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My Faith: What people talk about before they die
January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”

“Sometimes.”

“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  - I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death

soundoff (4,494 Responses)
  1. Ironhouse

    While on my death bed I hope I get someone that listens. If I get someone cramming belief on me as I die chances are I'm taking them with me.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • rick

      Good idea. See how the preacher deals with imminent death.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Reasoner

      sympathy – from syn + pathos – could be interpreted in this setting as "to suffer along with". So the shared death idea has merit.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Richard

      Rick:

      The problem with the author is that she DOESN'T deal with imminent death. She ignores it. She denies I did the same thing as she has done for a while and I saw it constantly in others.

      People ignore death, sometimes quite vigorously.
      It's actually a defined psychological stage – called denial. It's a clinical fact not opinion.
      Google the mental stages of dying if you don't believe me.

      This Egan person is incompetant in that she does not recognize the CLINICAL/scientific reasons why people dwell on their memories nor does she seek to help them to move onto the next mental level – and I'm not talking spiritually here. If the reader OR EGAN doesn't know what the next step is beyond 'denial', then I suggest you educate yourself on this as well.

      And there is yet another step beyond that – acceptance of Jesus as their personal saviour.
      Egan refuses to deal with that as well and that is exactly why I charge her with betraying her calling.

      A bartender knows what they are doing and why (as do those who come for a drink). Egan doesn't have a clue, which is why I recommend a change of employment for her.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • *facepalm*

      "It's actually a defined psychological stage – called denial."

      That you don't see that you also have this denial is quite comical. Your belief is just a mental crutch to deal with an experience your mind clearly can't handle.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • LinCA

      @Richard

      You said, "It's actually a defined psychological stage – called denial."
      And it is those that insist that there is anything after death that are the worst offenders. By far.

      The notion that there is some god waiting for you are you croak is beyond ridiculous. The entire concept of an afterlife is to allow the believers to deny that this one life is all there is.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Richard

      There is more to life than living and more to death than dying.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • LinCA

      @Richard

      You said, "There is more [...] to death than dying."
      There isn't a single shred of evidence even suggesting that to be the case. You are in denial. But, of course, to stop the denial, you'd have to shed the security blanket of your beliefs.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • rick

      Richard: The point I am making is that not everybody feels they need a savior, and no amount of preaching will get them to believe

      January 30, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  2. ricnaustin

    Thanks Kerry for the great words. I think spiritual leaders feel the obligation to ensure people are on the right "spiritual path" before moving to the next realm (whatever that might be based on personal beliefs or if there really is something beyond death).

    At least we know Kerry "forgave" her professor for his indescretions when he belittled her in the classroom. Hopefully by now (if he's still amongst the living) that he came to realize it's more important to listen than to prosletyze, you'd think.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  3. Fred

    When I read this, I couldn't help but consider the missed opportunities she had to deal with people about salvation. It's a standard question: are you saved? Do you know that you're on your way to heaven when you die? At least give them the
    chance to accept Jesus as their savior before it's too late.
    After all, even Darwin converted on his deathbed.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • AGuest9

      "Saved". LOL!

      January 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • rick

      Only slaves need to be saved

      January 30, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • George

      Exactly, Fred.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Richard

      Rick said, "only slaves need to be saved" and has hit the nail on the head quite squarely. The Bible says that we are all slaves to sin. Christ is the only way to be free of it. Therefore ALL need to be saved, ALL need Jesus.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • *facepalm*

      @Fred,

      Darwin was always a Christian. Not sure how to convert to something you already are. Typicaly fundie creationist myth – doesn't even make sense.

      If you were on your death bed, would you want some Hindu talking to you about Nirvana? People should mind their own business.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • kme

      I've never understood how the religious cannot see how profoundly wrong such a question is at such a time.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • rick

      Richard: Perhaps according to the bible, you are correct. However, many of us do not accept the bible as the Word Of God (TM). Accordingly, we can not (even if we wanted to) fear retaliation from a being in which we do not believe. What Bronze Age man thought of as "sinful" is quite different than what 21st century man does.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • rick

      kme: because they are arrogant people who feel they speak for god?

