I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” on one of my flights a few weeks ago. (It’s a wonderfully insightful and beautifully written book; I highly recommend it.) There’s a passage where the author, having recently developed a personal relationship with prayer and a self-styled spirituality, is describing an exchange with her pragmatic sister, Catherine.

A family in my sister’s neighborhood was recently stricken with a double tragedy when both the mother and her three-year-old son were diagnosed with cancer. When Catherine told me about this, I could only say, shocked, “Dear God, that family needs grace.” She replied firmly, “That family needs casseroles,” and then proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing the family dinner, in shifts, every single night, for an entire year. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this is grace.

Karsten and I got talking about my father’s death. My father was a popular man, loved by many in his town and with a wide circle of friends and family across the country. Many people were praying for him as he waged his fight with cancer. Some people would probably conclude that the prayers must not have been very effective since the cancer ultimately won. But even as a non-spiritual person, I think that’s an unfair characterization of the effects of that praying. I would never attempt to claim that there is no power in prayer. I just don’t think it’s the only vehicle for the conveyance of caring, and it’s loaded with religious affiliation, which has no appeal to me. But I have no trouble accepting the possibility, perhaps not as a direct result of prayer, but perhaps resulting indirectly from the quantities of people who simply told my father and the rest of his family that they were praying for him, that my father died with more awareness of how loved he was, and that we, his family, could accept his death with more comfort because we knew how loved he was.

Maybe you wouldn’t call that the power of prayer, per se. And I would agree that it’s something different, but I think — and this is a non-believer attempting to understand the minds of believers, so I may have it entirely wrong — but I think there’s something uniquely potent about prayer to a believer that is somehow not present in the offerings of “thoughts” or “good vibes” or “positive energy,” or any number of alternatives you or I might suggest.

That’s the struggle I have as a non-believer who wants to offer comfort to my loved ones. I wish I had something I could offer my cousin’s family as they’re dealing with my 17-year-old cousin battling lymphoma. I have told them I’m thinking about them, but I feel acutely that that’s not as powerful a statement as telling someone you’re praying for them. To my eyes, as a non-believer, that’s the power of prayer: a communication shortcut that says you want to intercede for someone; that you feel their situation merits grace, and you’re looking to powers bigger than yourself to provide it.

But without that communication shortcut, I guess I find myself in the role of the pragmatic sister, trying to think of when and how to make the proverbial (or literal) casseroles and hope that they are received as grace. (Here I should mention how humbling it is to have a sister who is both a praying person and a casserole maker in the most active sense — she was recently awarded Citizen of the Year in her hometown for her efforts in setting up a non-profit organization that helps the poor and needy in her otherwise well-to-do suburb. She’s a double-helping of grace.) What I lack in spirituality I make up for in plain old compassion, but how can I be of much practical use to a family hundreds of miles away? There’s a missing ingredient that could help bridge the distance, and to say “I’m thinking of you” sounds hollow.

I suppose it’s relevant in some way that I’m musing about this on Easter morning. I have no real ties to Easter: nothing about its religious implications carries weight with me, and the childhood chocolate-fest is behind me. Even the pagan traditions offer little to the pragmatic, so it’s simply a Sunday when more businesses are shuttered than usual. But there is something about the hope of renewal, the rituals of rebirth that carry through from the pagan to the Christian traditions, in welcoming spring and recognizing the cyclical nature of life — something about that does appeal to me. (Maybe it’s the gardener in me.) I know I’m looking for a chance to discover something in myself — some offering I can provide to those who need comfort that feels as powerful as prayer and does as much good as casseroles.

I don’t expect to find the answer today. But I’m asking the question, and questions are more important than answers.

Happy Easter, happy March equinox, happy Sunday, happy day. I’m thinking of you.

Grace or casseroles? A non-believer’s musings on prayer
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5 thoughts on “Grace or casseroles? A non-believer’s musings on prayer

  • March 24, 2008 at 8:15 am

    I got my sister that book for Christmas. I suppose I should read it myself sometime. I was wandering through Borders looking for inspiration and when I saw that book on display, there was like this whole weird moment of surreality — our grandmother (the one whose piano I inherited) was named Elizabeth Gilbert, and it was like in some weird way she was there in that moment, and that book and the author were some sort of temporal conduit.

    And I wasn’t even drinking 😉

  • March 24, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Oh, you definitely should read it. You’ll love it, I think. I’d be very interested to discuss it with you once you finish reading it (and, well, once I finish reading it — I’m only through with the first of three parts).

  • March 24, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Wow. What a powerful, beautifully written post.

    I will definitely be picking that book up, myself.

  • March 25, 2008 at 8:04 am

    It is a wonderful book and she is gifted in the way she describes herself and experiences. I loved the part in India best and her own calming experience. I also understand what you are struggling with. I lost both my parents over the Holidays, very old but just 13 days apart. I am an agnostic but was a peace with their leaving because my Dad was ready and my Mom wanted to be with my Dad and she believed in Heaven. So I would tell her to go on to him that he was finally learning to play golf, putting up her birdhouses, and digging up the garden for her. But there’s nothing fair about youth who have not lived their full lives being taken. When my sister-in-law died in her early forties leaving two young children, her resolution became that somehow we all have only a limited time here, we just don’t know how long since none of us get out of this thing alive. While I don’t pray to a God, I do meditate and send all the warm, positive energy I can to others. I think prayer is a kind of meditation too, of course. And try to be thankful for each day I can send love and good thoughts to others. Sorry for the long post and have a great Tuesday.

  • April 12, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I prayed for you today.


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