In-between spaces and moments in acute hospitals: an unexpected geography of prayer

Everyday interaction in hospitals allows for the crossing of boundaries in unexpected ways, creating in-between spaces and moments. Many nuances emerge when looking at shared spaces and moments between categories that are often perceived as opposites or binaries, such as, for instance ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. Secular spaces in the hospital can unexpectedly become sacred. For instance, when chaplains are asked to pray for and with patients in lifts on the way to operating theatres. Through these moments of prayer, the ‘profane’ is transgressed, and the ‘secular’ is made ‘sacred’.

On a Friday evening, while I was carrying out a walking interview and the hospital was becoming quieter, a Christian chaplain took me to the staff members’ accommodation. He showed me one of the rooms where he stayed overnight when he was on duty and described a specific event that happened to him there. He took me to a common area, which he called the ‘doctors’ mess’ (a sort of recreation room). He described how one evening he met a reconstructive burn surgeon who was going to operate on a small child at 10.30 at night. The child was burned and needed an immediate surgery. The following day he met the mother of the child in the chapel. She came to pray and to thank God for the positive outcome of the surgery. The chaplain talked with her about his meeting with the surgeon and she asked him to thank the doctor for her. When the Christian chaplain summarised these events, he described them as being all related, ‘something that started in the ‘doctors’ mess’, then continued in an operating room until 1 o’clock in the morning and then picks up when someone comes to the chapel to give thanks before going home’. He went on to say: ‘that’s the life and being part of that interconnectedness, the whole of life is a prayer, more places we go to, more life we see’.

In this story, different places in the hospital are connected together, proposing an unexpected geography of prayer, that connects different categories of people (the chaplain, the surgeon and the patient’s mother) as well as different ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ spaces. The sacred/secular tensions that are played out in hospitals cannot be reduced to a binary opposition, but have to take into consideration the fluidity of these categories and the continual process of construction and deconstruction of ‘ambiguous heterotopic’ places (Collins 2013). The study of prayer can therefore shed light on these in-between spaces and moments that are created in acute hospitals, crossing boundaries in unexpected ways, when ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ may co-exist or compete at times, expressions not only of beliefs or unbelief, but also of acceptance and respect (Beaman 2014).


Collins, P., 2013. ‘Acute Ambiguity: Towards a Heterotopology of Hospital Chaplaincy’ in Day, A., Vincett, G. and Cotter, M.C.R. eds.. Social identities between the sacred and the secular. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Beaman, L., 2014. Deep equality as an alternative to accommodation and tolerance. Nordic Journal of Religion and Society, 27(2), pp.89-111.



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