Paging God, by Wendy Cadge

In today’s politicized climate, the mention of religion and medicine in the same title might suggest a focus on insurance requirements under Obama­care. But the topic of Wendy Cadge’s important book is both broader and deeper, longer term and more complicated: What happens to religion when hospitals, many of them founded by religious orders and denominations, are formally secularized or otherwise constrained to cater to patients beyond their founding communities?

Cadge’s findings are based on surveys of 17 nationally ranked teaching hospitals and on intensive interviews and observations at two such hospitals located in an unnamed northeastern city. Cadge and her associates visited all of the hospitals’ chapels. In one of the primary hospitals, which she calls Over­brook, she interviewed chaplains and shadowed them on their rounds. In the other (“City Hospital”), she interviewed and shadowed nurses and physicians in intensive care units.

One of the research team’s first discoveries was a book of prayers of petition and thanksgiving in the lobby of one hospital. For a decade, prayer books had been placed at the base of a turn-of-the-century statue of Christ that in previous years had been informally adorned with messages written on scraps of paper. The researchers read hundreds of these prayers and saw that those who wrote them thought of God as accessible, listening, and sometimes answering prayer. But the very profusion of prayers gave a first unprompted glimpse of the importance of what we might think of as conventional religious expression on the part of those who frequent hospitals.