On a cold winter morning, a mother of two approached a ten-foot-tall marble statue of Jesus Christ that sits beneath the historic dome of the Johns Hopkins University Hospital.
Beneath paintings and photos of the hospital’s founders, she wrote a prayer in a black cardboard-bound prayer book that sits on a plastic stand in the rotunda. Dear Lord, her prayer began, Thank you for the countless blessing and helping me to deal with each day, 1 day at a time. Please continue to bless and watch over me. Love U!
She returned several times in subsequent weeks, writing prayers that thanked God for her blessings and asked for guidance with an important decision. Show me a sign, she wrote in one prayer, and in another, I guess I am more worried about what everyone else thinks instead of what I think and feel. Please help me to make the right decision Dear Lord.
Two weeks after the initial prayer, she asked the Lord for courage to deal with her decision, offered thanks for yet another chance at motherhood, and asked the Lord to help a man, identified by his initials, to come to terms with the pregnancy and except [sic] what he has to do.
In deciding what to do about her pregnancy, this woman was not alone in reaching out to God. Close to 90% of Americans pray. More than three-quarters pray for their own health or the health of their loved ones, and millions of patients, visitors, and hospital staff pray in health-care settings regularly.
What do they pray for? National surveys report that 80% of Americans think that personal religious/spiritual practices including prayer can help with medical treatments, and 22% report being cured of an illness as the result of a personal religious/spiritual practice. Are people praying for a cure? Some are, but just as many are thanking God for blessings granted.
I analyzed the prayers this woman and hundreds like her wrote in prayer books at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital between 1999 and 2005. Although the statue of Jesus Christ has stood in the hospital since 1896, it was not until the early 1990s that people began to leave prayers written on napkins, scraps of paper, and the back of visitor’s badges and business cards at the statue’s base.
So that the prayers were not lost, hospital chaplains placed a blank book on a stand by the statue that is filled with prayers every two to three months. Anyone entering or leaving the hospital can write in the prayer book and/or read the prayers other people have written. People write prayers longhand, filling the pages with words and drawings. Some leave photographs, children’s drawings, flowers, and coins at the statue.
Most of the prayers penned in these books are improvised, not the Lord’s Prayer, prayers to Saint Jude or other standards. Most who write pray for themselves and/or their families or close friends. They write prayers to thank God, to make requests of God, or to both thank and petition God.
Prayers of thanks tend to be short and direct:
Dear God, Thank you for everything.
Thank you Jesus for loving me and allowing me strength and courage to deal with the triump [sic] in my lifetime.
Writers are more detailed in prayers of petition:
Please continue to heal E. and T. and those I pray for…
Please let this be the last step in W.’s eyes being healthy…Please bless his eyes…Please help to find a cure.
More than a quarter of people both thank God and make a request:
Thanks a lot Dear Father God, You have blessed me so much, I am at a turning point in my Life. I just ask that you keep Me on the right path, I Love You, Thank you for your Son Jesus Christ.
As a group, these prayer writers conceive of God as accessible, as actively listening, and as a source of support. They begin prayers with Dear, Hello or Hey and sign them with their name or initials, almost like e-mails. Some make immediate requests and others thank God for listening; Sweet Jesus, Thank you for listening. The word love is common, We lift up N. to you, heal her heart and Help P. and her boys cope… I love you. Love, M.
Many of these prayers read as snippets of ongoing conversations between the writers and God.
Rather than thanking God for specific outcomes or making detailed requests, writers frame their prayers broadly in emotional and psychological language. Prayer writers do not ask God to heal a broken leg but to give them the “strength” to get through this difficult time.
Rather than asking God for particular news at a doctor’s visit, a writer asks God to remember M. as we go to see his doctors today. Remember him in prayer and bless him always.
What these prayers rarely do is to ask an all-powerful God to cure an incurable condition; they do not ask for miracles.
Much as the woman quoted above never asked God what to do about her pregnancy, those leaving prayers at the feet of the Jesus statue at the hospital are simply asking God for strength and support. Perhaps there is something about highly scientific medical centers like Johns Hopkins that make the language of miracles seem out of place. Or maybe writers frame prayers broadly so they can see them as answered, and God as loving, regardless of what happens in the hospital.
For more: Cadge, Wendy and M. Daglian. 2008. “Blessings, Strength, and Guidance: Prayer Frames in a Hospital Prayer Book” Poetics 36. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy.