Experiences in Hospitalland Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Jun. 04, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Recently, I spent six days at a place only about a 10-minute drive from my home, but I had entered a country as "foreign'"to my experience as Botswana or Katmandu.

I had taken up residence in Hospitalland. I was brought in for an emergency appendectomy and had to undergo a second surgery, due to complications.

Adjusting to unique rhythm

As a priest, of course, I had visited Hospitalland many times, but I had never actually lived in it for an extended period. Hospitalland has its own unique rhythms, customs, language, and semiotic systems. Adjusting to it is as complex an undertaking as adjusting to Vienna, Paris, or Tokyo.

For example, the normal rhythm of day and night is interrupted and overturned in Hospitalland. People come barging into your room as regularly at two in the morning as two in the afternoon. I found myself asking visitors not only the time of day, but whether it was morning or evening.

The usual distinctions between public and private simply evanesce in Hospitalland. As my mother told me many years ago, upon returning from a long visit to that country, "When you enter the hospital, you place your modesty in a little bag and leave it by the door. Then you pick it up when you go home."

Characterized by passivity

But for me the characteristic of Hospitalland is passivity. When you pass through the doors of the hospital, you hand your life over to other people. They transport you, clean you, test you, make you wait for results, poke you, prod you, take blood out of you, and cut into you.

When you are at your wits' end, frustrated beyond words, so eager to get home that you can taste it, you have to wait for them to give you permission to leave.

You place your modesty in a little bag by the door when you enter the hospital, and you put your autonomy in that same container.

Spiritual implications

And this is of more than merely psychological interest. It has, indeed, far-reaching spiritual implications.

As I lay on my back in Hospitalland, a phrase kept coming unbidden into my mind: "the divinization of one's passivities." This is a line from one of the great spiritual works of the 20th century, The Divine Milieu by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

In that seminal text, Teilhard famously distinguished between the divinization of one's activities and the divinization of one's passivities.

The former is a noble spiritual move, consisting in the handing over of one's achievements and accomplishments to the purposes of God. Teilhard desired to devote all that he did (and he did a lot) ad majorem Dei gloriam (to the greater glory of God).

But this attitude, Teilhard felt, came nowhere near the spiritual power of divinizing one's passivities. By this he meant the handing over of one's suffering to God, the surrendering to the Lord of those things that are done to us, those things over which we have no control.

We become sick; a loved one dies suddenly; we lose a job; a much-desired position goes to someone else; we are unfairly criticized; we find ourselves, unexpectedly, in the valley of the shadow of death.

These experiences lead some people to despair, but the spiritually alert person should see them as a particularly powerful way to come to union with God. A Christian would speak here of participating in the cross of Christ.

How strange that the central icon of the Christian faith is not some great achievement or activity, but rather something horrible being done to a person. The point is that suffering, offered to God, allows the Lord to work his purpose out with unsurpassed power.

Teilhard's distinction is an echo of St. John of the Cross' distinction between the "active" and "passive" nights of the soul. For the great Spanish master, the dark night has nothing to do with psychological depression, but rather with a pruning away of attachments that keep one from complete union with God.

This pruning can take a conscious and intentional form (the active night) or it can be something endured. In a word, we can rid ourselves of attachments -- or God can do it for us. The latter, St. John thinks, is far more powerful and cleansing than the former.

I believe that my stay in the country of Hospitalland had a good deal to do with the divinization of my passivities and with the passive night of the soul. I certainly wouldn't actively seek to go back to that land, but perhaps God might send me there again. May I have the grace to accept it as a gift.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org