There are many overlapping definitions of spirituality, spiritual care and the specialist work of pastoral care.

International consensus definition

“Spirituality is a dynamic and intrinsic aspect of humanity through which persons seek ultimate meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and experience relationship to self, family, others, community, society, nature, and the significant or sacred. Spirituality is expressed through beliefs, values, traditions, and practices”.

(Puchalski, C. M., Vitillo, R., Hull, S. K., & Reller, N. (2014). Improving the Spiritual Dimension of Whole Person Care: Reaching National and International Consensus. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 17(6), p646


Spirituality is the way we seek and express meaning and purpose; the way we experience our connection to the moment, self, others, our world and the significant or sacred.
(Adapted from California Lutheran Homes Centre for Spirituality and Ageing)

Spiritual Care

Spiritual care occurs in a compassionate relationship. It responds to our search for meaning, self-worth, and our need to express ourselves to a sensitive listener. It may include faith support, rites, rituals, prayer or sacrament.
(Adapted from NHS Scotland, 2009)

Pastoral Care

Pastoral care complements the care offered by other helping disciplines while paying particular attention to the spiritual. It is focussed on healing, guiding, compassionately supporting, nurturing, liberating and empowering of people. It is person centred and holistic.
(Adapted from Dr Bruce Rumbold)

Spirituality and Ageing

Spirituality is an essential dimension that brings meaning to life; it is deeply associated with relationship, transcendence and hope. Increased awareness of spirituality is often seen in later life, especially through transitions, issues of health, end of life, and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation.
(MacKinlay, 2014)

Spiritual tasks of ageing

Particular aspects of the spiritual dimension become more important for many older people. These aspects or tasks of ageing are: Finding final meanings in life (What has my life been for? Where do I find meaning now as I grow older?); learning to transcend the disabilities and losses often experienced; affirming relationships (old and new); finding hope in the face of physical and mental deterioration and frailty.

The goal of spiritual care of older people is to affirm the older person in their life journey, to strengthen resilience and support flourishing in whatever circumstances of life the person experiences.

Spirituality – Interwoven with all aspects of being

Spirituality, as connected to meaning, purpose and connectedness, is deeply interwoven with all of who we are. It permeates and is integrated with the physical, emotional, intellectual and social aspects of being and experience, and has expression in each of these domains.

For example, for some people, spirituality may be experienced or expressed in the:

  • Physical – in the posture or movement of prayer, the wakefulness of paying attention to the senses, or the act of being in service to others.
  • Emotional – in the cultivation of compassion, loving-kindness, generosity toward ourselves and others. It might in the experience of awe and wonder in response to a beautiful sunset. It might be in accepting all of the feeling states that move through.
  • Intellectual – in reading sacred or inspiring texts, or engaging in discussion with others. It might be in turning the mind to inquire what it means to be human.
  • Social – in gathering in ritual, ceremony, prayer, service, song or dance. It might be in starting a food tree for a sick friend, or in fundraising for a cause we know makes the world a better place.

The image below shows that spirituality is at the core of who we are, and also holds us. It is both inside and out. The aspects of self are all connected, and so the image blurs the lines between physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual. Spirituality, as white dots, extends out through all the layers. Spirituality is both in our personal practices, and in the communities that hold us.

‘Spirituality is an intra, inter and transpersonal experience that is shaped and directed by the experiences of individuals and the communities within which they live out their lives’ (Swinton 2001, p.34)

Swinton, J. (2001) Spirituality and Mental Healthcare. London: Jessica Kingsley