Friday, June 6, 2008

Secular prayers

Reading Alain de Botton's somewhat silly piece on the desirability of creating a secular religion for atheists reminded me of a conversation E. and I had after I was diagnosed.

He told me, as many others had told me and as I myself had told many others, that he would be "thinking" about me constantly as I confronted this disease.

I was moved, of course, but it also occurred to me how feeble the verb "think" feels in a crisis, and we talked about that for a while. Yet for those of us who aren't sure about god, but are fairly certain that she is not an intercessionary deity (for if she were, why would she heal my tumor, yet afflict the poorest people on earth, or send a cyclone to Burma, or Mugabe to Zimbabwe?), these special "thoughts," these projections of empathy and sympathy and hope, are what we have: a secular form of prayer.

I am grateful for them, as I am for the religious prayers from people for whom praying comes more naturally.


I can't resist quoting a cancer survivor's diary here. Confronted with the horrific possibility of losing his stomach, he begins praying. At first, things don't go well:

Time, surely, to get my prayer on.

That turned out to be a lot like going to the kitchen and deciding to make palladium. I was pretty sure that I couldn't just start asking for stuff. I was pretty sure I didn't even believe in god. I looked up prayer in the dictionary. I looked up prayer in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Interesting, but I didn't feel down with submitting myself to the will of a being I probably didn't believe in.

Finally, I decided that I would just try to say things that were true. The main problem with even this strategy is that it's just about impossible not to be disingenuous when you think you might be talking to god. It's all about making a good impression, and it takes a while--I think it took me a good 30 or 45 minutes of trying to slyly bullshit god--to turn off the part of your brain that's always calculating, the part that makes you act humble to get more dessert, or less cancer, or whatever.

He finally came to a place where he could speak honestly, and it brought some comfort. I'm not quite there yet.

So to my friends who are currently grieving enormous loss, or struggling with deadly illness or temporary disappointment, I am thinking about you, imagining comfort and peace and sending out my secular prayers.

After all, as de Botton says, "God may be dead, but the bit of us that made God continues to stir."

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