Sunday, May 10, 2009

Who's Your God Now?

Friday's successful surgery was a huge, wonderful relief, though it may slightly undermine the retrospective musings of this post....

Increasingly theology is creeping into my hospitalization. It started with a nurse/missionary's suggesting I pray (see "Even if You're Not a Christian" below). This prompted a similarly upsetting anecdote in the comments section. As the anesthesiologists and nurses prepped me on the OR table, they added small detachable arm rests, which reminded me of a crucifix (not that I've got a Christ complex), and made the operating table resemble a lethal-injection table.
As George W. Bush said, "If the death penalty is administered swiftly, justly, and fairly, it saves lives." Just imagine what medicine can do!

And today I saw a priest wandering the halls of the hospital. I wondered if he was part of UCLA's chaplaincy service. Or if he was just there to visit a friend. And then I wondered, can a priest ever visit someone in the hospital--just as a friend?
Can priests ever be "just friends?" Or must they be friends with benedictions?

Can a priest make a personal not pastoral call? What if a priest visits a Jewish friend? I know that sounds like the setup to a terrible joke, but the answer is as dead-serious as it is obvious: the Jewish patient takes the Eucharist with matzo bread and Manischewitz.
Surprisingly, all matzo bread contains apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Can you find her in this piece?! (Answer to be published in the next post.)

Indeed, religion is pervading my hospital stay. After all, Jeremiah 23:24 is not just a Jenny Craig slogan.
Kirstie Alley, star of "Look Who's Talking," "Look Who's Talking Too," and "Look Who's Talking Now," says, "Before I met Jenny, I'd wake up every morning and ask, 'Do I not fill heaven and earth?'"

"'Do I not fill heaven and earth?' said the Lord" is also often cited as scriptural evidence of God's omnipresence. Either way, it's time for me to welcome God to my illness. Unlike vampires, God doesn't need a technical invitation. And apparently I've got lots of people of lots of faiths praying for me. No, not for the redemption of my godless, foul-mouthed, porn-addicted soul. But for my medical treatment and recovery. And not only do I feel obligated to acknowledge these compassionate strangers, but maybe even to appreciate them.

I've got Episcopalians in New York praying for me. United Church of Christ-ers in Knoxville. Baptists in the Dominican Republic. I've got Jews in New York saying the Mi Sheberakh for me. Okay, maybe getting Jews in New York to pray is about as difficult as getting Kirstie Alley to the craft services table. So if that doesn't impress you, I also happen to have an Iranian Muslim in the holy city of Qom appealing to the daughter of an Infallible Imam for me. And he commissioned his relatives, on a pilgrimage in Karbala, Iraq, to pray for me by the tomb of Imam al-Husayn.
The Shrine of Imam al-Husayn. Some of these people may be praying for me.

This is not the first time I've been the object of intercessory prayer. When I was ten years old and at Boston Children's Hospital for my second open-heart surgery, an entire third-grade class from a Chirstian academy sent me get-well/I'm-praying-for-you cards. I didn't know any of these kids. One of them had shared a hospital room (in New York) with another boy whom I didn't know, whose mother knew my father.

Needless to say, countless studies have been conducted to gauge the efficacy of intercessory prayer, and they have yielded conflicting results. The most exhaustive study, however, was funded by Templeton Foundation, a mainline Christian organization that encourages a scientific quest for the spiritual. I'm probably not describing it well--or fairly, so perhaps it's better to let the Foundation speak for itself. I'll limit my editorial to saying that one of Sir John Templeton's stipulations was for his prize always to carry a richer purse than the Nobel Prize, and that past prizes have been awarded to Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Here's a science writer's account of working with the Foundation.

The study cost 2.4 million dollars, spanned a decade, and included over 1,800 patients who underwent coronary bypass surgery. The patients were broken up into three groups: one group received intercessory prayer and was told so; another received intercessory prayer but was only told they might be prayed for; and the third received no intercessory prayer and did not even know they were part of the study. The group that received intercessory prayer and knew about it did the worst. According to the New York Times, "patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications."

My father, who told me about the study, said, "The 2.4 million dollars spent on the study could have provided a lot of medical care to kids who needed it." My mother said, of the countless strangers of varied faiths who are currently praying for me, "It means something to them. It's a special way of loving in their minds."

Maybe they're both right.


  1. Thanks for a lively, informative post, but just to clarify: the Templeton Foundation is not a "mainline Christian organization." Our work reaches across all the major faith traditions, and much of it is just pure scientific research (theoretical physics, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, etc.), with no religious angle.

    Gary Rosen
    Chief External Affairs Officer
    John Templeton Foundation

  2. Dear Mr Rosen,

    Interesting, your comment about "pure scientific research." Here is my challenge: is the Templeton Foundation prepared to fund a book that claims that there are no scientific proofs of the existence of a deity or supernatural beings, and that, on the contrary, there is enough evidence that religious claims have no scientific foundation at all.

    I'm writing such a book...


    Alexander Hellemans

  3. Hi, Mr. Rosen. Thanks for the clarification. I apologize if I misrepresented the Foundation in any way. That was certainly not my intention.



  4. "Friends with benedictions!"



  5. Oh, and Alexander:

    Thanks so much for your concern! I came through all those heart surgeries okay, thanks! No really, thank you for not just using my blog to petulantly plug your unpublished book.

    My friend's friend, not yet 30, is keeping a blog about her struggles with breast cancer. It's well written, brutal, and truly devastating, and it makes my hospitalization seem like a vacation. Perhaps you can use that blog to "challenge" Simon & Schuster.