Remembering the religious foundation of Cicely Saunders' hospice mission

May 6, 2015 09:00 AM

By Ron Panzer

Nobody needs to write anything to demonstrate that Dr. Saunders’ mission, in serving the public through her hospice and palliative care work, was absolutely founded upon religious faith. We can gain tremendous insight by simply reading her own inspiring words (and recognizing how greatly her words differ from Ira Byock’s re-invention and distortion of the hospice mission). Her words are a refreshing reminder of the true heart of what we are to do.

Cicely Saunders stated very clearly that her St. Christopher’s Hospice, “will be a religious foundation of a very open character.”1

When being awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1981, she opened up and shared her faith with the public. Here are just a few excerpts from  HER SPEECH WHERE SHE SAID:

Hospice is about a special kind of living and in a sense is still concerned with travelling: patients, families, elderly residents and the staff and volunteers who meet them, all find they are drawn into a journey of the Spirit.

. . . When I believed that God was calling for a new Home I knew nothing of all this, only that a young man called David Tasma, originally from the Warsaw ghetto, had left me £500, saying “I’ll be a window in your Home,” and that he had also said, “I want what is in your mind and in your heart.” Here was a commission from a dying man who felt he had made no impact on the world, a commission to give meaning to his life by creating a home dedicated to openness and to the balance of mind and heart, of skill and friendship.

At that time I was a medical social worker, having been invalided from nursing. (And incidentally, as a Nightingale Nurse I am delighted that it is Florence Nightingale’s birthday today.) 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 St. Joseph’s [Hospice] 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.

. . . this wonderfully generous [Templeton Prize] award is for progress in religion—as the Foundation has written “for a fresh look at the omnipresence of the spirit and of the spiritual resources available to man.” The challenge was to establish a new hospice as a religious and medical foundation bringing together science and the spiritual dimension. David Tasma was searching for meaning at the end of his life, and, quietly and privately, made his peace with the God of his fathers. I was so strongly convinced that he had done so—and that it had been the right way, that I knew that the Hospice with his window had to be equally quiet and open.

. . . [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.”

. . . I attended a series of seminars given by [a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in London] Anthony of Sourazh in those early days and I still have my notes of his discussion of the [Christian traditional teaching about] the Four Last Things [death, judgment, heaven, and hell].

I believe that Ira Byock’s book, The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living, is either consciously or subconsciously modeled after Cicely Saunders’ and traditional Christianity’s teachings on the “four last things”—death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Byock is thoroughly familiar with just about everything Saunders did and taught, as well as the traditional approaches to death and dying within the religious traditions. He gives the patients and families his own version of “four last things” to contemplate.

While Byock recognizes that others may have faith, which he regards from his “lofty” secular and “objective,” “rational” viewpoint, his book presents a secular approach that omits any recognition or affirmation of God’s actual existence. Therefore, he can never sincerely entertain a discussion of death, judgment, heaven, or hell in the context of recognizing that God actually does exist.

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 of the symbols that enlighten the hospice, the glowing pictures of Professor Marian Bohusz [paintings displayed on the walls of St. Christopher’s Hospice], saying without words that Resurrection and new life can be true for us all. 


. . . 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. Most of the [National Health Service] and other units with no such foundation find that many of the people who are drawn to this work come because of a spiritual commitment. On the other hand, we are a Christian Foundation with people without such a commitment as important members of our team. 


. . . 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. 

Those meetings [with God’s Holy Spirit], faint and fragmentary as we so often make them by our self concern, have yet been enough to make us optimists about His work in the world today. 

. . . 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

Ron Panzer is the founder and president of Hospice Patients Alliance, a pro-life patient advocacy organization working to restore the culture of life within healthcare. Ron is the author of the Hospice Patients Alliance Family Guide to Hospice Care, Called to Serve, Stealth Euthanasia: Healthcare Tyranny in America, and Restoring the Culture of Life (The Ethics of Life in Healthcare and Society). He continues to work as a nurse with patients who are disabled, chronically-ill, or terminally-ill and their families. 

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at


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

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

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

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