The Nurse's Bookshelf

A Balm for Gilead:  Meditations on Spirituality and the Healing Arts by Daniel P. Sulmasy 

Over the years, my literary tastes have boomeranged from fiction to nonfiction, from biography to best-seller.  Now a practicing nurse, I am increasingly drawn towards books about the complex mystery of healing.  The best of such writing offers companionship, comfort, and solidarity of experience. A Balm for Gilead:  Meditations on Spirituality and the Healing Arts by Daniel P. Sulmasy, O.F.M., M.D. is just that sort of rare read. 

Ordinarily, I would have glanced at this book’s jacket and returned it to the Barnes and Noble shelf.  I bought it based strictly on the recommendation of a trusted nurse friend, a woman familiar with my decidedly ecumenical leanings.  Although she warned me that the content was Catholic-specific, she added that the author’s messages were universal in their application to clinical practice.  Weeks after completing A Balm for Gilead, I still mentally reference lessons gleaned from Salmasy’s thoughtful treatment of medicine’s most difficult questions.

While choppy at times, unflinchingly Christian, disjointed, and perhaps too ambitious for its mere 140 pages, Sulmasy should be commended for boldly leaping into the intersection of spirituality and healthcare.  A physician, a professor of medicine, and a Franciscan Friar at Manhattan’s St. Vincent Hospital, Sulmasy eschews the dominant paradigm in medicine, namely that science itself is religion.  He challenges his readers to invite faith of all flavors into medical practice. 

The author defines spirituality as that which “describes one’s relationships with the transcendent” and contends that the practice of prayer or contemplation, “leads to transformation and transformation leads to loving action”, an attitude particularly relevant to the over-stressed caregiver.  There is something refreshing about Sulmasy’s old-fashioned scholarly tone and his blatant rejection of political correctness. 

It is impossible to overlook the breath of his knowledge.  Sulmasy succeeds in disentangling spirituality from ethics from morality, a noteworthy intellectual accomplishment.  While the text calls frequently upon Biblical metaphor, the wisdom of philosophers and poets are also interwoven throughout. 

The individual chapters are not cohesive, possibly a result of individual prior publication, and vary from the almost esoteric to the instantly accessible.  His subjects include how to care for “the ugly and the deformed”, how to treat one’s own body, and how to contend with the endless clinical frustrations of managed care.  While he bemoans HMOs, Sulmasy concedes that the American medical profession has contributed to its own troubles by buying into the mythology of seemingly infallible technology. 

His discussion of the American medical profession as a prodigal son of sorts is particularly interesting.  Sulmasy writes that, “Increasingly healthcare professionals themselves are becoming alienated from their work.  Once their labors come to be viewed as mere expertise and technology, looking through a scope and inspecting human colons a dozen times a day can become as boring as inspecting chickens in a poultry processing plant.  Both are just applied sciences - the practical use of highly specialized knowledge.”  This, I can relate to.  This sounds eerily familiar.  His enumeration of the ways in which doctors, nurses, and others can view caring for the sick as a privilege and medicine a daily practice of humility is timely and valuable.        



Sulmasy, Daniel P.  A Balm for Gilead:  Meditations on Spirituality and the Healing Arts. 

Washington, D.C.:  Georgetown University Press, 2006.

Copyright 2008- American Society of Registered Nurses (ASRN.ORG)-All Rights Reserved


Articles in this issue:


  • Masthead

    Editor-in Chief:
    Laura Fitzgerald

    Editorial Staff:
    Laura Fitzgerald
    Alison Palmer
    Kimberly McNabb
    Lisa Gordon
    Stephanie Robinson

    Creative Oversight:

    Design Director:
    Daria Dillard

    Design Firm:
    Agency San Francisco
    San Francisco, California

    Laura Fitzgerald
    Alison Palmer
    Cris Lobato
    Elisa Howard
    Susan Cramer

Leave a Comment

Please keep in mind that all comments are moderated. Please do not use a spam keyword or a domain as your name, or else it will be deleted. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation instead. Thanks for your comments!

*This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.