Distilling Prayer


Part of my role as a Hospice Chaplain is to help people distinguish between spirituality and religion. I know there is lots of debate about the topic and the point of this post is not really to mine that can of worms, but in order to proceed, here’s my working understanding of the terms:

Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning in life. It involves questions of identity, security, belonging and purpose.

Religion is the external form of spirituality. Church. Books. Rituals. Religion seeks to put spirituality in order. It seeks to define spirituality and religion uses boundaries and often identifies itself by excluding others. Many religions claim that their particular approach to spirituality alone holds exclusive truth.

In other words, Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and Religion is the form that pursuit takes.

I say all of this to give you a little understanding as to what I deal with in my role helping patients and their loved ones face end of life. I don’t know that it’s like where you live culturally, but here in Arizona, a lot of my hospice patients and their families will accept Chaplain visits only if I agree to not proselytize. I know younger people often get the blame for the whole “spirituality vs. religion” conversation, but in my experience, this issue began with the Boomer Generation. I can’t tell you how many older people I talk with who are jaded by growing up in the Midwest or the South and want nothing to do with “religion.”

Enter the Chaplain.

Hospice care neither hastens nor hinders death and we strive to provide people with the best possible quality of life for whatever time remains. Part of this means finding spiritual balance, whatever your existing belief structure. One of the most common conversations I have is when I encourage people to pray, or assure them that I will be praying for them. The most common response is something like: Thank you, but I’m not a religious person.

This is where the distinction between spirituality and religion becomes important. If spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and religion is the form that pursuit takes, then it is possible for even people who do not consider themselves to be religious to pray. I am a Christian. That is my religion. But when I encourage my patients and their families to pray, I’m not necessarily saying that they must adopt my understanding of religion or prayer.

Prayer is one of those spiritual exercises that transcends religious boundaries. Nearly every religion advocates some form of prayer. Prayer transcends religion. What then, is prayer? Before we can answer that question, let’s back up a minute and consider the idea that, as Indian philospher Krishnamurti says: Attention is the most basic form of love.

The deliberate act of paying attention on something/someone means that we are narrowing our thoughts to them/that alone. It shows that we care. It is an act of love.

At its fundamental nature, prayer is taking that act of love (focusing our attention) and throwing it out into the universe, often accompanied by the cryptic note in the bottle HELP ME! Prayer is simply the recognition that we need help and that there is something beyond ourselves. Because I love, I focus my attention and admit that I am not ultimately in control and that there must be meaning to whatever is happening. Understood from this vantage point, it doesn’t seem to me to be a stretch to say that everyone prays. After all, isn’t this just the summary of the first two steps of the famous 12 Steps?

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This sounds like prayer to me. We need help and somehow, some way, somewhere out there, there is Someone or Something that can help me. This helps us place ourselves in the care of humility and guards us from arrogance. This also helps us pursue meaning in suffering and comfort in distress.

Prayer transcends religion but finds its fullness within it. I believe that Prayer is strongest when the Someone or Something are defined, but that that is not necessary to pray. When explained this way, many people who initially rejected my offers of prayer have suddenly found themselves on their knees. If “prayer” seems intimidating or off-putting to you, I want to encourage you to free the practice from the bonds of religion and to get on your knees.

Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).