I did my family practice residency in a Catholic hospital in the mid west. The strong presence of nuns in leadership and the quiet influence of the attached order and Catholic school lent an unmistakably religious atmosphere to the hospital. Mostly, as residents, we were too busy and too tired to either notice or care, but occasionally the interface between the hospital’s spiritual context and the world of patient care was uncomfortable. Even jarring.


Just outside the entrance to the psychiatric wing was a small quiet alcove for prayer. Next to the door into the alcove was a larger-than-life-size alabaster white statue of the Virgin Mary. When I say larger than life, I mean it. She would have been a force to be reckoned with on most college football teams. Adding to the effect, she was standing on the head of a similarly large serpent. The first time I saw it, I found it surreal, but I gradually stopped noticing it.

That is, until the day I came by and found a young adult male hard at work, AWOL as I would later learn from the occupational therapy painting class on the psych floor. He was talking quietly but energetically to himself, and totally engrossed with his paints. He had already carefully painted bright red lipstick, brown eyebrows, and a small black beauty mark on her cheek, and was painting periwinkle nipples on the Virgin Mary, taking obvious care to make them symmetric and neat.

I was transfixed.  As I stood watching in silence, another resident and then a nurse came by and stopped. We exchanged glances but no one said a word. Inevitably, the performance came to an end. One of the sisters came by and indignantly commanded him to stop: “Young man. Stop. At once.” He turned and in the flat and disinterested voice of the patient on high-dose antipsychotic medication, he asked, simply: “Why?”

The Sister replied, with sarcasm that was most likely lost on the young man, that the Virgin Mary would not have worn makeup.

His response was simple: “Well, she wouldn’t have stood on no snake, either.”

Later in the day, when I passed that way again, the young man was no longer there. The statue, which had been restored to its unblemished white state, was somehow not the same. I missed the colorful additions and couldn’t help wondering what other decorations he would have added before he stopped.

And I’ve always thought that he got by far the better of the exchange.



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