Prayer as transgression?

The question, ‘prayer as transgression?’, which is the title of our project, has often been read as a statement. The question itself has raised various responses including, ‘prayer is not negative’ or ‘I don’t agree that prayer is a transgression’. Several people we’ve met during our research have associated the word ‘transgression’ with The Lord’s Prayer from the Christian tradition, where a person asks the Lord for forgiveness for their trespasses (i.e. transgressions) just as they are requested to forgive those who have trespassed against them.

Yet, if we look at prayer as transgression from another angle, we can see other possibilities. In our research we come to the definition of transgression through feminist and social theorists that view transgression as the ability to go beyond limits and conventions, to deny and affirm differences, to move against and beyond boundaries (e.g. Foucault 1977; hooks 1994; Taussig 1998). Hence, we are interested in how the sacred (religious and nonreligious meanings) might disrupt the order of things.

In diverse hospital settings, where people from all walks of life cross paths, prayer can emerge in unlikely ways. For example, a patient requesting prayer before surgery can proceed shows the crossing of the sacred into the seemingly secular space of biomedicine; a Christian chaplain facilitating ‘a moment of silence’ with staff of religion and of none; a Sikh spiritual care volunteer praying for a Christian family on Good Friday; or the building of a Muslim prayer space in a social context that has experienced simultaneously the decline of Christianity, the rise of no religion and a more religiously diverse society.

In our research we see the diversity of prayer. We see that it can challenge institutional norms in some situations, and accommodate and even enforce norms at other times. Prayer can create connections between individuals and can be a flashpoint for discomfort, conflict, discrimination or religious inequalities.

Our research in Vancouver and London hospitals is attending to the limits that prevent prayer from happening, but also the limits that prayer transgresses, and potentially transforms. Stay tuned.


Foucault, M. (1977). A preface to transgression. In Language, counter- memory, practice: selected essays and interviews Edited with an Introduction by Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress. New York: Routledge.

Taussig, M. (1998). Transgression. In Critical terms for religious studies Edited by Mark C. Taylor. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.



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