“Is not prayer a study of truth? A venture of the soul into the unfound infinite? No one ever prayed heartily without learning something.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Prayer isn't for atheists like me—at least, that’s what I used to think. Until I prayed for Ernesto.
During one of my very first shifts training as a hospital chaplain, a nurse called to say that a Catholic man was nearing the end of his life, and his family wanted someone to say some prayers.
The small hospital room was crowded with Ernesto’s wife, his children and cousins and brothers, his grandchildren. I was prepared to hold their grief and anger, but I couldn’t imagine how I was going to pray. Won’t a prayer from me be empty?, I worried. Won’t the words come out meaningless? Won’t they feel like a lie on my tongue?
But a dozen pairs of teary eyes turned to me; what else could I do? I invited everyone to gather close. Together, we prayed the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and prayed that whatever came next would come with peace and overwhelming love. A powerful connection formed when that family reached for me, the chaplain, and asked me to put their sadness and their hopes into words, and to tell their God what they needed. Those prayers were far from empty.
I had assumed that my own theology would get between us and turn my prayers into lies. But ever since that night at Ernesto’s deathbed, I have surprised myself by offering many sincere prayers for healing, and for God’s presence in the lives of those who desperately need to feel it. Whether I believe in the existence of any divine ear listening to us simply isn’t the point, because when I open my mouth to pray on someone else’s behalf, the particulars of my own beliefs become enormously unimportant. When I’m praying for a congregant or a patient in the hospital, it’s not about me. The prayer is theirs, and I am just the conduit for their deep need. Every prayer, even an atheist’s prayer, is an articulation of connection, a willingness to invest ourselves deeply in the lives and beliefs of our fellow human beings.
I never intended to be a praying atheist, but here I am. My love of religion, my commitment to religious community, and my personal atheism exist side-by-side, deep and unforced. I still don't pray to any God as others might define it, but I no longer run from prayer. I am learning something.
May we release ourselves from the need to fit every truth neatly into our own language. May we occasionally forget ourselves long enough to remember each other.