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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. Al Pax

    Do not call yourself a Chaplain if you do not mention God.
    btw., There is no separation of church and state for the dying.

    The article is meaningless.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If you don't like the way she does her job, by all means, go do the job yourself, goober.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Stephen Tyler

      Why does she call herself a Chaplain? she went to divinity school? all for naught!

      January 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Idiot, she went to divinity school for an education. Why don't you try it sometime?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Naive

      What do they teach in divinity school?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Drawing on its historical strength in Christian studies and its significant resources in global religious studies, Harvard Divinity School educates scholars, teachers, ministers, and other professionals for leadership and service both nationally and internationally. To help in building a world in which people can live and work together across religious and cultural divides, we strive to be a primary resource in religious and theological studies for the academy, for religious communities, and in the public sphere.

      Guiding Principles
      Religious and theological studies depend on and reinforce each other;
      A principled approach to religious values and faith demands the intellectual rigor and openness of quality academic work;
      A well-educated student of religion must have a deep and broad understanding of more than a single religious tradition;
      Studying religion requires that one understand one's own historical context as well as that of those whom one studies;
      An exemplary scholarly and teaching community requires respect for and critical engagement with difference and diversity of all kinds.
      Goals
      To offer significant scholarly expertise in the Christian and other religious traditions;
      To offer, in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, world-class religious and theological studies for undergraduate, master's, and doctoral students;
      To help diverse communities address contemporary issues in the light of the best scholarship and through exemplary preparation of ministers and other religious leaders;
      To provide strong resources for studying religion with attentiveness to issues of diversity—in regard to gender, race, ethnicity, religious tradition, and class;
      To foster a strong sense of community among our faculty, students, alumni, and staff.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Stephen Tyler

      The irony of it all, all those years of religious study never put to good use. Sadly, wasted!

      January 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • okieatheart

      Would Jesus have written what you wrote? I don't see one bit of Christ in your words... anywhere.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:34 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Of course not. Why would "Jesus" be mentioned and not Buddha? Does it not occur to you that being a chaplain does not mean one is a Christian? Does it not occur to you that chaplains care for people of ALL religious backgrounds and beliefs?

      No, of course it doesn't. You think that everyone MUST be Christian to believe. Narrow-minded twits.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  2. Jonny

    Love is expressed in many ways, but almost never can religion understand it. Jesus Christ reportedly knew what love is, and I think Kerry Eagan does. Your story is lyrical and except for the god part comes so close to the truth, Kerry. Thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  3. Suzanne

    Wow, this was a great article. Thank you so much for writing it. I forwarded it to each of my adult children and my husband. My son received it this morning and said it made his day to wake up and read this. I'm so sorry that you have received some negative comments. It's unbelievable that people are so unforgiving. I've just decided that I'm going to call God "The Spirit". "God" sounds like a person and I'm not even going to get into the Jesus aspect. Amen and God bless you. Oh, may The Spirit bless you!

    January 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  4. LAJ

    I agree with Russ's posting. I have been in the field from a very different perspective, engaged, actively talking, opening to the dialogue the patient wants, and my experience is tdynamic and comforting to the patient and their family and friends. This article is a typical chaplain response and the video very telling. I challenge the status quo and state that this way is not enough for most thoughtful and caring people.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  5. JF

    My brother died in December after a year-long battle with cancer. We spent more time together in 2011 than in the past 20 years. Kerry Egan is a loving soul and is visiting the sick as Jesus commanded his followers to do. I too listened most of the time I spent with my brother in the past year, but I also shared the good news of the tremendous love Jesus has for him. I don't know if my brother came into a relationship with Jesus before his soul departed from his body, but I prayed for that constantly. If you only knew how much Jesus loves you. If you dare, read the book of John and ask Jesus if he is for real. Then prepare yourself – Jesus will respond to your question in a deeply personal and loving way. He'll change your life. Amen.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    God is the god of the living

    January 30, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  7. B. Greene

    Brava, Chaplain. Let the dying person talk about anything they want to talk about, or just sit with them. Being there for them is SHOWING love, not talking about it.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  8. Johnny Hurst