      January 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • ricnaustin

      Clearly I'm being berated for something none of you have personally experienced as a dying person. None of us know where I minds will be when were in our last hours. You can believe the right thing to do is to offer a dying person a chance at salvation, but you don't what's going on in the their minds:

      I have lost many very close loved ones who were very faithful to God, and when they were in the last hours, there was no need to ask them about God, Faith, Religion, Salvation; they already had that. They were in more of a hallucinic (?) phase and it was VERY important to let them speak as THEY wished.

      I stand for what I say. I think it's SAD to think you all make judgement on me. You do not know me and what my beliefs in the Higher Power are.

      Please, God knows what He's doing. Did it not occur to some of you, that maybe it was God sending verbal messages to family and friends about love, faith, spirituality, forgiveness?

      The ultimate respect is to let your dying loved ones to speak....

      January 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Alex

      Yes, I suppose even the most scientific of individuals rather be safe than sorry. However, hypocritical it might seem. The biggest of philosophical and theological questions such as life after death can only be answered with faith or educated speculation. With so many unanswered questions, it really all comes down to how well you live your life every single day. No matter which "way" you choose.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • SeanNJ

      I have no interest in spending eternity in your circle jerk of a paradise.

      "Blotted out" is perfectly good for me.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Observer

      I don't subscribe to it myself, but annihilationism may offer you some hope SeanNJ.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  4. U.S.Army-OverLord

    Well that was very good article, even most of the comments were good too. Must be 2012 ;)

    January 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  5. Richard

    So sad. All these years and the poor woman still DOESN'T GET IT. Even more, KERRY EGAN IS A THIEF.

    She has absolutely NO IDEA what spiritual faith is all about and she robs her flock of their chance to know it as well. She would be better off as a bartender than a chaplain. The neat thing about her position, though, is that she doesn't have to really know about anything spiritual to earn her pay check. I ought to know because I DID THE SAME THING. I know what I'm talking about and faith in God IS NOT THE SAME THING as turning the last pages in one's mental family scrapbook.

    MEMORIES ARE DEAD THINGS. GOD LIVES. And one who is about to enter His presence can have something to look forward to. Death need not be the end of living.

    Faithless Egan doesn't know it. She is a thief, robbing her flock of their last chance to taste of hope.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Ugh

      You are a sad, sad man.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • rick

      God lives only in the minds of those who accept "him"

      January 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Memories are at least not imaginary – they are complex relations formed by our neurons that record (accuracy aside) information.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Gina

      I think you missed the point of the article-LOVE

      January 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • thad

      Actually, I think you are the one who does not "get it". I agree completely that Death does not mean the end of livivg, But memories are not dead things, and this woman is loving these people and washing their feet, just as Jesus wash the feet of his disciples.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Richard

      Dear Facepalm:

      Memories die, along with the one who held them. The one who accepts Jesus as his or her saviour will survive the second death. Amen

      January 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Sandman

      I think she knows a lot more that you do. Sounds like you grew up in a church. You sucked down what they were telling you without thinking like my ex. When you live through someone else dying you might learn something. People want to talk about what they did in life and hope to be remembered. Most are not worried if the G-d they followed will accept them. My father of blessed memory never talked about that. He wanted his story to be remembered.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • *facepalm*

      "The one who accepts Jesus as his or her saviour will survive the second death."

