An Atheist’s Prayer

July 17, 2017
Praying hands
Photo: Celestine Vision

MDiv candidate and humanist chaplain Sally Fritche speaks about her experience praying with hospital patients. The homily below was delivered at Follen Community Church on July 9, 2017.

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I never intended to be an atheist. I never decided. Growing up Unitarian Universalist, I was encouraged to experiment with prayer, meditation, and spirituality of all stripes.

I went to church, to mass, to Hindu temple, to synagogue, and to my mid-Missouri town’s lone mosque. And ... I loved it. I loved religion wherever I found it. I coughed through the incense, fumbled the right-to-left prayer books, and soaked in the powerful peace that can happen when faith communities come together.

The problem was, when I looked honestly into my own heart, there just wasn’t any “religion” there, in the way I had been taught to think about it. When it comes down to it, I lack, quite simply and sincerely, any belief in God, an afterlife, or anything not earthly, observable. Not because I ever decided those other beliefs were wrong, or unreasonable, or even a bad fit for me, but simply because I don’t believe them.

I never intended to be an 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, beliefs that I find written into my very bones.

Given my non-belief, prayer has never meant a lot to me. Can an atheist pray? Or perhaps more importantly, why would an atheist want to? I don’t know how you would define “prayer,” but I think for most people it includes something like, “talking to God,” or some kind of communicating with the Holy outside of yourself. It’s a question not just for me, but for our entire, theologically diverse, faith community.

Can atheists pray?

When UU churches set time aside for prayer, there’s always that: “or meditation” included, because it’s pretty much understood that atheists, humanists, even agnostics, don’t go in for that “prayer” stuff.

And that's where I always saw myself. In "a time for prayer OR silent reflection,” I’m the silent reflection. And until recently I’ve never had to give much thought to the alternative—to prayer. It seems so obvious that an atheist does not pray, and like some of my fellow UUs, I take for granted the freedom to pick and choose my religious practice, so if something doesn’t fit with my particular theology, count me out.

Prayer, to me, brings up memories of sitting awkwardly at my childhood friend’s dinner table while the family says grace, not knowing the words, feeling like an outsider. Or prayers said at the top of public meetings, a reminder that non-Christians don’t really belong. Or the kind of frantic undirected prayers that come when we really want something. The “please, please, please let me find my wallet,” or “I promise I’ll never I’ll never eat pizza again if I can just have this one thing.”

These aren't prayers that are very meaningful to me. They feel like a kind of casually selfish bargaining, or just empty words without a lot of feeling connected. And when I came to terms with my lack of belief in God, I never felt like I was missing out on much by missing out on prayer.

Even the more thoughtful approaches to prayer haven’t gotten through to me. I read Anne Lamott’s book about the “three essential prayers” she thinks every person should learn. The prayers are simply, “help,” “thanks,” and “wow.” I loved the book, and I love the idea of cultivating a deeper practice of interdependence, gratitude, and awe.

But, with no God, what’s the difference between prayer and just reflecting on a concept in the privacy of your own head? And when I need help, or want to express gratitude, it would feel silly to turn to a listening ear I don’t believe actually exists. Why pray when no one’s there to hear me?

So prayer, I've gradually come to realize, just isn't for atheists like me. And that’s fine. There are other ways I connect to the sublime and the sacred, but without a belief in God, prayer can’t really be one of them.

Until Ernesto.

Ernesto isn’t his real name, for the sake of confidentiality, but this guy changed me. Meeting Ernesto was the beginning of a shift in my feelings on how an atheist might pray. We never actually spoke, me and Ernesto. In fact, when I met him, he was unconscious, with tubes and monitors cluttering his bed. When we met, Ernesto was dying.

It was one of my first shifts as a chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and a nurse called to say that a Catholic man was nearing the end of his life, and his family wanted someone to come say some prayers. I was the only chaplain on call, so I went.

The small hospital room was crowded with easily 15 people, Ernesto’s bed in the center. His wife was there, his children and cousins and brothers, his grandchildren. I was prepared to hold their sadness and anger, to offer support and affirmation of their grief. But I couldn’t imagine how I was going to pray.

I didn’t want to lie to these people.

They want me to talk to God for them, but won’t a prayer from me be empty? Won’t the words come out meaningless? Won’t it feel like a lie on my tongue? But a dozen pairs of teary eyes turned to me.

I invited everyone to gather close and reach out for each other, and together, we prayed the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and prayed for whatever comes next to come with peace and overwhelming love. And those prayers, those prayers were far from empty.

