2018-03-02 / Chaplain's News

Discussion of spirituality versus religion

Chaplain (Capt.) William Beaver
Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center

What is the difference between spirituality and religion? That is a question that I ask patients in the DDEAMC Residential Treatment Facility and in the Traumatic Brain Injury Functional Recovery Program.

The answers I get vary tremendously. I ask that question because a chaplain is required to lead spirituality classes in these behavioral health programs.

That is a valid question for the chaplain because the behavioral health class is a different setting than a chapel service or even an office or bedside one-on-one conversation with a patient.

The chaplain cannot and would not ever force religion or religious practices on patients. It is unprofessional, unlawful and disrespectful on many levels. But the chaplain is free to discuss spirituality. But who defines spirituality?

The reason I ask this question is to prompt patients to ask themselves where they find hope. When life gets very difficult and it seems like the walls are caving in, what is it that motivates a person to keep getting out of bed and facing the day, without any guarantees that life will get better? What is that?

Sadly, a few folks in severe crisis succumb to suicide. So what is it that keeps a patient going and not choose suicide when the odds against them seem overwhelming?

To me, that is the seed of spirituality. When a person in the midst of crisis has some inner belief or hope that circumstances will eventually improve and life will get better, it tells me as a chaplain that the person has resiliency.

They have spirituality. That spirituality may be difficult for them to define or to place within the structure of a religion or set of practices, but it is a sign of hope and an inner strength. It gives both the patient and the chaplain something to work with.

As their chaplain in these behavioral health settings, I encourage every patient – regardless of their self-identified religious preference, to cling to that hope that keeps getting them out of bed on their worst days, and to keep asking tough questions of God or a higher power.

I do not believe God is afraid of honest questions, difficult complaints or even cries of distress wrapped in colorful language. It is when we are the most true to ourselves and can express our hopes, fears, joys and sorrow that we connect with God.

When we feel we have to somehow “clean” ourselves up or “earn the favor” of God before approaching God, we actually are being dishonest. Honestly is the quickest route to spiritual healing. And when the spirit is on the road to recovery, I believe the patient begins to believe in herself and can begin to take steps to heal herself.

As a chaplain, I believe that all humans were created by God. As I prepare to PCS to another post after being with DDEAMC for nearly four years, I have discovered that I cannot “give” a patient hope.

I believe that they already have an inner hope given to them by God. It is my task as chaplain to help them discover that hope which is inside them, and to bring it to the front to allow them to draw strength from it. For some, their spirituality will lead them to identify with a particular religion or set of spiritual practices with likeminded believers.

For others, it may not. But I also am reminded that the question of spirituality versus religion is a valid question for us all. I ask myself, and I ask you, are we simply following a set of religious practices, or do we fully incorporate our beliefs into our daily lives when things get difficult. Faith in God is about living an integrated life.

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