      Whatever helps you deal with your fear and sleep better at night, I guess.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Fred

      I agree with Richard 100%.
      I just wish I'd thought of the analogy of the bartender. Some chaplain she is...
      All those untold missed opportunities she had to witness to the dying just before they
      pass away. You can't get those back, they are gone forever. The sad part is that
      there are people who will suffer because she chose to be a "bartender" and not a witness.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  6. Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer fucks up your knees and your back.
    Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
    Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer makes you crave the smell of kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
    Prayer wastes time.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Richard

      GOD ANSWERS PRAYER. GOD IS GOOD. THEREFORE ANSWERED PRAYER FROM GOD IS GOOD.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • AGuest9

      Yes, Richard, I see all the diseases your god never cures; the good men, women and children who died horrible deaths; the deformed infants who are born, then later die; and the people who suffer on the streets in the cold. I see ALL of the answers to your prayers.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer takes Richard away from actually working on real solutions to problems.
      Prayer wears out Richard's clothes prematurely.
      Richard contributes to global warming through excess posterior CO2 emissions.
      Prayer reveals how stupid Richard is to the world.
      Prayer exposes your backside to pervert Richard.
      Prayer prevents fat Richard from getting badly needed exercise.
      Prayer makes Richard hoard cats.
      Richard wastes time praying.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • chemicalbank

      Grow up

      January 30, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Richard

      Dear aguest9:
      Show me in the Bible where God promised to prevent all the troubles you mentioned. Show me where He said that men would never die. I can show you where He promised to be with us in times of trouble and I can show you the reasons why men torment one another...for much of what you complain about is caused by MAN, not God.

      And the Bible says that man does this because they prefer darkness, the opportunity to rob and cheat and hurt and lie to each other apart from God, apart from prayer and apart from caring even about their fellow man.

      Why is there evil? To allow people like you to live as they choose, apart from the grace and healing of God. If you prefer your dark corner then so be it. Know this, that God would not have it so.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • *facepalm*

      "Show me in the Bible where God promised to prevent all the troubles you mentioned."

      I realize that you can't think beyond the confines of your book, so while this is probably wasted bandwidth:

      An omnipotent, omnipotent god would not coexist with the Ebola virus. Your god is a walking, talking, infant murdering contradi.ction.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Jon-Jon

      YOU MUST BE SICK IN THE HEAD. I HOPE WHEN YOU DIE; YOU GO STRAIGHT TO HELL. YOU ARE REALLY EVIL !!! LET THAT BE A CURSE TO YOU !!! AND MAYBE YOU'LL THINK ABOUT GOD.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • *facepalm*

      " I HOPE WHEN YOU DIE; YOU GO STRAIGHT TO HELL."

      Spoken like a true christard.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Fred

      If that's the best you can do, then you have wasted your life.
      Check out a few of the studies that have been done on the effects of prayer. Educate yourself.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  7. Adam

    very wise and heartfelt essay

    January 30, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Richard

      The essay may be heartfelt, but it is not wise. If a man is dying of thirst in the desert, one does him no service by helping him to remember the taste of water. The wise man will actually GIVE HIM A DRINK.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Of course, a drink of water is an actual, tangible thing. Giving the dying man an imaginary drink of water because you think it is real doesn't really help anything at all except, perhaps, for your own ego.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  8. harsha

    God is a nebulous concept designed to help us understand events that are beyond our logical comprehension.
    Love is real and absolute. It is indeed, as the author says, the result of those around us. If either one give you peace, more power to you. The key is the fact that the author was listening to the patient and not telling them what to think or do. One does not need a lecture at the last moment of life on either the presence or absence of god or love unless one chooses so.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  9. Kelly

    This article made me weep a little. I am so emotional:) Good article.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  10. thedish

    rosebud

    January 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • AGuest9

      Rosebud was actually a bike stolen from the Osterhout Library in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  11. Jacques

    I'd +1 this if CNN would make that possible.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  12. Connie

    How lucky to figure the secret of life out so young. Great article. I am forwarding this article to my friends. Love of family and friends is all that really matters in the end.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  13. mike

    Great story loved it and little lady you are so much wiser that your teacher!

    January 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • watergirl

      I am not religious but I love this article. Family defines us.

