All prayer is public prayer except that portion which we cannot prove exists.
It has taken me many years to humble my critical impulses and lower my head in sympathy with those engaged in public prayer. For about as long as I can remember, I refused to and would affix my eyes directly on the person praying as if they were revealing to me personally their most intimate and sincere thoughts. And so I have come to be something of a silent critic of prayer recognizing much in the ways and means people have when I have been present.
The most annoying thing about all public prayer is, of course, the demand by those attuned to the individual praying, that all other activity cease and that all focus and reverence be given to that individual - bolstered by the presumption that anyone not rapt is blasphemous. I tended to try and catch such roving eyes with my own - policing the head-bowing police as it were. I would match my righteousness against theirs anyday.
I must admit that I have never been the sort of Christian who spent much time or emotional investment in the power of prayer. The laying on of hands was always part and parcel of my early churchgoing and my skepticism was thorough. You would think that some of those bulldog faced church marms might bother to lay their own hands on their own ample chins and hips on occasion, but seemed month after month to remain unhealed.
In the end I find the epiphenomenon of prayer to be more socially significant than prayer itself. You might not get what you want from God, but Heaven help the bastards who spoil the moment of silence.
So it comes as no surprise that this is exactly what I have come to expect from those interminable discussions about the value of praying for the cancer-stricken Christopher Hitchens. It's all about the shushing noises associated with it, and whatever controversy can be ginned up by invoking the meaning and validity of prayer itself. It seems to me that if one honestly believed in prayer, then one would pray and leave it at that.
I myself have mentioned at least once, that from time to time, I will send a lightning burst of prayer to The Man Upstairs in a reverent blink of the eyes. He can of course, and without the necessity of employing encryption software, instantly verify my identity, spell and grammar check the content, and determine the true intent of what I am trying to communicate as well as why I bothered in the first place. All of the signifying I do with my hands and my head are not for the benefit of God but for the heathens and chalkline walkers around me.
But this is not prayer proper. Proper prayer invokes the spirit of Matthew 18:20. It means gripping hands in a circle and putting somebody on the spot to publicly assess and account for the emotional center of the group, and thereby dedicate whatever must come towards the greater glory and honor of His name. Prayer of this sort is instantly making church.
So I think those who have raised the question of prayer over the withering body of Christopher Hitchens are trying to erect a church and a congregation around him, one which some might hope he will soon lack the power to escape of his own volition. It is a cruel trick aimed at a man who is for the moment quite well enough to evade, and gracious enough to accept. How loud will such meta-prayer become before the righteous among us should start shushing back?
I approach this from a somewhat rude and flip angle, not because I don't respect giving thanks to God for the blessings of life or in meditative prayer. I respect proper church-making prayer as well, and am honored to take that role. People who know me, know that I know God has a sense of humor and that I invoke that in my prayerful contexts as well. But it is my character to ask rude questions of those who tend to believe they are unimpeachable. And I sense much of that arrogance in those who wish to incant their syllables in a backhanded fashion. The temptation towards triumphalism is great in those convinced that Hitchens and the rest of us are bound to meet God's judgment on terms not of our own choosing. And inherent in that prayer are such nags as we are all familiar. "Be with Christopher, O God, and strengthen him through your mercy as only you can, not these crackpot doctors. Show him who's boss, O God. Let him be as the theif at Jesus side and steal Heaven before it's too late."
There must certainly be a righteous and proper way to pray for Christopher Hitchen, as unfaithful to the meaning of his Christian name as he is. But that is not for our ears, is it? So who are we to say exactly if and how such a prayer must go?