Of the power of prayer, atheists in foxholes, Paschal’s wager and aging cats

kitties on floor[1] (1)

Our kitties, Olaf daVinci, at left, and Champaign, right.

OK, let’s get this established right off the bat. I grew up believing in the scientific method, the same way other kids grew up believing in divine intervention, and intercessory petitionary prayer. My father worked with tree crop genetics, and I learned if something didn’t have empirical evidence to back it up, it didn’t count for much in the world of objective phenomena.

What’s more, I still feel that way. So what’s about to follow here should not be taken as one of those conversion stories — I once was lost, but now I’m found — but the last couple of weeks have me thinking about the power of prayer.

No grand narratives, though. I’d like to think I know enough to know what I don’t know, but the story goes like this.

It started a couple, three weeks ago when our 13-year-old Maine coon cat, Oley, was diagnosed with feline diabetes. (I never knew this, but apparently it’s like Type 2 diabetes in humans.) So we started him on medication, and we’re in the process of tweaking the amounts and type of medication, diet and the other factors you take into account to get the disease stabilized.

Then at the beginning of last week, we took our other cat, a domestic longhair named Champaign (long story on why it’s spelled that way), to the vet’s to get a couple of teeth pulled. He’s also 13, and his bloodwork came back showing the early stages of kidney failure. It looks like we can get his issues under control, too, but it came as a shock.

So Debi got on Facebook and posted, “PRAYERS APPRECIATED! We seem to have awakened in Kitty Hell … Every morning I’ve been praying, “DEAR GOD, I LOVE THESE LITTLE GUYS! DON’T MAKE THEM SUFFER!” She got back 21 comments almost immediately, offering prayers, healing thoughts, tips and good, specific accounts of how FB friends cared for pets with both conditions. In the meantime, Champaign seems to be adjusting to his new Renal Support catfood. And when we took Oley back to the vet’s Friday, we learned his blood sugar had dropped from 400 to 250. So Debi posted, Thanks to everyone for their prayers and encouraging responses to my previous FB status about our kitties. I’m feeling MUCH better now and MUCH less afraid. Thanks be to God.

I shared Debi’s posts to my timeline, along with a couple of my own that were much less articulate, and got back a like number of replies. Also offered up a prayer or two of my own. Which is something I don’t usually do, and that’s been one of the things I’ve been working on with my spiritual director. Why am I so resistant to praying outside of the liturgy? And what can I do to work through my resistance?

But here’s what got me thinking: I was praying about the cats. Not what I’d still consider a real prayer, with lots of thee’s and thy’s and thou art’s in Archbishop Cranmer’s language composed in 1549. More like Oh good Lord, help us! when I was on the run.

But I was praying. And, like Debi said, our prayers were answered. And those of our Facebook friends.

And it occurred to me later, I do more of that than I think I do. When I’m driving and an ambulance goes by running emergency traffic, or I see a helicopter heading down for a landing at St. John’s, about half the time I’ll just quickly make the sign of the cross and think, oh Lord, I hope they make it OK. Again, not what I think of as a real prayer that begins “O Lord we beseech Thee,” but …

OK, it was inarticulate, but I was praying.

At least I think I was.

Like the philosopher once said, “what do I know?” That was Michel de Montaigne, by the way. He was a 16th-century French skeptic I rediscovered lately. A recent biographer, Sarah Bakewell, says he “was a good Catholic” but, “He was also a man who doubted almost everything: the most influential sceptic of his day.” Now there’s a guy I want to get back to.

But in the meantime, “Que sais-je?” – “What do I know?”

Another guy I’ve discovered lately is Tzvi Gluckin, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who played punk rock, jazz, metal and blues before he moved to Israel and studied at the yeshiva Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. “He [also] composed a series of pieces for operatic soprano, alto saxophone, and rock trio, which received moderate airplay on Boston radio,” according to his bio in Wikipedia. He moved back to America in 2001 and now runs Vechulai, an “innovative Jewish think tank” in Boston. He has a book out that I’ve been studying. It’s titled Knee Deep in the Funk: Understanding the Connection Between Spirituality and Music, and in it he riffs on the old idea that there are no atheists in foxholes. “Of course you would pray,” he says. “You can’t do anything else. … You can only turn to God.”

Gluckin adds, taking dead aim on my tendency to intellectualize everything:

In a situation like that you don’t think. You don’t rationalize. You don’t remember your philosophy lecture from college. You don’t wonder about the existence of God or the effectiveness of prayer. You pray. And you beg God to save you.

Or save the poor guy in the ambulance. Or the helicopter flying in to the trauma center at St. John’s.

Or the cats.

“In times of trouble, crisis, fear, or desperation you naturally turn to prayer,” Gluckin adds:

You don’t make a pragmatic decision. You don’t think, “Well, just in case — you know on the off chance — that God really exists, I might as well pray. Just in case.” You don’t think like that in the heat of the moment. You don’t wax philosophical. You are too busy, distracted, devastated, upset, or out of your head to meditate on the possible existence of God. You cry out in prayer.

Glukin’s “rational decision” echoes something called Pascal’s wager — a rational formulation by 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal that we may as well bet on the existence of God, even if we have no empirical proof of it. As translated in Wikipedia, Pascal argued, “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

I’ve known about Pascal’s wager for a long time. (I used to teach a course called Western Civ as a grad student in history.) But I like Glukin’s approach better. It rings true in a way that Pascal doesn’t:

You pray when you are terrified — you don’t think about it — you do it. And that is because you believe in God. It is a belief that is ingrained in your psyche. It is deep. It is in you. You believe God will hear you and help. And that belief is so strong; prayer is a natural instinct in times of crisis. It doesn’t prove that God exists. But it proves something about you.

So my thinking has gone lately from the cats to French philosophers, and back to a punk rocker and jazz musician-turned-Orthodox-rabbi.

And, in the end, back to our ailing cats. Where it belongs.

[Edited March 16, 2020, after I learned the distinction between petitionary and intercessory prayer. — PE]

7 thoughts on “Of the power of prayer, atheists in foxholes, Paschal’s wager and aging cats”

  1. I too was a total rational intellectual. I had the misfortune of having a full blown mystical experience at 28 which threw me for a very real loop. It is impossible to use language to describe such an event. As Eliot has said, “words strain, crack and sometimes break under the burden.” But it started me on my years long trek from at best agnosticism, through Quakers, to the Catholic Church. As for prayer, I do it. I trust it without knowing the results.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the Quartets! I’m just starting to move away from the rational, intellectual side of things now, but I read a lot of Eliot when I was “working the steps” in a 12-step recovery program. I appreciate your interest in these posts of mine, BTW — it’s all pretty new to me, way out of my comfort zone.

      Liked by 2 people

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