National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

Replacing prayer with pills


A whimsical woman, the sort who wears teddy-bear T-shirts, brings her drugs in a plaid shopping bag dripping with curled ribbon. A World War II vet jams his into a duffel bag. An uncertain young man who has been through several surgeries digs out what looks to be every medicine that was ever prescribed for him. “I just brought them to show you,” he explains, and looks hurt when told he should throw them away. “What if somebody else interviews me someday?”

The pharmacist, who volunteered the day to make sure people understand their medications, controls her smile. “We have records,” she says gently. “If you are not taking these anymore, flush the pills and throw away the bottles.” He shakes his head, still not convinced.

The next woman dips into a zippered cosmetic case and proudly produces, in addition to five prescriptions, the pancreatic enzymes she takes for stomachaches and the jellyfish supplement she takes because she heard it prevented something. One after another, people assure the interviewer that oh yes, they get their meds refilled ahead of time and take every dose like clockwork. “I’d be scared not to,” confides a woman with heart trouble. Another knows every potential interaction in a complex series of drugs, and every month she juggles other bills so she can afford the expensive medications on a fixed income. “I would go without food before I went without my medicine,” she says with dignity.

These people aren’t addicts or careless pill gulpers. The vet with the duffel bag refuses a suggestion of Motrin for his leg pain: “I never take anything like that. Only what the doctor orders.” A tall, thin, vibrant woman in her 60s bends to ask if it would be OK to use a pill minder so she could remember whether she’d taken everything that day. “I didn’t know if they could touch each other,” she murmurs, relieved.

What’s in her voice, I realize with a jolt, is awe. The people streaming into the community center treat their medicines and herbs the way pagans treat fire; alchemists treat the philosopher’s stone; Catholics treat the Blessed Sacrament. One after another, they tell the pharmacist how they store their prescriptions, and they all emphasize that the cabinet is cool and dark, safe from sunlight and bathroom humidity. They have found tabernacles of sorts; places that protect the magic. Even the most careful medicine takers are not sure exactly what they’re taking, how it works, why it was prescribed. Still, they insist that they “take it religiously.”

The adverb is accurate.

Pills are, in ways both subtle and overt, replacing prayer. This is not surprising. Today’s “miracle drugs” extend and improve lives in ways our ancestors had to negotiate with God about. One of the women at the community center had a heart attack and was told she had six months to live -- 20 years ago. Another has clots in her legs, so every day she injects medicine into her stomach to keep the clots from traveling to her heart and killing her.

We’ve stopped scanning the horizon for burning bushes. Our miracles come in little amber plastic bottles. The pills inside balance blood sugars, thin blood, ease despair, lower cholesterol, calm nerves, fight cancer. They are bestowed upon us by healers in pure white, and they promise something akin to grace: a free gift of well-being, a talisman to ward off disease and pain, darkness and death.

They also rally the economy and create global markets -- some of them virtual, some of them underground. We clutch for drug therapies the way people with “demons” used to clutch at the robes of holy men. And the closer we come to death, the more remedies we are willing to try. A woman swallows mistletoe pills every day because she read that they would prevent cancer; a man gulps vinegar willingly, convinced it cures a long list of ills. People volunteer the excellent effects of their prescriptions, then add, “I don’t know if it’s in my head or not but …” They shrug, not really caring. Who second-guesses answered prayers?

We humans have been trying to ease our suffering since time began. We reach for whatever solution our culture hands us: for us, a miracle drug; for a Somali tribesman, maybe a flaming torch, because fire and pain cannot live together in the belly. What’s dangerous is not the attempt to feel better, but the power we hand over to the cure.

After a week of tossing and turning, I was so relieved to tap into a friend’s supply of sleeping pills, I forgot to wonder why I wasn’t sleeping naturally. Those sleeping pills felt like grace incarnate when they slid me into the oblivion my body had denied me.

Anything that powerful, it’s easy to worship. Especially when we can cherish the illusion that we’re dictating the results.

I’m the first to take a drug that might heal me, ease my pain or put me to sleep. But I want to remember that I’m helpless at a deeper level than the physical.

And there are miracles that don’t come in amber bottles.

Jeannette Batz Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

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