    Kerry Egan as a chaplain it is your duty to share the good news of Jesus. It was totally wrong for that man to call you out like that, he must have an issue with public humiliation. Kerry the thing is you have to ask yourself if you are a good shepherd or just a hireling? You see the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the hireling fleeth because he is a hireling and careth not for the sheep. You are bound to offend people and be rejected by the world, you may even commit social suicide by being a good shepherd, but if your not just a hireling you will do as Jesus commands.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • 13Directors

      wow, could not disagree more. that's not the Jesus I've come to know.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • AFMom

      She is right. If you are making yourself available for those who are about to leave this earth. Then you better offer them God's plan of salvation. If you don't ask them to pray the sinners prayer or ask if they are saved (and I don't mean go to church every Sunday, because believe me there are and will be A LOT of people who attended church sitting in hell.
      You have to be a Shepard and lead them to Christ.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • fernando

      yes, please preach them about jesus and tell them to convert or else as they lay exhaling their last breath. that is sure the human and godly way to do your job. Not.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • Bob

      Whenst thou readeth too abundantly from the bible, thou begineth to sound like Yoda speaking Jesus-bonics.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • Alan

      Johnny, AFMom.... I'll say this as simple as possible. You two are mentally sick, and devoid of a basic understanding of compassion. Jesus would not know either of you.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      AFMom, it's shepherd, you friggin moron. If you can't even spell it, you have no business attempting to tell someone else how to BE it.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  9. Jack

    Thank you for what you do :)

    January 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  10. Vince

    This is a great article. Thank you for writing such a powerful message!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Old Nick

      I agree. When my time comes, I hope the chaplain is one like Kerry.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  11. robert

    Brava, brava chaplain ...

    January 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  12. B-Squared

    Thank you, Kerry Egan, for what you do and for sharing it. Your service is truly invaluable.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  13. Diana

    God Bless you and what you do! This was a tremendous article. My opinion, if someone is dying they should talk about what they want to talk about. If they want to talk about the love or lack of love in their lives, then we should listen! Don't you think God does? The love they are about to go enter into will overshadow all on this earth!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  14. Dooney B.

    Beautiful article and full of wisdom. Thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  15. djol

    Yes we are about love – to love and be loved as in the greatest commandment – "To Love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, and soul" and then the 2nd greatest command is to "Love your neighbor as yourself". However – what the author wrote is "nice" but unless you have received Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior then it is all in vain – nothing else matters. You need to make that decision before you draw your last breath – do you want to be w/God in eternity or be separated from Him for eternity – the decision is ours not Gods. It is His desire that no one perish – but many could give a rip about where their eternity will be. God did not send a hundred Jesus' – He sent only ONE. Now what will you do with HIM?

    January 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Jesus

      "You need to make that decision before you draw your last breath – do you want to be w/God in eternity or be separated from Him for eternity – the decision is ours not Gods. I"

      God does not exist, neither does heaven or hell. Plus when given only those two choices that is not love, that is a tyrant. Burn in hell for all eternity if you don't love me, what a joke. Your god wiped out everyone on the planet but a few and you think your god is about love, what an idiot.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • joe p

      Don't worry you get a chance to accept or deny God to his face.

      Trust me, I have been their – but to my dismay it was not my time. To feel all of the worldly things like hunger, greed, jealously, etc. fall away from you to be left with only a feeling of love is truly an amazing experience.

      I speak from experience, you only speak from a book. Please quit leading people astray.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Ran