I came into the room wanting to help, and expecting to feel helpless. I came with skepticism, ready to say the words of Catholic prayers if they wanted them, but not expecting those words to come from my heart, or to become a truly spiritual experience. But joining my voice with the sobs of those at their father’s deathbed, and saying the words, “Our Father, who art in heaven ...” ... I didn’t have to believe we were talking to God to see something real in that. Those prayers were deeply healing, not just for the believers in the room, but for me, too.

So what, exactly, was happening when I prayed for Ernesto and his family?

This isn’t a conversion story about an atheist who sees the error of her ways and the power of the Lord. I wasn’t praying to any God, but I was praying. And there was something powerful happening in that room.

Something about the end of a life, the family's intense need, the connection formed when they reached for me, the chaplain, asking me to carry their sadness and their hopes, asking me to help them put it all into words and to tell their God what they need.

Ernesto and his family were the first people I prayed for in the hospital, but they were far from the last. In my work as a chaplain, I have become almost comfortable offering sincere prayers for peace, for healing, and for God’s presence in patients’ lives.

I had thought that my own theology would get between us and turn those prayers into lies. But when I open my mouth, the particulars of my own beliefs become enormously unimportant.

There are certain times, like giving a sermon for example, when telling my own story, speaking only from my own conviction, is the most important thing. But when I am praying for a patient in the hospital, it’s not about me. The prayer is theirs, and I am just the conduit for their deep need.

Abraham Joshua Heschel knew this. "The focus of prayer is not the self” he wrote. “It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns.” Their prayers flow between us in those terrible moments of loss and diagnosis and anxiety, and I speak them into the world. Not for God to hear, as far as I am concerned, but for us to hear.

I never thought I could truly pray, because there’s no one listening. But here, someone is listening. Those words of gratitude and love and hope are heard by those who most need to hear them. Heard by Ernesto, and his family, and by me. Those prayers are powerful, and those prayers were prayed by an atheist.

And I know it’s not the same! There are many who will see what I am calling “prayer” as a ridiculous heresy. And plenty of believers do pray in the sincere belief that God will reach down and alter the world in their favor. Not all prayer is the same. And I think that might be more true than I first realized. Not all prayer is the same.

The person who says, "I pray every day," versus the person who says, “my prayers are with you,” or the one who mouths along with memorized prayers in church—they all mean different things but they are all doing something slightly different. And Christian prayer is different from Muslim prayer, is different from Buddhist prayer, is different from Jewish prayer. And I hadn’t thought atheist prayer was a thing that could exist.

But this, speaking aloud the prayer of another and lending my voice and the strength of my heart to the belief of someone who needs to feel their God listening, this I can do. The prayer that I pray is an articulation of our connection, a deep investment in the lives and beliefs of fellow human beings.

Prayer cannot bring water to parched land, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.

I have brought you something. In the Brigham and Women’s Hospital chapel, patients and medical staff write prayers down on sticky notes and leave them to be prayed by hospital chaplains. I have brought some of these prayers with me today. In speaking to you, I have tried to convey how healing I find it to pray aloud the prayers of others. But I wanted to also give you the chance to experience directly what it feels like to pray, with your whole heart, as a vehicle for the words and beliefs of another.

It's been said, sometimes jokingly, that Unitarian Universalists are forever looking ahead in the hymnals as we sing, making sure there is nothing in the language we disagree with. And I am just as guilty as the next UU of this, and honestly will defend it most of the time.

But sometimes, being in community is more important than being in agreement. Some of the prayers I brought here are written in language you wouldn’t use or contain theologies you wouldn’t agree with. But let’s not be afraid of some change.

As the basket passes, please take one sticky note, and look at the prayer it contains.

The person who wrote this prayer, wrote it down and left it, because they are reaching out for support, for community. And today, this congregation has been entrusted with the hopes and the gratitude and the deep spiritual need in each of these prayers. We are going to read them, aloud, together. And in our overlapping voices, let us listen for the truth and the connection that makes itself heard.

First, silently read the prayer you have. Is there a name? A diagnosis? A plea for help, for strength? In a hospital, people pray with a vulnerable sincerity deserving of our unreserved reverence, our love. Know the person who wrote this, and hold them close to your heart as you take a breath. Then all as one we will speak our prayers aloud.

[Prayers]

Amen.

"Is not prayer a study of truth? A venture of the soul into the unfound infinite? No one ever prayed heartily without learning something.”

Emerson wasn’t wrong.

I still don't pray on my own, my spiritual practices don't involve talking when no one but me is there to hear. But I no longer run from prayer. I am learning something. Can an atheist pray, and why would she want to? After today, let the answers to these questions be a little less clear, and let us remember how it can feel to pray the prayers of others with our whole hearts, to stop TRYING, for half a breath, to make a prayer fit neatly into our theology, and just let it come. To open ourselves up to some change, to pray heartily, and to learn something.

Amen.

—Sally Fritche, MDiv ’18