Monday, December 31, 2012

When no one is looking?

Here is a short passage from Rachel Joyce's sweet little novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold, a retired, henpecked, sixty-something couch-potato, for a reason we need not describe, is walking, absurdly ill-equipped, 500 miles across England. Footsore, discouraged and forlorn, he steps into a cathedral: "When no one was looking, Harold slipped to his knees and asked for the safety of the people he had left behind, and those who were ahead. He asked for the will to keep going. He also apologized for not believing."

Whence this compulsion to address God for mercies even in our unbelief?

I am sure I am not the only professed agnostic who occasionally in moments of stress does not whisper to the empty sky, "Oh God, please let…"

This in spite of the fact that in 76 years on the planet I have never encountered other than anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of petitionary prayer. I know too that every empirical attempt to examine the efficacy of prayer has been negative. (I go into this in some detail in When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy.) There are few things I am more sure of than the fact that my pleas go unheard.

Is the tendency to address a transcendent power in moments of need a residue of a religious upbringing? Is it conditioned by our childhood dependence on a parent? Is it innate?

Is the tendency universal? Are there hard-nosed atheists among you who have never spontaneously addressed a plea for help to some transcendent and effectively personal spirit?

Harold is strengthened by his prayer, even in his unbelief. It is easy to assume an evolutionary origin for the feeling that we are not helpless and alone in the cosmos, more difficult to prove. So we soldier on, confident of our cosmic solitude, yet nevertheless desirous to be part of something bigger, something social and personal. With or without belief, we wish well for those we have left behind and those ahead, and hope for the will to keep going.

Happy New Year.