Over the past eighteen months, a random chain of events has effectively wiped out my faith in the power or even the sense of prayer.
Chief among these events was, ironically, our attendance at a newly organized church in San Miguel. Then came the death of a contemporary named Louie, whom we knew only briefly but came to really like, with the warmth normally reserved for a long-time friend, and sharing the grieving on the part of Louie's relatives and friends. The final blow was the sight of Stephen Hawking, as played by Eddie Redmayne in a recent movie, grotesquely contorted in his state-of-the-art wheel chair.
About a year ago Stew and I began attending a simple church service, that included a ritual called "Joys and Concerns," during which attendees were prompted to deposit flower petals in a chalice, and share some joyful or sorrowful event occurring in their lives.
Sorrowful news, usually related to someone's health problems, inevitably dominated this exercise, and also the weekly prayer lists in the church bulletin. No surprise: this congregation is well past the Medicare enrollment age and we're are all falling apart, sooner or later, one way or another. News of someone's decline, and death, is not really news.
Let us pray. But for what and to whom?
Enter Louie, a bald-headed Brit, retired rear admiral with the Royal Navy, tall, rugged-looking, whose joyful personality and stentorian voice dominated the conversation. Stew and I met Louie only a few times but really got to like him perhaps because, in addition to his winning ways, he was in his late sixties, more or less our own age.
Louie was a tennis player, and during a game, he fell and banged his head on the court. When doctors checked him, they found a brain tumor that, in about a year or so, killed him, despite the best medical care in the world.
Let's pray for Louie, and I did, until I began to wonder what I was praying for.
That Louie would be miraculously cured against all odds? That God shower his mercy on Louie and spare him, over hundreds of thousands of similarly afflicted human beings, most of them with nowhere near the quality of medical care Louie received in London?
I decided that I could hope for Louie's recovery but hardly pretend to manipulate the outcome by praying.
This was the time, too, where researchers discovered that most cancers and tumors, likely including the one that killed Louie, are the result of "random genetic mutations."
In other words, while it is a good idea to try to fend off lung cancer by quitting smoking or undergoing preventive screening for some treatable cancers, in the end, shit happens.
It happens to good guys like Louie, and to Ned, another friend, both of whom died prematurely from cancers and tumors, and for no logical reason I can think of.
Let us pray, but again, for what? Is that all we can do?
Indeed, while Louie and Ned were dying I became seriously allergic to the hackneyed and insufferably sanctimonious phrase, "I'll pray for him (or her)," so commonly bandied around in churches, primarily because folks, really, don't know what else to say or do in the face of tragedy.
Yet Stew and I developed our own response, a very undramatic routine of regularly checking on the grieving relatives; maybe offering to bring them a bucket of take-out food (from the one awful Chinese restaurant in town); inviting them to go out to some restaurant or event, and other modest efforts to try and break through the fog of grief that choked our friends' lives at the time.
We didn't effect any miracles. Our friends died. The survivors cried, and we hugged them. We attended memorials. Life moved on. That's all we could do.
Last year I was also struck by the irony of Stephen Hawking's brilliance and his lifelong battle with Motor Neuron Disease, which normally kills people a few years after diagnosis. Fifty years or so after his diagnosis, Hawking keeps going, his brilliant mind racing through theories most people cannot fathom, while his body remain a crumpled heap.
Did someone pray for Hawking to stay alive? Did he pray for his own survival? The answer to the second question I suspect is a definite "no," given that he is a devout atheist.
Why does he remain alive while people with similar diseases almost invariably die? Who knows?
If anything Hawking's work in cosmology, and the origins and vastness of the universe, confirms in my mind our individual and collective insignificance, which makes prayer and the belief that a god will intervene in our personal tragedies, if only we would fervently pray for it, an arrogant delusion.
To some people, my cynicism no doubt complicates the grieving process immesurably; it removes the usual crutches of prayer and unfounded hope, including the big one, about the existence of a Heaven to which we will go, when all else fails, which, trust me, it will.
But rather than despair may we concentrate our attention on each other, the ones still around, and extend our love and interest in them, during their periods of concern—and also joy.
Meanwhile, skip the chalice and the flowers.