Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I have been re-reading parts of Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel for two months now. I've maxed the renewal time of my local library and finally decided to buy my own copy. Though the book is about the last almshouse in the United States, located in San Francisco, it is about more than healthcare. I strongly recommend this book.

Sweet writes about the spiritual and emotional dimensions of caring for the chronically ill. She studies the work of Hildegard of Bingen and considers how the tools of ancient medicine apply to practice today. In a sermon here, I talked about Sweet's understanding of the difference between anima and spiritus.

She also details the tension between different factions in the hospital, between doctors and nurses, administration and city government, willing patients and resistant patients. Though many of the decisions for the future of the hospital are necessary, but lamentable- Sweet reflects on the writing of Florence Nightingale regarding the necessity of tension in medicine.

Nightingale wrote:

“A patient is much better cared for in an institution where there is the perpetual rub between doctors and nurses and nuns; between students, matrons, governors, treasurers, and casual visitors, between secular and spiritual authorities… than in a hospital under the best governed order in existence.” (Nightingale, Notes on Hospitals, 184).

Sweet interprets: 

“But then I remembered what Florence Nightingale had written about the struggle between medicine and nursing and administration. That struggle was irresolvable and should not be resolved, she said, because it was in the patients’ best interest. If medicine ever won control of the hospital, too much would be practiced on the patient; if administration, too little; if nursing, medical progress would be curtailed in the interest of the spiritual and emotional care of the patient.” (Sweet, God’s Hotel, 327). 

Part of the reason I've kept this book for so long is for the passages like this. I turn this over and over in my mind and I wonder about the necessary tension in the church. What is the critical balance between laity, clergy/rostered leaders, and administration/judicatories? How do we balance the interests of all and how do we discern to whom God is speaking and who thinks the sound of their voice is God speaking? 

There is also the balance between history, tradition, and spontaneity, between styles of music, prayer, and preaching, between interpretation, meditation, and contemplation. 

Some of the truly difficult work of the church is learning to live with the tensions, when to give and who should give, and how to move forward. And in all this, we must also remember not to let the work of the church interfere with the work of the Lord. 

Sweet, Victoria. God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Riverhead Books, New York. 2012. p. 327, 372


Unknown said...

Thanks for pointing to this book, and to the parallel tensions so significant in our lives.

Mary Beth said...

ooh, thanks for this. went to my library's website and got on the list for it!!

Unknown said...

I like this so much I posted it for our Wednesday Festival!