Why are so many people so reluctant to pray?
Geoffrey Kirk on ‘I’ll be thinking of you’
A friend of mine was recently in hospital for a potentially life threatening operation. She is a popular person with many friends both Christian and otherwise. In consequence her bed was surrounded by cards and messages expressing the hope of full recovery. They had, almost without exception. she remarked to me on the telephone after the operation (and when the hoped for recovery was well under way), one phrase in common: ‘I will be thinking of you’.
‘Just like the expression beloved of politicians in the aftermath of disaster, a rail collision or a terrorist attack: “Our thoughts are with the friends and loved ones of those who have died,”’ I suggested. ‘Precisely,’ said my friend, warming to the thread. ‘But what does it mean? What are they actually doing?’
I had to admit that it was difficult to say. What were all those authors of consolation actually thinking about.
Of course, in thinking of my friend (shall we call her Rachel?) they might well, according to their different relationships with her, have, been ‘thinking about’ very different things: childhood bucket and spade holidays in Mount’s Bay; carefree university days in a punt on the Cam; earnest participation in the mother and toddler’s group in the local parish hall. But for all recollections, the question would be the same. Why, even for Christians – and a large number of Rachel’s correspondents were Christians to some extent or other – was thought deemed an appropriate response to a life threatening condition?
It is true that loneliness adds an element of depression to physical suffering, and that we like to think that we are surrounded in such crises by a whole cohort of friends. But solidarity had been expressed by simple recourse to the stationer or the florist. Why could no one (or nearly no one) say that they were praying for her?
It is easy to see why British politicians (as distinct from their American counterparts) are sparing in their use of God language. It loses votes. But why cannot ordinary Christians, in the decent privacy of their own correspondence, give a clear assurance of their prayers?
There are a number of possible answers. The first and most obvious is that some at least, even though still nominally Christian, have ceased to have any faith in the efficacy of petitionary prayer. I suspect this is more common in our churches than many clergy would like to grant. How easily, in the wrong hands, the Prayer of the People at the Sunday Mass can degenerate into a pleas for human action rather than divine intervention.
The second, and perhaps more sinister, answer is a deep-seated fear of using any form of religious language. Like the politician who does not care to wear his faith on his sleeve, we have all, more or less, been intimidated into silence about the Faith. We don’t want to be seen to stand out from the secularist herd. Who wants to be seen to be saying grace in a Michelin-starred restaurant or the fish and chip shop?
The third answer is the cosy individualism which provides the cocoon in which most people now live. The problem with prayer is that it has, as its premise, human inefficacy. I commend Rachel to God because her life (and mine) is beyond my control. Under the surgeon’s knife, she is beyond my caring. But ‘I’ll be thinking of you’ – empathy replacing supplication – puts me back in the picture. I can feel good about things again. I am avoiding what my prayers will inevitably set before me: the existential awareness of my own mortality as well as hers. Like the man who drives a big car, but who is passionately concerned about global warming, I have set matters to rights.
The P-word, it seems, in a universe drained of the divine, is no longer available even to the most devout. But by failing to use it, with due discretion and heartfelt intention (Graham Leonard, I remember, used rightly to inveigh against the phrase ‘All that we can do is pray about it’), we deny to those we love and in whose lives we share, the richest gift we can give: fellowship in the saving grace of God.
The sobering fact is that people who cannot bring themselves to talk about prayer probably do not do very much of it. How many godparents pray regularly for their godchildren? How many parents hold their grown up children constantly in prayer? To replace prayer by mere sentiment (‘I’ll be thinking of you’) is to remove religion from the objective to the subjective sphere, from the public domain to the intensely private and personal. And that is contrary to the very nature and character of Christianity as a religion.
Christianity is based on the assertion of objective fact: the Incarnation was such that his glory was made manifest. Christianity is a religion of divine intervention which lives in the constant expectation of the miraculous. A religion which lives in a lesser expectation is not Christianity.
‘I am not myself a Christian,’ writes the feminist theologian Daphne Hampson, ‘because I do not believe that there could be this particularity. I do not believe, whatever I may mean by God, that it could be said of God that God was differently related to one age or people than God is related to all ages and people.’
It is hard to say how far that post-Christian perception has leaked into the common consciousness; but avoidance of the P-word is serious evidence more of a torrent than a leak.
And what did I do, you will naturally ask, when I heard of Rachel’s impending operation? I was in Singapore at the time, so I jumped on the underground railway and visited the Roman Catholic Cathedral to light a candle. Alas, since my last visit the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd had been modernized – purged of all objects of superstition, even the statue of the Good Shepherd himself. The prickets stands had been swept away and the sanctuary had all the marbled intimacy of the foyer of a grand hotel. Well, I did my best.