21 Reasons Why I Believe in God: God's Hotel
Laguna Honda is the last remaining almshouse in the United States. Situated in San Francisco and carrying on a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, it is what the French call an Hotel-Dieu (God's Hotel), a hospital and rehabilitation center for people who have nowhere else to go. Most of its 780 residents were quickly flushed out of traditional care facilities for lack of funds or incurable conditions. The goal of the hospital staff is to look at each person they serve, not as a case or a diagnosis, but as a whole, unique human being.
Author Victoria Sweet, in her book God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, shares a lifetime of experiences at Laguna Honda, where miracles of healing occurred as a result of treating the body as a "garden to be cultivated," not a "machine to be fixed."
Ms. Sweet, a physician and prize-winning historian with a Ph.D. in history and social medicine, began her work at Laguna Honda because "medicine has completed its metamorphosis from craft to profession to commodity, and health-care providers now sell their wares – that is, their time – by the piece on the open marketplace." Ms. Sweet wanted to give her life to something different, something more meaningful. Investing in the lives of the chronically ill made her realize that a real person exists within that broken-down body.
Her initial inkling of this occurred as a young medical student at her first autopsy. Excited to get inside the human infrastructure, she ended nonplussed by the experience. The body on the pathologist's table was that of her former patient, Mr. Baker. As Mr. Baker's organs were lifted out and examined one by one, Ms. Sweet could finally see...nothing. The man she had known as Mr. Baker had entirely disappeared, and what was left was little more than a discarded suit of clothes.
It was like they were at a crash site but couldn't find the black box. Something was missing.
Ms. Sweet explains:
Much later I learned that medicine had once had a name for this, this something present in the living body but missing from the corpse. Two names, actually. There was spiritus, from which we get the English spirit, although the Latin spiritus was not as insubstantial as "spirit." Spiritus was the breath, the regular, rhythmic breathing of the live body that is so shockingly absent from the dead. Spiritus is what is exhaled at the last breath.
And there was anima. Usually translated as soul, the Latin is better for conveying the second striking distinction between Mr. Baker's dead body and Mr. Baker – its lack of movement. Because anima is not really the abstraction, "soul." Anima is the invisible force that animates the body, that moves it, not only willfully but also unconsciously – all those little movements that the living body makes all the time. The slight tremor of the fingers, the pounding of the heart that shakes the living frame once a second, the gentle rise and fall of the chest. Those movements, by which we perceive that someone is alive. Anima, ancient medicine had observed, is just as absent from the dead body as spiritus.
By the time medicine got to me, however, words like spiritus and anima had been banished from the medical vocabulary. I had no concepts for describing what I'd seen. Perhaps it had been autopsy – from the Greek auto-opsia: seeing for oneself – that brought about the disappearance of those words from the Western vocabulary. Perhaps it was the absence of the little black box." (God's Hotel)
How do Ms. Sweet's observations about body, soul, and spirit and the care for all three displayed at Laguna Honda, a charity hospital, point to God?
The first thing to note is that charity is a Christian word, coming into our vocabulary by way of Saint Jerome's translation of the Bible into the Latin Vulgate. The Greek word for God's love for us, agape, became the Latin caritas, and morphed into our English charity. The root of caritas is cara – dear – "as in expensive and cherished. So caritas has the sense of 'dearness' – of a love that's precious and sweet" (God's Hotel).
At first the English word charity meant, simply, God's love. Then, as Christians acted out God's love to the people around them, the meaning evolved to mean those actions done in Jesus' name, specifically, caring for the sick and poor.
Second, hospitals, places set apart to care for the sick, also have their roots in Christianity. Though ancient Greece had its healing temples, they were staffed by priests instead of doctors. Rome had something like hospitals, but only for the use of soldiers; normal citizens who were sick were out of luck.
For example, in 260 A.D. a plague overtook the Roman Empire. Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, described the treatment by non-Christians of stricken citizens: "At the first onset of disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease" (quoted by Rich Nathan in Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either or World). Other sources mention that Galen, the famous Roman physician, dealt with the plague by leaving for his private villa in Asia Minor, and didn't return to the danger zone until the contagion had passed. In contrast, Christians, Dionysius says, were "heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy..." (quoted by David Sloan Wilson in Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society).
A few decades later, Gregory of Nazianzus, the Archbishop of Constantinople, spoke eloquently of Christians' motivation: "[the sick] have been made in the image of God in the same way you and I have, and perhaps preserve that image better than we... Let us take care of Christ while there is still time; let us minister to Christ's needs, let us give Christ nourishment, let us clothe Christ, let us gather Christ in, let us show Christ honor" (Orations 2:14, 40). In 325 A.D., Gregory joined with others at the Council of Nicaea to codify this care for the unfortunate, decreeing that in every town where a cathedral was built, a hospice must also be built to care for the sick and poor. This was the beginning of what we know today as hospitals.
It took fewer than forty years for the emperor Julian to take notice, and complain to one of his pagan priests that Christians had seen that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the priests of Rome, so "devoted themselves to benevolence." He added, "The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well" (quoted in Darwin's Cathedral).
What caused this paradigm shift? Why were the early Christians so concerned for the poor and sick in the midst of a culture that didn't? The reason is simple: they were following the legacy of Jesus.
Though Jesus is remembered primarily as a teacher, his earthly ministry was a balm for both broken hearts and broken bodies. He has become known as the Great Physician because the Gospels record twenty-six separate occasions when Jesus healed someone, from various ailments from blindness to leprosy. Other times they tell us "he healed all of them." On many of these occasions the eyewitness account was that Jesus "had compassion on them." He restored the idea of all people having human dignity when he said we had greater worth than sparrows and every hair on our head is numbered.
Jesus' greatest teaching in this area is found in Matthew 25 in His discourse on His second coming. Jesus says that, when He returns in judgment, He will grant blessing in the kingdom based on surprising criteria: "I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me....Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me."
Today we have the privilege of modern medicine. Our hats should go off to those people who study hard for many years to learn how to care for us in the best way they know. But Ms. Sweet is right. The Bible tells us that the body without the spirit is dead. In fact, we are told that spirit, soul, and body are inextricably linked to make the whole.
Jesus came to minister to the whole man, and I am thankful to be living in the light of that legacy.