How I lost my faith in prayer

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.



  1. “You are in our prayers. Sending light your way.” What meaningless jibber all of that is. Why not just go all the way and send a Hallmark Get Well Soon card? Or “Gear up for yet another valiant battle”?
    What is really needed for these occasions is some kind of sentiment along the lines of “I hope you remain comfortable in your remaining days.” Or “May you not be a burden on those around you.”

    But then I really can’t take the euphemism “passing away.”

    1. No, I don't think I could work as a copy writer at Hallmark either. Thanks for your comment.


  2. I can only give one example of not praying and I had a bad outcome. I was sleeping one off, about age 19, when God came to me in my sleep and asked me to pray for my Grandfather. I replied, " I don't need to, he is a holy man", and God replied, "Oh". I awoke to my brother shaking me awake and telling me that my Grandfather had passed in the night. I pray now but I try to keep it to the thanking him/her for my blessings .

    1. Norm: That's one powerful experience and I can see how it would have a lifelong effect on you. Thanking God or whomever for our good life, and trying to enjoy it to the fullest without bitterness or resentments, is a good way to go too. Thanks for your comment.


  3. Well, it's one thing to merely pray for the victims of the Nepalese earthquake, when cold, hard cash is what they need most. And quite another to pray for someone who is stricken by a fatal disease.

    I personally come to this debate from the position of someone who has been a resolute atheist until recent years. I still don't believe in the commonly-accepted, Christian God, who sits in heaven and surveys and possibly influences all action in the universe, punishing the evil and rewarding the good. To me, there is too much obvious, earthly contradiction to accept such a god, even with all the Christian circumlocutions of "free will" and lack of preordained destiny. However, (and I wrote of this in my blog post about Chicomóztoc and Jerez), I increasingly believe in karma and some higher cosmic force. I just feel like I've had *way* more than my personal quota of good luck for it to be simply happenstance. I don't pray, and I don't have any particularly good explanation for my viewpoint, aside from what I wrote. But the older I get, the more I come to accept the possibility of a beneficent god, whatever form he or she may take.

    But standard Christian prayer? It has always struck me as mere supplication. Go and build a church, help the poor, go out of your way for someone and then maybe, just maybe, god will hear you. But merely just asking? I wouldn't hold my breath.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where death awaits us, as it awaits us all.

    1. I've also dabbled with Buddhism and its so down-to-earth beliefs about trying to minimize suffering in our lives and others'. I do feel lucky, and guilty, too, about my good fortune. When I went to Cuba I met so many of my classmates who never left and have endured fifty years of socialist redemption, such as fighting in Angola, endless rationing and generally living in a society with some good points and accomplishments but ultimately going nowhere. Why was I the lucky one? As for cosmic forces, I've thought about that too, that perhaps there is a commonality to human beings that brings us together and should point us in the right direction, though we often don't pay attention. Keep thinking. We might figure something out... or change our minds.


  4. Al -- I do not find your comment the least bit cynical. You are expressing what all people of faith feel. Most of us do not say anything about it because we are afraid to be judged by our fellow believers of lacking faith. During the past few summers, our small congregation has wrestled with the same issues of prayer. We have cried. We have been angry. We have even laughed. What I have learned from the experience is that we will always be a bit confused by the overall picture of prayer. Too often we think of prayer as us telling God what He should be doing. When we discover in prayer that it is our lives that change.

    Your piece contains what I believe the answer to prayer to be. My favorite Moses story follows your theme. Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt right to the edge of the Red Sea. At that point, they turn around to see the entire Egyptian army pursuing them. The Israelites panicked, as would most of us. Moses starts praying to God. And what was God's response? "Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward." In other words, stop praying; do something about your situation.

    I am convinced that when we are moved to pray compassionately for someone, it is God's way of telling us to do something for that person -- to be the person who feeds the hungry and provides water for the thirsty. And that is exactly where your prayers have led you.

    Does that answer all of our questions about prayer -- or, for that matter, about the complexities of life? Hardly. But it does put the onus on us to be part of bringing God's kingdom to earth.

    Just so you know, the two of you are often in my prayers. And what do I pray for? That you continue to be the compassionate force you are in your community.

    Thank you very much for sharing.

    1. Thank you for a very kind and thoughtful remark.

      Compassion for other people might be the most understandable and effective for of prayer.

      In Alcoholic Anonymous, in which members are often calling on God to fix things, the most immediate and useful help often comes from others in the group, who as they say in AA, are people who share your "strength, faith and hope."

      As for fixing the last paragraph of your comment, there is no hope: I don't seem to be able to go in the text and fiddle with your prose.


  5. Thanks for writing about something I have long battled with. Prayer. To me it seems very self-centered to think that someone actually believes if HE or SHE prays for the right outcome of a ballgame or sporting event or whatever, that their prayers will be answered. It's ludicrous.
    In the 5 1/2 years that my daughter had leukemia, people would say that they were getting a prayer group together or something like that when what we really needed was blood, food and money to keep my daughter, her husband and their newborn baby alive. I gritted my teeth. Then the other phrase, "She is in a better place, after her death" caused me to have to go to bed and not talk to people for quite a long time...........Recently in Texas, everyone was praying for something, no matter how insignificant or significant. I left the state shaking my head in disbelief.

    1. "She is in a better place" is a particularly insensitive, though probably well intentioned remark that was supposed to comfort you. But think about it, what a nutty thing to say to someone who's just lost a child! The best place for that child would be here on earth next to you.

      Probably, "I'm sorry for your loss" would have worked far better."



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