Finding comfort in not praying

I haven’t truly prayed in years, and today even when something bad happens, something that would send the faithful to their knees, it doesn’t occur to me to seek divine guidance or intervention. It isn’t that I don’t worry or don’t seek help and comfort from others, it’s that prayer no longer seems any more helpful than consulting a horoscope, or reading chicken entrails, or offering a burnt sacrifice, or any other ancient mystical means of dealing with life’s uncertainties.

As much as believers talk about prayer as submission to God’s will, prayer—at least prayer of supplication, which I think is the most common kind—is by its very nature an attempt to alter or control the course of events. You’re asking God to do something: cure someone’s illness, get you that job, preserve that marriage, elect that candidate. Even if you end with “but your will be done,” everyone but the strictest Calvinist is praying in the belief that there’s a God who allows himself to be influenced to some degree by human requests. Otherwise what’s the point of asking for anything? Continue reading

These people are going to lose everything, part 2

Two weeks ago I wrote about death and kindness. This week I want to focus on death and loss, and on making peace with it.

Unless you believe two things with absolute certainty, 1) There is a heaven, and 2) I am going there, you live with the idea that death is the end.

Maybe you don’t fully accept the idea. Maybe it’s only a possibility in your mind. But even if you have a faith, if you ever doubt it all—there’s death lurking inevitably in your future, and the chance that it will snuff out your existence like a candle. Continue reading

These people are going to lose everything

We do not know what awaits each of us after death, but we know that we will die. Clearly, it must be possible to live ethically—with a genuine concern for the happiness of other sentient beings—without presuming to know things about which we are patently ignorant. Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass on the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would anyone want to be anything but kind in the meantime?

Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004)

Think about that the next time you’re in a crowd. For every single person you see, young or old, there will be one death, one funeral, one grave or ash-filled urn. I work on a university campus where most of the people I pass on the street are young and healthy—and in this context the thought is jarring. Continue reading

Freedom and regret

“For we are free—free to suffer every anguish of deliberation, of decisions which must be made upon suspect information and half-knowledge, every anguish of hindsight and regret, of failure, shame and responsibility for all that we have brought upon ourselves and others: free to struggle, to starve, to demand from all one last, supreme effort to reach where we long to be and, once there, to conclude that it is not, after all, the right place.”

—Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs Continue reading

“I’ll Fly Away” and the prison of faith

I grew up at a time when church music was changing from traditional hymns and gospel to contemporary pop-style songs. One of the old songs I’ve heard countless times is “I’ll Fly Away,” which to me — years removed from church-going and religious belief — represents both what was good and what was bad about the Christian culture from which it emerged.

“I’ll Fly Away” is said to be the most recorded gospel song in history. One of the better-known recordings was made by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss for the motion picture soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).

Growing up with the song, I never really paid it close attention until I was older. It wasn’t a favorite of mine, just another old-timey hymn for old-timey people: Continue reading

The peace of wild things and the curse of imagination

I’m thinking tonight about a poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” He writes how “When despair for the world grows in me” he goes into nature, where “I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief.” Brilliant line. Taxing our lives with forethought of grief is exactly what we do. Why do we do this to ourselves? Because of imagination. Continue reading

An autumn walk in the woods: life, death, and kitschy art

leves on groundNature is life and death equally. What is living is dying, and what is dead becomes new life. Recently on a walk through some river-bottom woods I found the “dying” part on full display. Granted, falling leaves and brown grass represent plant dormancy, not death, but certainly there’s an element of death to it. The trees grow bright with dying foliage, and the ground is littered with the carcasses of the fallen. How’s that for a cheery autumn stroll? Continue reading