Not much given to surfing the net, I’m never surprised when I’m the last person on my block to get the news. More and more, however—perhaps as a result of age—I’m not “getting the news” in another sense. I’m not understanding it.
Two days ago when I was told that Christopher Hitchens has been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and that this has sparked a discussion about whether people ought to pray for him, my first reaction was a stupefying bewilderment. I can’t say that I’ve entirely recovered. I’m still not sure what I’m missing.
Presumably the question exists only for persons who believe in prayer, and more specifically in intercessory prayer. It cannot exist for the theologically “mature,” a crew beside which Christopher Hitchens has always looked good to me. For them, the Source of All Being is simply too set in Its Cosmic Ways to consider any gratuitous alterations or special pleading.
But as for the rank and file kneelers, why should it be a question to pray for a man stricken with disease? One would expect a prayer to leave the heart even before the question entered the head. One would expect the impulse to be almost as spontaneous, say, as logging onto the Internet. That’s what I intend to do as soon as I’ve formed some of my own thoughts on this. It’s possible I will discover that there is also a heated discussion on whether a person ought to form his or her own thoughts before logging onto the Internet, but I need to digest one controversy at a time.
My first thought here and the easiest to dispense with is that some might balk at praying for an outspoken atheist because “he doesn’t deserve it.” Neither did St. Francis, but his mother still prayed for him. If deserts are a prerequisite for prayer, then any question about prayer is moot.
Perhaps there is some question of whether to pray for Hitchens’s conversion, though I assume anyone so inclined has been doing so all along. What should a diagnosis of cancer have to do with it?
I imagine others will consider withholding their prayers out of an overdeveloped sense of respect. Hitchens would not want us to pray for him; therefore we should not. These are the same people who would hesitate to coax a despairing teenage girl in from an eight-story ledge for fear of disrespecting her decision. For such people the cardinal sin is not a lack of compassion but a want of tact. As they are likely to tell you, female genital mutilation is “a cultural thing”: what constitutes a screaming, bleeding, sexually tortured little girl for one person might not constitute a screaming, bleeding, sexually tortured little girl for somebody else. I believe Hitchens would say bollocks to that—one reason to at least hope for his recovery.
No doubt the people I’m referring to are generally very good people; I just have a hard time trusting them. I suspect they are hiding laziness under a blanket of good manners, mental laziness most of all, as if respecting an atheist’s right not to pray were identical with respecting his wish that others not pray for him. They are like a boy who loses his crush on a girl because she tells him not to like her. One hopes the young swain will eventually get over his infatuation, but if that’s all it takes to disentangle his heart, the girl is well rid of him.
In the end, the only sensible reason I can imagine for prayerful people not to pray for Christopher Hitchens is that, with so many others in need of prayer, they have to draw the line someplace. In other words, it’s not that Hitchens fails to make some grade; he simply fails to make the cut. There are too many queued up ahead of him.
For example, consider the people who will say, or at least inwardly believe, that Hitchens is being punished by God, who apparently hates him worse than Stalin or Attila the Hun. Aren’t those people in dire need of prayer? Never mind anything so relatively trivial as an esophagus; aren’t they in danger of losing their souls?
Or what of the people who will see Hitchens’s cancer as a spur to repentance and who will therefore need to hope, should the pundit prove especially recalcitrant, that he suffers for as long as it takes him to change his mind? Surely we must pray for their souls also, to say nothing of the intestinal fortitude of their guardian angels and patron saints.
And what if Hitchens does change his mind? He has not been afraid to change his mind about things before, pre-emptive war being one. What of those people who would view a sickbed retraction not as a triumph for Hitchens or for God but as a point scored for themselves? We were right, Hitch was wrong, and even if it turns out there is no God, at least we have that victory for consolation. Is there any person so pitiless as not to offer a prayer for someone so pathetic?
Then think of the doctors and nurses who will find that in the eyes of their friends and associates they have suddenly become better, more estimable doctors and nurses—not because they are more knowledgeable, skilled, or caring but because they are treating, OMG, a celebrity! Shouldn’t we pray for these doctors and nurses lest the Evil One tempt them to engage in all manner of despicable practices out of sheer contempt for patients more impressed by 15 minutes of fame or even 15 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List than by 15 years of arduous preparation in order to heal the sick?
That leads us to the subject of people in Haiti who also get cancer, and how many doctors and nurses they have at their disposal, but let’s not go there. And we probably won’t.
Instead, let us turn our thoughts to the poor hack writer who views another man’s sickness and suffering mainly as an opportunity to earn a few bucks and a few extra Google hits for himself, and who will in all likelihood spend more time tinkering with his hired sentences than praying for Hitchens or his own mother. Is there no one who will spare a word of intercession for me, or if you don’t go in for that sort of thing, perhaps a check or money-order made out to my name? I’ve just been quoted $425 to recondition our sorry bathtub, but you know as well as I that once the incidental charges get tacked on, we’re looking at five hundred minimum, and then there’s the matter of faucets and a new towel rack.
So many choices, so many needs, and a life cannot be given over entirely to prayer. Bed and Bath leave so little time for Beyond. Fortunately there is an ancient petition expansive enough to cover every case I’ve mentioned and brief enough for Tweeting: Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy.” Lord have mercy on us who wander like sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless, fleeced at every turn, bleating and blogging about the existence of God and the curse of the vuvuzela and the passion of Lindsay Lohan and the sweet Christ knows what else while children starve and are blown to pieces by bombs dropped in our name, while the skies and seas and the future itself are blighted by our waste, arrogance, and frivolity. Lord have mercy on us, because on top of all that, a man in the prime of his life and at the height of his powers and in the full confidence of having hit his stride can be slapped with something like cancer of the esophagus, as any of us might likewise be slapped with brain cancer, bone cancer, colon cancer, rendering us even more stupid, spineless, and full of crap than we already are, which is not fair, or if fair, not funny at all.
Lord have mercy. It covers a multitude of sins and an even greater multitude of creatures, including poor Christopher Hitchens, poor me, and—unless you happen to be a bodhisattva or one of the Lamed vov or the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world—poor you, and even then, poor you.