Sunday 7 March 2010

How does an atheist pray?

I attended my first church service in two months the other week. It was Ash Wednesday, and one of my favourite days of the church calendar.

It can't be surprising that of all the Church's holy days, Ash Wednesday would be the one that most resonates with the agnostic and the atheist. After all, "From dust you were made, and to dust you shall return," is pretty much all the agnostic can be sure of. To me, it's a call to live in the present.

There are many aspects of Christian teaching that I've learned to reinterpret, to reimagine for life in a secular age. But prayer - which the priest mentioned several times in the Ash Wednesday sermon - is something I have struggled with. I've tended to interpret it as a meditative exercise to focus us, rather an attempt to focus "God" on something we desire him to do. Since I'm not a supernaturalist, I honestly can't see the point of prayer if its purpose is to influence some external supernatural being. I can see the point, however, if its purpose is to hone our own awareness of the needs of others.

This is still insufficient, but during that Lenten service, I think I came nearer an answer. So there's a call to prayer. What do I do? I think the answer lies in a broader idea of intercession, of standing in the gap, of getting things done on behalf of others. It is the prayer of St Kevin, as imagined by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney in St Kevin and the Blackbird - "a prayer his body makes entirely."

Read St Kevin and the Blackbird here (with audio from the poet himself), or watch the video of Heaney reciting the poem below: