Around 18 months ago my best friend died of cancer. He was early 40s, and left a wife and twins. Like me 'the son of a preacher man,' we'd collaborated together on projects exploring the outer edges of what our faith was becoming.
When I'd first met him we used to pray. Actually, I used to pray quite a bit. Brought up in a church family, a naturally dutiful child, a hard worker, I threw myself at it. A set time each day. Lists of friends to go through, world events, troubles that needed attention, longer meetings at church where, like warriors, battle was waged against evil, against sickness.
My friend's diagnosis wasn't what halted our prayers - piety had petered out for both of us some years before - but it did bring discussion of prayer into focus again. 'Praying for you!' people texted and tweeted at him - with very genuine intentions. He and I took the what gentle walks he could manage and talked it over - should we pray for a miracle?
'Pray for a prayer,' was how he put it, a wise and graceful man as ever. Yes, pray if you will, though he had no prayers himself. But, as his wife added dolefully, only pray once you've offered to help with the kids, made the effort to visit, or cooked a meal.
Oddly, it seems that the rise of social media has seen something of a resurgence of prayer. Whenever tragedy strikes, wherever suffering hits, hashtags spring up immediately: #PrayForThis and #PrayForThat. They throw up the same questions as with all 'clicktivism' - do they have any effect? Are they any more than a groundswell of loving support, akin to a group message that 'you are in our thoughts'?
I used to pray. But I also used to read. Actually, I used to read quite a bit. Brought up in a book-loving family, a naturally dutiful child, a hard worker, I threw myself at it. A set time each day...
The difference: I still read. A lot. In fact, I've been reflecting recently that reading has become a form of prayer, a form that pretends less, and - perhaps - achieves more.
Reading, just like prayer, is a deliberate act of focus, a form of meditation almost. It takes time. Not economically productive, it can be easily mocked as 'useless,' - and in the modern age it is hard to find space to get deep into it without being yanked away by the ping of notifications or other noises from the jungle of digital distractions.
Yes, like prayer, reading can be hard. But, most importantly, just like a prayer, the act of reading a novel, or a work of thoughtful non-fiction, is about sensitizing oneself to others and to the plight of the world outside of your everyday experience.
Studies show that this is the case: those who read literary fiction have more empathy than those who don't. Why? Because, as the leader of one project put it, 'in literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.' Films and video games don't work in the same way: the full visual experience lends itself to 'completing' characters, leaving little room for the imagination.
To read widely, and often, is thus to hope to be changed, to still believe that change is possible. It is never, ever a waste of time. Be it an essay or short story or novel or article, a good read never goes unanswered because a good read opens up a world that requires our attention. That might be the inner world of the self, it might be the domestic world of a family relationship, or it could be the plight of a whole people.
Whichever it is, the book refuses the easy rising of the prayer towards heaven, or the tweet into the oblivion of our timeline. It stays firmly, robustly on the table next to us, its urges remaining in heavy, unshifting ink. Where prayers tended to focus their energy on getting someone else to act, some other force to do the work for us, a book leaves us with no such easy option: we need to be the change we want to see. In this way, when the 'prayers' that emerge spontaneously from thoughtful reading go unanswered, it is not God who is at fault. It is me, my inaction alone.
In fact, this attitude of 'don't pray, act,' is entirely within the envelope of Christian theology, albeit a radical version. In this reading, with the death of Jesus we see the putting to death of all Gods, all grand hopes that someone else will sort things out. No, Jesus says towards the end of that fine and complex book that affected me greatly, you are the body of Christ now. If anything is going to get done, it's going to be up to you.
As I've explored in a short book, it turns out that 'the most godly thing we can do is to live as if god did not exist.'
The atheist philosopher Simon Critchley puts it another way in Infinitely Demanding: 'to be Christian does not mean subscribing to whatever variety of more or less obscure metaphysical beliefs in the incarnation, resurrection or whatever. It means rather that one's entire existence should be organised around the fact of the ethical demand enacted in the relation to the other person.'
Or, as Jesus himself put it in a story, the good people will say: 'when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
To which he replies: 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' Not #PrayForPrisoners or #FeedTheHungry. Simple, direct action, unconcerned with service of some God.
Some of my friends think I've lost my faith by giving up on prayer. I disagree. Yes, I now refuse the easy inaction of intercession - and there's nothing like cancer to bring that up short - but, through constant, deliberate, mindful reading I hope to be daily opening myself wider to being sensitive to the world around me, and allowing the words and stories of writers and protagonists from the furthest reaches of experience to both challenge me to act, and inspire me with hope that change remains possible.
In fact, what worries me far more than any erosion of the time people spend in prayer are the statistics about the chronic reduction in time people spend reading. Really reading, deeply and thoughtfully. Because without this, with only short bursts of tweets and YouTube, from which well will empathy and care be drawn from?