      @ djol – I totally, absolutely agree with you. I don't understand how as a chaplain the author will just listen to stories of love and family being told and retold by these people so near to death. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but the ultimate goal as you said is to lead them to Christ if they already have not been led. I thought that's what a chaplain was supposed to do. The author seems to be performing the duties of a psychiatrist or nurse. No! The main point is that these poeple know Christ and are assured eternal life in heaven with God the Father. We christians must also remember that just as there are rewards in heaven for those who have done the Lord's work, we will also be held responsible for poeple that have crossed our path and we have not told this good news to.
      @Jesus (don't know why you are using this as your online name) God is love. You and I are all sinners due to the sin commited by Adam and Eve who are the first man and woman. You can't deny this. And since God is a just God, more just then anything or anyone we know on this earth, He cannot just say I forgive you and let us be cleansed of our sins. That is why out of His great love for us, even you who deny him, He sent His only begotten and beloved Son to die a woeful, dreadful and shameful death. God the Father turned His face away from His Son when He suffered on the cross (which was the worst type of death, reserved for the worst sinners in those days), when Jesus carried the curse of all of mankinds sins (past, present and future) and wrath of God because of those sins. He did all this for you and me and the whole of mankind and asks you to accept and believe this so that you can live in eternity with him. If you reject this, you will go to hell because of your sins not because God is mean or cruel. It is because you will be judged according to your sins and since you don't have anything to show as payment for those sins, you will be judged to eternal death and suffering. My friend, God has done an act of great love by sending Jesus to save you and me, repent and accept Him into your life. By the way, denying this truth is NOT going to make it go away. So stop trying to judge God and just accept Him and His Son so that 'you and your household may be saved.'

      January 30, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • rick

      ran: no, the point is to listen, not use it as a time to shill for jesus

      January 30, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Bill

      djol
      Which do you believe in more? The ethics and compassion and example that Christ lived by and was killed for, or do you believe more in the dogma, and doctrines of your "faith"? I think a person who lives by the examples that Christ did, is far more important than organized religions demand that you "accept" him. I think that "acceptance" is something that comes between the person and their god, and that personal relationship that they have with that deity. as to the method of that acceptance, how, when and where it takes place, is something only the creator and that individual soul knows. And in my opinion, the church has no right to say otherwise. To condemn someone to everlasting hell, because they did not do as you, and your religion and your dogma and orthodoxy demand, and to be so self assured of your self righteous assertions, is galling to me. Perform the ritual, say the "magic words" as required by your church and all will be perfect...but oops, if you don't perform that ritual, all is lost. No matter how good of a person you were, no matter the kindness you bestowed unto others, no matter how or what you did for the least of these, none of that matters. That is a pretty shallow faith, to be, no matter how strong you profess it to be. You religious absolutists make me quite ill indeed.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Jesus

      "God is love"

      No it's not, it's a tyrant. It killed everyone but a few on the planet, then if you don't believe in it you are threatened with burning in hell for eternity. We all know how immoral and cruel Hitler was when he wanted to create the divine race and burned those that didn't agree with him. Hitler was a tyrant and so is your god. You allow your life to be ruled through fear – false evidence appearing real.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • sam

      Thanks for missing the point of the article and just using it as an excuse to preach. Jacka.ss.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      If I were lying in a bed dying, my family would be the thing I want to talk about, to make sure that I can make a stranger understand my love for them and hopefully keep them alive in one more person. If a chaplain started talking to me about accepting Jesus on my deathbed I'd send him/her out immediately. A persons deathbed is no place to push your beliefs. People are vulnerable before death and taking advantage of that is just plain wrong.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • 13Directors

      Nah, I disagree.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • Wendy

      When a person is lying on their deathbed, that is not the time to force them to talk about what YOU think is important. It is a time for them to express whatever they need to before leaving this world.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • marilynn

      Jesus.. i guess you thought your mom was an evil tyrant for not letting you play in the street when you were a child? now you know different and youd think youd do the same about god. God isnt the sunday school version of what you hate thats going to put you in hell. sorry, but you need to step up here..

      January 30, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Jesus

      "God isnt the sunday school version of what you hate thats going to put you in hell. sorry, but you need to step up here.."

      We all know how immoral and corrupt Hilter was for believing in a divine race, killing all that oppose him, killing those he thought were an abomination (gay people). The same can be said about your god, the problem is as the old saying goes, love is blind. Human beings need their invisible friend so they can cope with the reality of life on this planet. You're too blind to see the truth of what a tyrant and monster the god is you worship.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  16. Russ

    Kerry Egan said: "We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do."

    Here's one example of what's so wrong with this approach (from an old episode of ER on such "chaplains"):

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhxURmVl0lQ&w=640&h=390]

    January 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • LaLa

      Do you realize the fallacy of using a fictional TV show to prove your point about ... anything ?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Lala: I think you've failed to see the extreme irony of it. if even the writers of fictional TV shows can understand the shallowness of Egan's approach...

