When someone offers to say a prayer for us, can it be offensive? My religion-skeptic father is seriously ill. One of his friends prayed for him right there in the hospital room, while another said she would do so on her own. Ever unwilling to rock the boat, he consented, no doubt feeling that even though the notion of prayer went against his own convictions, his friends’ good intentions could do no harm.
Still, I ask myself whether such gestures can be more of an imposition than a kindness. I think back to my summer job in North Carolina, when my boss’s mother urged me to have faith in Christ so that I could be healed of blindness. I’m hardly alone in such encounters. Last month, Damon Rose, a blind BBC journalist who travels independently in London, posted an article that begins:
Like many disabled people, I am often approached by Christians who want to pray for me to be healed. While they may be well-intentioned, these encounters often leave me feeling judged as faulty and in need of repair.
For an independent person like Rose, blindness is a handicap akin to worry about a loved one’s safety or anxiety about how to afford next month’s rent. Indeed, being spared anxiety about family and finances might well be less of a handicap than blindness. To single out such a person for pity robs them of sometimes hard-earned dignity.
But toward the end, Rose’s article takes an ironic turn:
At the start of this article, I told you about a man who spoke to me on a packed London underground train. Normally when people offer to pray for me to be healed, I say ‘No’. But this man told me that he was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who had himself been healed by prayer. I got the sense that he really needed me to let him pray over me, so I said ‘Yes’ and let him lay his hands upon me.
I can’t claim to be cured of blindness as a result of his prayer, but I’ll never forget how happy and grateful he appeared to be.
Admittedly, there is a significant difference between offering prayers for a person with a disability and doing so for someone who is ill. A lasting disability requires adjustment; with time, the person’s sense of wholeness is likely to be restored. At the start of an illness, there has been no time to adjust. Even if an illness is prolonged, it can ebb and flow, and even change character. We seek moral support when we face any kind of new situations, such as a new job or relocation to a new city, and not just illness. In times of stressful uncertainty, prayer can be a welcome expression of support for a fellow religiously-minded person. But how about for someone who rejects religion?
Terminal illness is yet a third scenario. Approaching end-of-life can cause us to come to terms with all the practical and ethical loose ends of our lives. During this last reckoning, a religious person is likely to be guided by their own and their trusted ones’ prayers toward reconciliation with their creator.
Full-blown atheists likewise seek peace of mind and have concerns for those they will leave behind. However, the path to a quiet end might have fewer signposts.
Although prayers can be offered with mixed motives, like all our actions, they are usually made with a generosity of spirit. Even so, a religiously-minded person might give careful consideration before making an offer to pray for someone who doesn’t share their faith. It could be received as a lack of respect for the skeptic’s handling of anxiety and matters of conscience.
As an agnostic, I’ve often been moved by discussions about religious matters with people from a variety of faiths. I think my mother was similarly disposed. When she was dying, seventeen years ago, an Episcopalian priest stood by her, as well as our father and her two sons. He never imposed his beliefs on us, whatever they might have been, but his sensitivity and concern helped us through that agonizing time.
By contrast, the woman in North Carolina did offend me. Stuck that morning in her house, I was a captive audience to her claims for faith healing. The last thing a person with a disability needs is dubious claims for a cure, whether from religion or snake oil pills.
The friend who prayed for my father on her own, someone I like very much, also got his hearing aids fixed. As a result, he can hear what the doctors are telling him, which helps him to grapple with his illness on his own terms. Now that makes a difference.