WHEN YOU walk into the chapel at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, in Northeast Philadelphia, it's not immediately apparent that you've entered a sacred place.
The room is quiet, yes, tucked as it is into a hushed corner of the fifth floor, away from the bustle of the hospital's labs and patient rooms. And it certainly feels welcoming, its comfy chairs arranged in a cozy semicircle next to a textured brick wall.
Take a closer look at that wall, though, and you'll understand the everyday holiness of what happens in this space. Stuffed into the cracks and crevices between the bricks are hundreds of folded slips of paper, upon which are written hundreds of prayers.
Prayers of desperation and gratitude, pain and hope, demand and surrender. Scrawled by patients and families, hospital workers and visitors, anyone, really, who cares to express in writing the private urges of the soul.
The paper prayers transform the room, making it feel hallowed in a way that more routine symbols of spirituality - like stained glass, for example, or iconography of saints and prophets - simply could not.
Rosemary Winton has gone to the wall twice. The first time was to thank God for walking with her through surgery, chemo and radiation for small-bowel cancer. The second time, after her cancer recurred and she faced another overwhelming round of treatment, she wrote, "Lord, do we really have to do this again?"
"When I see all those prayers in the wall, I remember that we all have tribulations," says Winton, 53, who yesterday was awaiting test results to see if her latest treatment regimen has left her cancer-free. "I actually start praying for whatever needs are on the wall, even though I don't know what they are. We're all just crying out for help."
The concept of private, written prayers being left in public places of spiritual reflection is not unusual in this city.
At the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul, on Logan Square, the faithful leave notes at the altar beneath a sculpture of St. Katherine Drexel. And across town, at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, a thick binder in the chapel is filled with parents' pleas and thanksgivings.
"Written notes can put you in touch with the holy in a very tangible way," says the Rev. Michael Barry, director of pastoral care at CTCA. "They're kind of a visible, external manifestation of what is going on internally, which is what most sacraments are - whether it's baptism, communion, circumcision or some other ritual."
It was Barry's idea, when the chapel was remodeled last winter, to install its prayer wall. He'd been to Jerusalem several times and been awed by the quiet power of the city's Wailing Wall - the western, remaining wall of the city's oldest temple, where Jews and others come to pray, often inserting written prayers into the wall's cracks.
Barry thought a prayer wall at CTCA would give visitors a similar, transcendent opportunity to express themselves. And so the wall was installed, pencils and paper were supplied and the spaces between the bricks have been steadily filling ever since.
At first, colored paper was provided, to correspond with different cancers - pink for breast, green for kidney, and so on. But the colored papers were soon replaced with white ones.
"What if someone's prayers were not related to cancer?" says Barry. "We didn't want people to feel inhibited."
That's because not only patients and families have found respite at the wall. Staffers, too, spend time in the chapel, leaving behind prayers that are no one's business but their own.
Not that everyone understands that.
Barry says that his wife was surprised one day to come upon a chapel visitor who was methodically reading the prayers and returning them to the crevices.
"She had to explain to him that the prayers were private, which would seem to me to be common sense," chuckles Barry, who quickly installed a "do not read the prayers" sign. "But I guess nothing goes without saying."
What will become of the prayers when the wall becomes so stuffed with hopes and dreams that the papers start falling to the ground? Barry thinks that it will be a while before that happens, since the wall appears to be less than half full.
But when it does, he will gather the prayers and ceremonially burn them. It will be, he says, "like sending them to heaven."
And so, on my own visit to the CTCA wall last weekend, I wrote my own prayer. I won't divulge its exact contents, but it was for my sister, who is waging her own cancer battle these days.
As I left my note in the wall, I was moved by how comforting the act made me feel. Like a lit candle in a church sanctuary, it's keeping silent vigil, among others written in similar hope.
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