      I hope you went back and set that professor straight.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  14. charliegirl

    In the hours before my grandmother's passing away I helped her to be comfortable in the hospital bed. All the family was there but had gone out to eat. I stayed with her. I will always appreciate that moment when it was just the two of us. She uttered mainly words of pain, as she was in a lot of pain. I then proceeded to wash her dentures, not sure why. Then she she pointed towards me and said my mother's name. My mother had passed away close to two yeas before grandma.
    Later that night as all the family gathered around her I sat by her in a small chair. She told me to lie besides her because she knows I am tired (I had driven 20 hours to get to her) but all I did was scoot closer in the chair, place her hand on my hand and then she said she was ready to rest.
    Close to 6am the following day she went to be with my mother and the Lord.
    Sometimes there are hardly any words, for the actions are felt throghout and that is where love is felt as well.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Richard

      I have known the passing of those who died in Christ and 'KNEW' they were safe in the master's arms. My spirit rejoiced. I have also know of those who died, whose destiny was unknown and who were apart from God eternally.

      The flames of hell are not crimson, orange and yellow, they are BLACK. I know this. The spirit of those who die without Christ is literally 'eaten'. There is not so much as the memory of what one was in that condition.

      There is more to life than living and more to death than dying. Christ is all and Jesus is the way to safety.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  15. Bill

    Wow... I believed your experience 100%. I see myself "on my death bed" treasuring/discussing my family and kids. Isn't God in all of us???

    January 30, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  16. sam

    nice

    January 30, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  17. Rainer Braendlein

    We can hardly grasp the full meaning of the word "death" (death is somewhat beyond reason), thus we should regard, what we can understand regarding the topic of death.

    Two things are clear and can be understood by everybody: Death can befall us every moment and we have to die anytime at any rate.

    Christians sometimes discuss about the time of Judgement Day. Let us just assume Judgement Day would come in 10000 years (in fact it may come sooner or later, I don't know it). Let's suppose that would be true, then one could say: "Why should I worry about a day, which is so far away in the future?"

    Of course, objectively seen, the day would be far in the future. It is only that after death we lose consciousness of time and assumed we would wake up again after 10000 real years minus our remaining lifetime, which would be still about 10000 years, we would feel that only a moment had gone by after we had died. Maybe we will think: "I just had a short snooze."

    Hence, subjectively seen, Judgement Day is not far away from us. Judgement Day is at hand. It can befall us even today (subjectively), when we would die today, although it may happen first in 10000 years.

    We should ask ourselves, if we can encounter our creator and if we can answer for our life before Him?

    As long as we live, we should accept the gospel of Jesus Christ:

    "Jesus Christ has borne our sins, when he died for us on the cross."

    If we believe that and get baptized into the Holy Trinity, we well get delivered and will become able to live a life, which pleases God.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Lengthy post by Rainer Braendlein contains a thinly veiled form of the flawed argument known as Pascal's Wager.

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/

      January 30, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @Fallacy Spotting 101

      I don't support Pascal's Wager. In my sight it is even foolish, if someone denies the existence of a creator. If somebody sees a car, he will not deny the existence of some workers and some engineers, which produced the car. Hence, when I regard the great creation, I cannot help to believe in someone, who created it.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Toby

      This post isnt actually A pascal wager. In fact, i dont see anything remotely similar to pascals wager in it.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Recent post by Rainer Braendlein is an instance of the Ad Ignorantiam fallacy.

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/

      January 30, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • A Little Help

      Rainer's argument is similar to William Paley's Divine Watchmaker argument.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      William Paley's Divine Watchmaker argument is a flawed argument that contains instances of the Ad Ignorantiam fallacy and other basic fallacies.

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/

      January 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Observer

      Discovery of instances of self-organizing complexity in mathematics and in the natural world lead to refutations of Paley's argument. I'm not sure anyone ever regarded the argument as fallacious.

      January 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  18. mike

    Ms Egan,
    You couldn't be more right on. If you changed every instance of the word 'love' in the story with 'God' or every 'God' mention with the word 'Love', it still works because it's all the same thing. Thats the one thing narrow minded views miss.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  19. Marla

    I wonder, when that professor is on his deathbed, if he will think back to that moment of mocking his student when he is talking to a chaplain about his family.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  20. cleshflesh

    more light

    January 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.