Prayer as Transgression? The Social Relations of Prayer in Healthcare Settings. By Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham, Sonya Sharma, Rachel Brown, and Melania Calestani. McGill Queens University Press (2020).
The project explored the ways that prayer shows up—whether embraced, tolerated, or resisted—in healthcare, and how institutional and social contexts shape how prayer is understood and enacted. The research team, led by Dr. Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham (Trinity Western University, Canada) and Dr. Sonya Sharma (Kingston University, England), conducted fieldwork in 21 healthcare sites in London, England and Vancouver, Canada. We observed and interviewed 109 people including chaplains, healthcare professionals, administrators, former patients and families.
This study set out to examine how prayer is expressed in healthcare settings, as a window to deeper insights on the negotiation of religion in the public sphere. Increasing religious and ethnic plurality, following decades of secularizing trends, is resulting in new attention being given to how religion and non-religion are expressed and negotiated in public spaces. Healthcare settings are notoriously complex places where life and death co-exist, and where suffering is an everyday occurrence giving rise to existential questions. At the same time, healthcare contexts reflect the full range of society’s diversity in its patients and staff.
Prayer shows up in a variety of forms, circumstances, and places. As a spiritual practice, it operates as counterpoint to the technologies, temporalities, and sensibilities of biomedicine.
Our team examined the ways prayer highlights trends of secularization and sacralization in healthcare settings; how healthcare protocols complicate practices of prayer, such as how, when, where and if it occurs; and the ambivalences about prayer arising from staff and patients’ varied views on religion and spirituality, associated ethical concerns, and clinical and workload demands. Moreover, we were aware and anticipated that prayer might not always be welcome. Thus, the project was framed with the questioning concept of “transgression.” We came to a definition of transgression through feminist and social theorists who view transgression as the ability to go beyond limits and conventions, to deny and affirm differences, to move against and beyond boundaries (e.g., hooks 1994; Taussig 1998). We were interested in how prayer (with religious and non-religious meanings) might disrupt the order of things, including the seemingly rational and secular nature of healthcare.
- Prayer shows up in healthcare contexts even amidst settings such as hospitals that are typified by high acuity, technology and managerialism. These high-paced environments can in turn result in prayer becoming invisible or less of a priority.
- Prayer is somehow special or set apart, and transcends or goes beyond a moment or circumstances. Although prayer takes various forms, prayer is distinctive from other spiritual and non-spiritual practices. Prayer is communing with God or a Higher Power, but prayer also transcends present circumstances through a sense of the mystical, an experience of deep understanding, or profound relational connection.
- Generic approaches to spirituality, with their intent to be inclusive, can miss the specificity of people’s spiritual and religious Similarly, multi-faith approaches can lead to assumptions about religious identities and leave unattended those who are spiritual but not religious or the non- religious. Both approaches can miss the array of differences present in today’s diverse societies.
- Prayer moves across a continuum between formal religious traditions to non-religious practices. By whom and when prayer occurs can be difficult to Prayer is present through material objects in healthcare settings, from crosses, Humanist pamphlets, and Indigenous artifacts to a nurse’s apron substituted for an Islamic head covering. Symbols of majoritarian religions are in some situations given preference, especially when communicating the heritage or administration of an institution.
- Prayer is present through material objects in healthcare settings, from crosses, Humanist pamphlets, and Indigenous artifacts to a nurse’s apron substituted for an Islamic head covering. Symbols of majoritarian religions are in some situations given preference, especially when communicating the heritage or administration of an institution.
- Prayer spurs from the presence of the arts and nature in healthcare settings.
- Prayer finds its way more easily into seemingly secular spaces of healthcare through organizational mission statements that make way for equity, diversity and inclusion.
- Prayer takes various forms in clinical settings such as Critical Care, Mental Health, Long- term Care, Street Clinics and Palliative Care.
- Prayer is personal, reflecting the current needs of many who confront health and illness. Prayer is also political, addressing issues such as employment, education, housing and citizenship.
- Prayer contributes towards deep equality, bringing people together amid crises and differences. A commitment to deep equality also creates space for the absence of prayer, where it may not be meaningful, relevant, or practised.