Remembering the Religious Foundation of Cicely Saunders' Hospice Mission

Dr. Cicely Saunders with a Patient at St. Christopher's Hospice, Photo used with permission from St. Christopher’s Hospice

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by Ron Panzer

The following is part 1 of a 3 part series on the history, state and future of hospice.

(Excerpted version)

 

Dr. Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, expressed the pro-life mission in serving the public through her hospice and palliative care work. It was absolutely founded upon her religious calling and faith. She stated:

"St. Christopher's Hospice, 'will be a religious foundation of a very open character." 1

"Hospice is about a special kind of living and ... all [involved] find they are drawn into a journey of the Spirit.

She states that when she started her hospice

"I was also a fairly newly committed Christian, waiting to know what I had to do with my life.

.... There was much more to learn from ... the strength and prayerfulness of the community of the Irish Sisters of Charity and, above all, from those uncounted hours with the patients. It was they who showed me by their achievements how important the ending of life could be, many that I knew briefly and a few long stay patients, friends over the years, are the real founders of St. Christopher's.

.... Sometimes people ask me what I mean by achievements in dying. Here was one: Gethsemane made present today.

The challenge was to establish a new hospice as a religious and medical foundation bringing together science and the spiritual dimension....

.... [God's] presence is in every death, every suffering. Nearly all our families accept the nurses' offer to read the last prayers at the bedside and these include the 23rd Psalm which has been said many times in the Hospice. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou are with me."

 

Saunders goes on to explain her thoughts about death and the purpose God has in mind for us:

.... God uses the losses of our lives and of our deaths to give us Himself, He travels with us through our pains and sorrows. These are all filled with His redeeming strength because He has suffered and died Himself and did so with no more than the equipment of a man. And He rose again. This is the message ... that Resurrection and new life can be true for us all.

Saunders proposes the question that confronts us today:

.... will the religious element be lost in all this compelling desire to spread the better understanding and treatment of terminal pain? So long as we all remember that such pain is not only physical, mental and social but frequently has spiritual aspects also, I believe that it will not....

Perhaps it is fortunate that Saunders did not see what has happened to the hospice movement today.  She expressed that hospice's mission has much to do with the work of the Holy Spirit:

.... Because our commitment is to infinitely diverse individuals we have had to learn flexibility and openness, the importance of listening and silence before — often instead of — any words at all. ... When we have been able to shed some of our own trappings in response we have experienced something of the presence of the Spirit or the Go-Between God,2 as Bishop John Taylor calls him.

.... St. Christopher's has been .... about hands held out together — receivers from each other and, together, receivers from God. He has helped us all in the Hospice Movement to learn from our patients and their families and from each other and thus to develop new ways of relieving pain and fear in dying — and to see that there can be living with dying, with long term disability and with age.

.... Paradoxically death has been shown to be a place of healing, of growth through loss. To speak of strength and dignity coming through weakness and vulnerability does not idealize them and we will continue to relieve all the suffering we can, but here is something to unite us in a sadly divided world. As Christians we believe that God shared this part of human life once on Earth — that He still shares it and that Jesus said, "I, if I be lifted up will draw all men to Myself." But we also believe that His spirit reaches out in many ways and that their own path through will be shown to all the open and vulnerable.3

Endnotes:

 1 Cicely Saunders, Cicely Saunders: Selected Writings 1958-2004, p xxi, 2006, Oxford University Press, London, U.K. Back

  2 JV Taylor, The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission, 1972, SCM Press, London, England Back

  3 Cicely Saunders, Templeton Prize Speech, May 1981, reprinted in: Cicely Saunders: Selected Writings 1958-2004, 2006, Oxford University Press, London, U.K. Back