[My relevant background: I am non-religious. I generally describe my belief system as “apathetic” rather than “atheist”; I would not live my life any differently regardless of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities. I do not engage in any sort of spiritual or religious practice. I was, however, raised Catholic.]
I noticed a post floating around tumblr earlier this week, deriding specifically atheists who reject the offer of prayers from religious or spiritual people. The original post reads:
If you have suffered a tragedy and someone says, “you’re in my prayers” with sincerity, and you respond with some egotistical shit about being atheist you are an emotionally inept moron.
To which another user chimed in:
For real though, like think about it. If someone is religious, there’s really no kinder sentiment they can express than appealing to the highest power they know for your recovery. Whether or not you think it “works” is irrelevant— the kindness is absolutely real.
Recently, my mother’s mother passed away. I did not consider this a “tragedy”, though other people may disagree; she was 95 years old, in poor health, but had lived a long life that she considered to be successful. I mention this, however, because it is a situation in which “you’re in my prayers” is a common refrain.
When she died, I had returned the night before to my hometown to say goodbye (as I said, this was not unexpected), so I helped my mother with funeral preparations. The funeral was a week later (there are a number of legal hurdles for cremation in Wisconsin), and was in my grandmother’s Catholic church and involved a full Catholic Mass. I attended, I sang, I refrained from punching the priest when he started talking about abortion for no reason during the homily. And a number of people told me that my family and I were in their prayers. And I thanked them.
But the people I thanked profusely were the two women from my mother’s (not my grandmother’s) church, who came to the post-funeral dinner and collected people’s plates, made sure there was enough coffee, did the dishes, packed up the leftovers, and just quietly took as much of the administrative burden off the family as they could. I’m sure we were also in their prayers, but what they did was so much more meaningful than just “appealing to the highest power they know”.
It is far too easy to say “you’re in my prayers” or even “you’re in my thoughts” or “sending good intentions your way”, and to think your job is done. It’s also far too easy to take someone’s tragedy-amplified frustration and lack of grace in receiving your good intentions as justification to refrain from helping further. This is not okay.
Because I was raised Catholic rather than Protestant, I grew up with a strong emphasis placed on the importance of outwardly displaying your faith through works. Someone lost their house to a fire? Yes, pray for them, but get them some money or donate clothing or let them stay in your house. Someone is grieving a loved one? By all means pray for them, but bring them some food and make sure they have what they need to take care of themselves whilst grieving.
So the next time you’re in a situation where you want to offer someone your prayers – that’s fine. But take a minute before you tell them they’re in your prayers to think of something else, something mundane but concrete, that you can do to help them too. The problem is not that you’re offering your prayers. The problem is you think that’s enough.