Suspended Like a Ragdoll in the Pitiless Sky: An Atheist’s Thoughts on Prayer

Wow. This has been a long hiatus; an unintended one to be sure.

Last week my father-in-law was rushed to the hospital with severe pain in his chest and difficulty breathing. Since then we have learned that he has lung cancer. I wish I had some better, more creative or lyrical way to say that, but I don’t. There is nothing lyrical about cancer.

I have been wracking my brain for something thought-provoking or insightful to write about this, something in keeping with my project of thinking and talking about the wonderful incongruities of being an atheist in church. I have no wisdom on this one. My family is scared and grief-stricken, looking ahead to a grim road of chemo and sickness and insurance rigamarole. Dad is in tremendous pain and his wife is terrified beyond imagining. My husband is striving to be a good son to his father and I am striving to be a good partner to him. We are a rickety arrangement of buttresses and lean-tos, one propping up another on shaky, treasonous ground.

But I will say that I have been profoundly moved by the love and support of our friends and community. Folks who pray have haltingly asked me if it would be alright for them to pray for us, for my husband and his father particularly. I find it to be one of the sweetest, most respectful questions I’ve ever been asked, although it’s entirely possible that a year ago I might have been merely pissed off by it. (I’m not proud of that, by the way.) It’s given me a bit of insight into what is commonly known as “the power of prayer”, something I have historically dismissed as some kind of shared delusion. And maybe I still think that, although I’m beginning to see that the delusion is a beautiful one, and the sharing of it is one of the most important things we do as human beings.

Allow me to explain.

I found out about Dad’s diagnosis over the phone as I boarded a plane to Portland. Truly some of the most unabashedly crappy timing in living memory. They had biopsied on Monday and we expected the results on Wednesday, the day I was scheduled to leave, and though I lobbied to jettison the trip and stay home to support my husband, he would have none of it and marched me to the airport personally. On the phone I was of no use to him whatsoever, irrationally shocked even though we all sort of knew this would be the result, my heart breaking for him too much to be able to think of anything even remotely comforting. As I took my seat and tried to settle myself with my book and my laptop and my crosswords and my sudoku (I travel like a toddler with ADHD – I need a lot of stimulus) I felt more helpless than I think I have ever felt in my life. It was so stupid, so stupid, that I was sitting here on this stupid plane going down this stupid runway and lifting into the stupid sky when the people I love were in so much pain. I kept having an urge to flag down a flight attendant and ask them to do something about it. “Um, yeah, so my father-in-law has cancer and I am stuck on this idiot sardine tin and this should totally not be happening. Could you, you know, fix that for me please?” In my helpless smallness, suspended like a ragdoll in the pitiless sky, my brain could not help but cast about for some authority that could just clear up this little misunderstanding for me. Dad could not possibly have cancer. I could not possibly be thousands of airborne miles away from my husband’s side. Somebody must be able to make this not be happening.

This was one of those moments when I am really bummed about the whole not-believing-in-a-higher-power thing.

I cried on and off the whole flight, and I will not even bother to speculate what the guy next to me thought was my problem. Possibly in-flight overstimulation from too many activities, who knows. When I got to my sister’s house and checked my email I found nearly 20 emails from Glide folks, most of them including this shy request to pray for me and my family. I know you don’t pray, many of them said, but if it’s ok with you I’d like to pray for you guys anyway. We’re sending love. We’re hoping for the best. We’re standing right behind you if you need to fall apart.

What I felt was an overwhelming tide of support and strength, just knowing that all these people – many of whom have never met my husband, let alone his dad – were thinking of us. Even people whom I’ve never met – Jenny Rain, whose blog ( I stumbled upon and who has been kind enough to start a conversation with this upstart atheist, gently asked my permission to pray for us out of her kindness and compassion. I do not know the content of their prayers or what it feels like for them to address their thoughts of us to a being in whom we do not believe. Frankly it did not matter to me. The fact that they were thinking of us at all gave me the wherewithall to pull myself together and be steady and supportive to my husband when we spoke on the phone. He, in turn, received from my words the wherewithall to pull himself together to be steady and supportive to his dad and stepmother. Our rickety buttressed lean-to suddenly had a whole lot more timber to it, and that in itself was a small miracle.

So prayer, as they say, works. I don’t agree that it works in the same sense that the folks who say “prayer works” think it does – Dad still has cancer, this terrible road still stretches before him and us, his family – but in the sense that it sends out ripples of intent and commitment, builds small fortresses of comfort and solidarity, adds a little oomph to the strained resources of folks facing hardship….. Yeah. It works.

My very deep and profound gratitude to all those who have lent their intent, comfort, solidarity and oomph to my family and me. And Dad, when you’re well enough to get to the computer and read this, you should know that there are a lot of people out there who are thinking of you with love and hope. No matter what happens, we’ll all be right by your side.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sharon on April 24, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I love reading your words. I feel like I get this special glimps into your heart and it leaves me feeling proud to call you friend.
    I don’t comment because usually I’m reading your blog at 4AM on my phone and just don’t feel like I can type what’s in my heart on a good day at the computer let alone at 4AM on my phone! Not to mention… Writting hasn’t ever been my thing. You have a way with words I wish I had. Give me a camera and then I can express to you my heart!
    My heart aches for yours… And I feel like I should confess… I’ve been praying too. =) I love you dearly!


    • thank you so much, lovey. and if it makes you feel any better, i can confidently call myself one of the worst photographers in the western hemisphere. your photographs are truly magnificent, and i can indeed see your heart in them. thank you for your thoughts. and by the way, i’ve been thinking about you lots lately too!


  2. […] exception is my wife. Gillian, who is an atheist like me. A year ago when she found herself in a dark place, she turned to […]


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