Non-Religious Patients

Reverend Dr. Verlyn Hemmen

Rev. Dr. Verlyn Hemmen, CPE Supervisor at Abbott Northwestern, has prayed for patients in a way that they can imbue the prayers with personal meaning and positive energy.

Not all patients who see a chaplain want prayer. While sometimes prayer in its loosest form can take on secular meanings, some patients who are non-religious or consider themselves spiritual rather than religious may prefer other language. Rev. Dr. Verlyn Hemmen, who supervised the chaplains and the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis for nearly 20 years, intentionally uses vague language when he prays with patients, to allow them to fill his words with their own experiences and meaning.

What is prayer but intention and energy directed towards a positive outcome? So at its very basic level I don't think you could ever go wrong praying for somebody. You're sending positive intent their way, and I believe positive intent makes a difference.
—Rev. Dr. Verlyn Hemmen

In this clip, Rev. Dr. Verlyn Hemmen discusses the complexities of prayer.

 Show Transcription

We're learning so much in quantum physics these days about the power of energy and thought, and that we're all energy, that everything is energy, that when I think about it I think: What is prayer but intention and energy directed towards a positive outcome? So at its very basic level, I don't think you could ever go wrong praying for someone. You're sending positive intent their way, and I believe positive intent makes a difference. I can ramp that up. For some people that translates into very specific requests to God for concrete responses, you know, 'Please God heal my cancer.' I've prayed and been with enough people where that hasn't come true to know the damage that that kind of prayer can be, but if a patient wants me to pray for that who am I to not pray for it? I might ask them, you know, 'So what is your sense about that?' 'What do you think?' 'What would healing mean for you?' Because sometimes we make assumptions too that when patients want us to pray for their healing that it means that their cancer goes away and it isn't really always that. Sometimes they need to have their attitude healed and they need to come to a place of acceptance that whatever happens that they'll be okay with it.

Though Rev. Dr. Hemmen understands the essence of prayer to be "positive intent," he is aware that prayer means so many things for so many different people. In a hospital setting, where chaplains visit patients from all backgrounds, this statement is especially true. He explained, "I've stopped trying to understand it and just do it. I keep prayers generalized enough that patients can fill [the] words with their experiences." Although he admitted that he will never truly understand the range of how people understand and experience prayer, he recognized that prayer has a profound effect on the attitude of some patients.

For other patients, even vague prayers or statements of positive intent labelled as prayers are unwelcome. While chaplains only pray with patients when asked, Rev. Ken Burg, a staff chaplain at Abbott Northwestern since 2011, noted that "sometimes patients don’t want to delve into the spiritual." In addition, he said that "some chaplains work best with specific people," and that this is also true when it comes to prayer. He shared that "Siwali [the Buddhist chaplain at Abbott Northwestern], does more blessings and meditations such as 'May your soul be at peace and may you have no ill will.'" Many patients who identify as non-religious or more spiritual than religious often enjoy the positive intentions and meditations Siwali has provided.