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When Hospitals Heal

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

When Hospitals Heal

A medical building with soul.
Thomas  Moore
Thomas Moore More by this author
Jul 25, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Entering a hospital or medical center is often a nightmare. Obsessed with worry about your health, you go through doors that separate you from the world you love and enter a realm where you will be a stranger and at the mercy of nurses and orderlies. First, you have to deal with money, signing insurance forms and giving your credit card, which offers its own level of anxiety. You have to fill out questionnaires and have a plastic band secured to your wrist. Are you a patient or an inmate? Is this a hospital (meaning a place of hospitality) or a prison?

Religious specialists, like me, are particularly interested in what we call liminality—the experience of any kind of threshold. Most churches effectively lead you from the secular world outside to the spiritual realm inside through large, thick, ornate doors and a transitional vestibule or entry that allows you to take the initiatory step of encountering sacred space. A door is not just a physical barrier; it is also an instrument of psychological passage. A purely functional door will get you into the hospital physically, but it takes a special doorway to get your soul in.

Some medical buildings employ a large, expensive atrium for liminality, but a potent architectural detail—an impressive door, flowing water, a grotto, hushed lighting, or a massive stone—could also do the job. These are all traditional ritual objects that are effective for transitions.

One day I toured a large hospital with the man in charge of the “hospital environment.” I asked him to take me first to the entrance that most people would use. It was a series of glass doors leading from a parking structure to a broad hallway flanked by two other, narrower corridors in the form of a T. There was no art and no special architecture, only the plain glass doors, through which, from inside the hospital, you had a view of the parked cars. My guide had no idea why I was dismayed.

“It’s great,” he said. “People can go right from their cars into the main corridor, where signs tell them exactly where everything is.”

“Useful,” I thought, “but can a patient make the transition from world to healing space by means of those doors?” There is nothing wrong with functionality. Functional design can be beautiful, though sometimes it is ugly simply because there is no other thought given to the design beyond function. An exclusive emphasis on function leaves nothing for the soul. Patients in this hospital enter with their modern Cartesian bodies and leave their souls in the car.

What is the patient’s or family’s experience of entering this building? First, they glimpse the interior, with all its commotion and confusion, before they go through the doors. They find themselves in a liminal space, all right, between a parking garage and a manic hospital corridor. This liminal space inspires confusion and anxiety. No wonder there is staff posted there to direct patients and families entering.

Next, the unwary visitors are immediately faced with a decision whether to go straight or turn left or right. “There are signs everywhere,” the man assured me. Yes, signs. You have to use your head, not your intuition or your bodily sense of place, in order to proceed. Signs inform but do not initiate. They speak to the mind but don’t appeal to the whole person. And they clutter the entryway, like billboards at the approach to a town.

Because the signs are substitutes for a deep, guiding architecture, they appear as clutter. They stand in the way of anything beautiful about the entrance, and beauty is essential for the soul. If any part of a hospital should be designed and built beautifully, it is the entrance. How you enter affects everything else that takes place.

Here, then, is another rule about the soul: It is affected by symbol, ritual, and image. None of this has to be understood or registered intellectually; it is enough to experience the transition of a good entry or the spirit of healing in a well-designed examining and treatment area. Of course, it takes an architect and artist educated in traditional ritual space to design an effective entry. A soulful healing environment will reflect sensitivity to the symbolic import of everything in sight: materials, sounds, smells, images, language, and uniforms.

About Author
Thomas  Moore
Thomas Moore is the author of numerous popular spiritual books including the New York Times best seller, Care of the Soul. He is a Roman Catholic and a Jungian psychotherapist. After the success of Care of the Soul and its compan Continue reading