On mobilizing the findings of the project during the COVID-19 pandemic

The book has arrived!

The Prayer as Transgression? project is in the mobilization of findings phase, as we engage with audiences and knowledge users on the recent release of the monograph by the same title.

About the book

As signaled by the book cover – our idea was to use prayer as a window to look through, to understand how religion and nonreligion are expressed in public spaces. Thus, the book is not a book about psychology or theology of prayer.  Neither is it about the health effects of prayer, which have had a fair amount of study.  Rather, the book is in a small niche of sociology of prayer, featuring the social and organisational aspects of prayer.

Healthcare settings are complex social systems and microcosms of broader society where agreement, ambivalence, and conflict coincide.  They offer insights into how majoritarian religions keep a foothold while declining, how new spaces are opened up for diasporic religions and Indigenous spiritualities, how nonreligion can be both dominant (for example, through biomedical technologies) and marginalized (when patients might request unfamiliar spiritual practices).

The book with 9 chapters and 2 appendices examines the social relations of prayer through different angles:

  • descriptions of the everyday expressions of prayer (written by researchers Sharma and Reimer-Kirkham);
  • analyses of how prayer can contribute to an inclusive public sphere (written by sociologist of religion Beaman and health researcher Reimer-Kirkham);
  • a mapping of how prayer travels about a prayer and the spaces in which it occurs (written by anthropologist Calestani, sociologist Sharma, and chaplain Beardsley);
  • accounts of organizational practices that manage prayer (written by healthcare leaders De Bono and Quinn and health researcher Reimer-Kirkham)
  • a comparison of the dynamics of spiritual care in Canada and the UK (by chaplains Beardsley and Todd, and health researcher Reimer-Kirkham)
  • an exposition on the relational aspects of prayer in critical care, palliative care, long-term care, mental health, and street clinics (by health researcher Reimer-Kirkham, chaplain Beardsley, and religious studies scholar Brown)
  • a complication of how religious identities are made visible through prayer (by religious studies scholars Brown, Bramadat, and Collins-Mayo)
  • analyses of the material and embodied practices of prayer (by religious studies scholar Brown and anthropologist Calestani)
  • a portrayal of prayer through arts and nature (by sociologist Sharma and anthropologist Calestani).

The first appendix describes how we conducted the project (project methods) and a second appendix offers recommendations for healthcare.

Writing the book as a team makes for a coherent narrative, with the voices of our different disciplines and locations. Most of the chapters, for example, have a Canadian and a Brit co-authoring, and often a practitioner and an academic. Long conversations, a deep dwelling with the data, and multiple drafts have resulted in what we think is an engaging read!

Most importantly, the book is cholk-full of stories, images, and excerpts from our 109 participants who were chaplains, former patients and their families, nurses, social workers, doctors, allied health professionals, community faith leaders, and healthcare administrators.

About the pandemic

While our project occurred prior to the pandemic, we are sensitive to what might be the same, what might be different. Bentzen’s 2020 study (Copenhagen) showed the spike in google searches for prayer, as the pandemic took off.  In this time of pandemic, light has been shed on the spiritual pain and suffering amongst healthcare staff, including the invisible labour by porters, morticians, cleaners, cafeteria staff. Social media accounts have highlighted how chaplains have been at the frontlines of the pandemic, offering support, comfort, and prayer. As we write in the book’s preface:

Hospitals are all at once public, chaotic and intimate and where the pandemic was most keenly felt. They were where nurses and doctors at the point-of-care witnessed deep suffering and people dying without their loved ones near. Nurses and doctors picked up the emotional end-of-life care that might otherwise be offered by families and chaplains. Notwithstanding their incredible knowledge and skill, there were many they could not save. They faced impossible choices, with accompanying moral distress which will carry forward for years. Staff were overwhelmed by demand, a shortage of personal protective equipment, and the worry of whether they carried the virus home to their families. Despite these concerns, some healthcare workers on the frontlines took time to pray for each other and the sick (e.g., O’Kane 2020). Chaplains, part of healthcare provision, were barred from entering many hospitals due to infectious disease precautions. Themselves social distancing by working from home, they adapted to this new reality by taking up “telechaplaincy” with indirect or technology-mediated support. They offered prayers and comfort over the phone to staff, patients, and families. Chaplains’ liminality on the margins of healthcare services intensified because they were not visibly present, and yet, with the sweep of the virus, spiritual support was never more relevant nor sought after. Other healthcare organizations recognized this need and named chaplaincy as an “essential service”, equipping them with personal protective equipment to do what they do best—bringing compassion and spiritual support to patients and staff in the darkest hours of the pandemic. (Reimer-Kirkham, Sharma, Brown, & Calestani, 2020, p.x)

We wonder:  How might our study have different findings if it was being undertaken now?

About book promotion

The pandemic has moved us on to virtual, online platforms that bring us together even as we remain socially distanced. We have had our first book launch event, hosted by the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society (directed by co-author Paul Bramadat, University of Victoria) during their Weekly Lecture Series. Co-authors Sonya Sharma and Melania Calestani sent greetings from London, with a video clip on book highlights. The virtual format allowed guests from around the world to join in to hear about and discuss the project.

Trinity Western University will be hosting a book launch Café that focuses on health practitioners on November 17th, also with online access.  Register here.

The book has been featured in newsletters and list serves, and we welcome other opportunities to write about or talk about the project and the book.

We are grateful for the professional-kind assistance of the team at McGill-Queens University Press.  Details about the book are available here


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