—ing come in here and bud in line, they’ve got another thing coming, right? You with me?”

I want to say: “Well, my good sir, they are doing their finest in upholding the Queen’s justice and peace. Clearly this young man who wants to shake off his mortal coil in an untimely manner merits more attention than you, a common drunk, or me, someone with a mere flesh wound.”

What I do say: “Nah, man, I’m good.” Then pretend to sleep. Coward.

A few moments later, a 16-year-old kid, on drugs, is shouting down a nurse and security is taking him outside. Moments later, a homeless man, whom I find out later is a schizophrenic, is screaming at the nurses station, demanding to be given a bed.

My wife has been an ER nurse in Brampton, and here in St. Joseph’s, for over a decade. For years, she’d beg me to tag along on a shift with her, just so I could actually see the invisible side of our city. I love Hamilton. We both do. But my love is, truth be told, for the gentrifying West End, the art gallery, the new restaurants and coffee shops and shiny condos being built, and the classic “gritty” charm it still has in its Steel Town core. But to see what an ER nurse sees, and to experience what an ER nurse experiences, and to still love the city, is immeasurably more difficult. Because they are confronted with the drugs and addictions and diseases and violence and loneliness going on all around. They can’t look away. The problem is a few feet away, cussing at them.

That a city requires this manner of love only surprises those who have never had to depend on it.

***

 “You know what’s wrong with Catholics?”

It’s Wednesday night catechism class, late 90s. And there we were, 10 prepubescent Calvinists sitting around the large oak Consistory table, dumbfounded. I’d wager good money that between the lot of us we knew precisely zero Catholics. By now, though, we knew that the “You-know-what’s-wrong-with-x?” was one of our teacher’s favorite “pedagogical strategies.” Depending on the night, “x” could be Baptists, Pentecostals, Mennonites, or other branches on the Christian family tree we found suspect.

“Their problem is the Crucifix,” he said. “The Crucifix still has Christ on it, while the Protestant’s Cross, our Cross, is empty. That’s our hope.”

An odd memory, but it bubbled up as memories do late in the night. I’m tempted to look back on this teacher as some smug and self-righteous caricature, and write him off. But he was sincere, and perhaps there’s even some truth to what he said. Perhaps there would be some interesting narrative closure if the post-op wards had empty Crosses rather than Crucifixes, reminding us that we inhabit a story that ultimately doesn’t end in suffering. But it’s not a truth I would split hairs over, either.

That a Catholic order of Sisters managed to take the suffering and service of Christ not as some otherworldly doctrine to pass on, but as a truth that needed to be incarnated into real communities and institutions that have lasted over a century should merit nothing but respect and admiration from their Reformed brothers and sisters.

And perhaps as we enter into our young nation’s 150th celebrations, we take a bit more time to attune ourselves to the inaudible, invisible songs of suffering and service going on all around us. They are always there, inviting us to listen, to respond, and to join in.

Doug Sikkema is the managing editor of Comment magazine and a senior researcher at Cardus.

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