Spiritual care and personal wholeness: Reflections on spiritual care in a mainly secular and religiously diverse society

Liidia Meel, PhD student, Faculty of Theology, Tartu University, and Pastoral Counsellor, Tartu University Hospital, Haematology-Oncology Clinic, Estonia, explains the background to her longer article in the January/February issue of the European Journal of Palliative Care.

Liidia Meel

Liidia Meel

As well as a prologue to my article in the journal, this post is also meant to be an inspiring greeting from the long, dark Estonian winter, which starts from the ‘Time of souls’ in November and continues until the light of Easter. 1

Estonia is mainly secular and, at the same time, a religiously diverse country. On the one hand only 29% of our population (1,315,819 inhabitants) follow a particular religion, on the other hand 64% of our population believe in some kind of higher power that affects everything in the world. Looking at the small percentage of religious people, the diversity of our religious landscape is best described by the number of religious affiliations – 90 religious affiliations were counted in Estonia in 2011. The biggest are Christian churches (Orthodox Church and Lutheran Church), but they also have their different views in the matters of faith. Having at the same time such a small population and somewhat tense feelings due to the crisis in Ukraine (Estonia being one of the Baltic States right at the border of Russia), we cannot afford this diversity to drive us apart.

Implementing spiritual care in such a society requires a lot of work to achieve mutual understanding and respect. Using the words ‘spiritual care’ means recognising the possibility of a person existing both in material and spiritual dimensions. I boldly claim that it must be so even in the case of a non-religious nurse or doctor who, noticing their patients’ needs, refers them to caregivers such as chaplains or pastoral counsellors. Why? After all, they could consider their job properly done just by noticing the need and sharing the information with another specialist. Why should they themselves ‘recognise the possibility of spiritual dimension’? I would say that it’s because of the dignity of the person in front of us. I will explain myself.

Lately, I have been deeply inspired by people observing the connections between the personal wholeness and the need for a witness. In October, I attended a pastoral care conference held in Rhodes, Greece, by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. One of the subjects there was The wound and martyrdom: wavering between misery and witness, by Athanasios Papathanasiou, considering the importance of a witness in the reality of experience. But admitting the importance of a witness raises a question about respect in often-fragile situations of misery. Merely admitting the need and providing the service does not carry respect. The quality of attitude does. The quality of attitude that says:

“Your experience is genuine and unique, it is witnessed and honoured as such, your thoughts and feelings are not lessened or ridiculed.”

Though ‘personal wholeness’ can be defined in many ways, as a caregiver I have come to look at the term simply as the importance of different aspects in human experience. To these aspects a caregiver can be a witness through the various pieces of information that a care-seeker chooses to share with us. But what and how they choose to share may require some encouragement, especially in a society where religious people may perceive the contempt of non-religious people and vice versa, and where religious affiliations have their doctrinal disagreements. Acceptance, listening and learning about the differences may be over-emphasised in multicultural Europe, but they still make a respectful witness. And they might truly guide us in what seems to be a chaotic darkness of plurality to the light of at least some basic mutual understanding.

  1. In Estonian folklore, the ‘Time of souls’ is the time of year when the souls of dead loved ones were believed to visit their homes and families. Candles are often still lit in windows and food left on the table over night.

ejpc coverRead and download the full article…
This post relates to a longer article, ‘Implementing spiritual care at the end of life: Estonia’ by Liidia Meel, published in the January/February 2015 issue of the European Journal of Palliative Care (vol. 22.2). Members of the EAPC and registered web users can download the article free of charge from the EAPC website. (If you are asked to register or login, please follow the instructions in the top right-hand corner of EAPC home page and scroll down to download the article).

If you have a web-based subscription to the European Journal of Palliative Care you can download the complete issue, plus all articles in the journal archive. You can also browse the archive and download articles by taking a 10-minute or 30-minute subscription. Members of the EAPC receive discounted subscription rates to the journal – click here to subscribe online.


  • Read more posts about spiritual care in palliative care on the EAPC blog.
This entry was posted in EAPC-LINKED JOURNALS, European Journal of Palliative Care, SPIRITUAL CARE and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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