      The professor's point (which Egan still misses): she's not just there to listen. sure, listen. but don't stop there. that's not being a chaplain: she's there as a representative of the God who spoke – the God who became "the Word in the flesh." Jesus didn't just act in love, he spoke the truth in love. Even while he was dying on the cross.

      This is pop-psychology going under the guise of chaplaincy. She is not there just to listen. She is there to give the spiritual equivalent of the physical care the medical doctors are giving. Who goes to the hospital just have their doctor listen? No, you NEED to hear from your doctor & have him/her act on your behalf.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Since when do YOU define what it is to be a chaplain, Russ? Are you the head of the Chaplains' Union? You aren't the arbiter of what is right and wrong or about the job description. It isn't your call, much as you'd LOVE to exert control over every last inch of everyone else's life. Why don't you just go mind your own business? Did anyone ask you how to be a chaplain? Why would you think anyone cares about your opinion of a job you aren't even qualified to do?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Here's what wikipedia says about the definition of a 'chaplain'Traditionally, a chaplain is a minister in a specialized setting such as a priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam or lay representative of a religion attached to a secular insti tution such as a hospital, prison, military unit, police department, university, or private chapel. Though originally the word "chaplain" referred to representatives of the Christian faith,[1] it is now applied to men and women of other religions or philosophical traditions–such as in the case of the humanist chaplains serving with military forces in the Netherlands and Belgium.[2] In recent years many lay individuals have received professional training in chaplaincy and are now appointed as chaplains in schools, hospitals, universities, prisons and elsewhere to work alongside or instead of official members of the clergy

      January 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Tom Tom: you've made my case for me. What is the role of Christian clergy if not to point people to Christ – the living Word?

      January 31, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It isn't the role of a chaplain to promote Christianity. Do you even know the definition of "chaplain"? I doubt it. Look it up, Russ. You're ignorant.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Russ

      @ Tom Tom: actually, you've made several assumptions about me today that are mistaken. I am very aware of what a chaplain's role is, and – even in our own US armed forces – the role of a Christian chaplain is to do what any other Christian minister would do: give them Jesus.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No, in fact it isn't, Russ. You continue to assume facts you choose to acknowledge while ignoring those that don't suit you. There is no place in this chaplain's story that implies she is required to minister only to Christians or to promote only Christian beliefs.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Tom Tom: much to the contrary, she makes an overt reference to Christianity. "God is love" (1 Jn.4:8).

      Christianity is the only major religion which makes such a claim. Islam, Buddhism & Hinduism certainly do not believe that is how God/the supernatural defines himself/itself. While Biblical Judaism has many references to God's love (abounding in mercy), it is not the primary trait stressed in the practice of Judaism today. She is not required to minister to Christians only, but she certainly is appealing to a uniquely (among the world's major religions) Christian belief.

      As a Christian chaplain, the role of a chaplain is not to look inward for the definition of love or even to the human community, but to point to the One who defines Love. Look into it. Just ask an army chaplain. They are not only *allowed* to express their beliefs – it is encouraged.

      February 1, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  17. richard curtis

    I felt a great deal of empathy with the authors comments having spent two days in December with my Mother and two sisters as we gathered around my father at the hospital during his last hours. The description of fluid gurgling in their throats while reaching their hands out to things we cannot see was especially meaningful as Dad was engaged in a dialog with someone unseen for several hours before he passed. Nothing vocal although his lips were moving and his facial expressions were those of someone talking to a close friend. Just being there with him provided comfort which i think is the greatest gift a Chaplain can give. We hear so often that God is love but it is up to us here to express that love to others.
    d

    January 30, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  18. Anna

    This is well-written and thoughtful article. Best thing I've read all day. Thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  19. Tom Sej

    I really felt moved by this article. To ridicule is to hate. I feel we need to end all hate and all move toward peace. But we cannot find outer peace until we attain inner peace. I felt peace and love permeate this article and it gives me hope four our future on this planet. The old ways are dying and the new ways will take root and grow. Thanks for sharing a wonderful story – quite a difference from the horror and sensationalism of many other stories.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  20. joe p

    Wow, I have never read that part of the bible before. A lot of Republicans are going to have some explaining to do!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
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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.