People have asked me to pray for them or for their loved ones all my adult life. I practice intercessory prayer very seriously, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering what I’m doing. Is intercession magical thinking? Does something actually change somewhere else when I pray? Doesn’t God know our needs before we ask? What’s the use of praying when I can’t actually go actively help?
I’m not a great fan of limericks. By a curious accident, however, we have on our living room wall an original autograph letter—itself a limerick, answering a request for a limerick—by one of the great limerick makers of the last century, the English priest and writer Ronald Knox:
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” The first words of English novelist Julian Barnes’s hauntingly beautiful memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, suggest that this is not going to be your typical atheist’s manifesto. There will be no shots across the bow à la Richard Dawkins, no overblown criticisms of religion’s deleterious influence à la Christopher Hitchens.
It’s the day after the election, and I am clicking around on one of the many interactive maps of the nation available on the Internet. I’ve found one that shows, in reds and blues, how every single county in the nation voted. You click on a state and the data for each county appear, down to the very last vote.
I did not own one for ages. The first reason was personal: driving the car was a kind of Sabbath for me, with nothing to do but listen to music and watch the scenery. Why muck that up with a ringing telephone? The second reason was ecological: if I detested the microwave towers that were springing up all over the countryside, then why participate in their proliferation?
Accumulation of wealth beyond meeting our basic needs doesn’t make us more content, studies show. Dr. Michael Finkelstein says that contentment takes practice. Think back on a time when you felt a sense of contentment, he says—it likely didn’t come from material possessions. “Our task is to simply discover where [contentment] resides” and focus on those times and places. It helps to “practice thinking, believing, and saying that you’re grateful and thankful for what you’ve been given” (excerpt from Slow Medicine: Hope and Healing for Chronic Illness in Utne, July).