One last item on the subject of praying for Christopher Hitchens, which I discussed here and a few days later here . The idea enraged some of our atheist readers and baffled even a few Christians. I bring it up again to pass on something sent me by our frequent contributor Father Edward Oakes. It’s an except from an interview with Hitchens from the Hugh Hewitt show. (The entire interview is enjoyable.)
HH: The number of people Im sure who are praying for you, including people who come up to me and ask me to tell you that, people like Joseph Timothy Cook, how are you responding to them, given your famous atheism?
CH: Well look, I mean, I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine. They dont do any good, but they dont necessarily do any harm. Its touching to be thought of in that way. It makes up for those who tell me that Ive got my just desserts. Its, Im afraid to say its almost as well-founded an idea. I mean, I dont, they dont know whether prayer will work, and they dont know whether Ive come by this because Im a sinner.
HH: Oh, I . . . has anyone actually said that to you?
CH: Yeah, oh yes.
HH : Oh, my gosh. Forgive them. Well . . .
CH: Well, I mean, I dont mind. It doesnt hurt me. But for the same reason, I wish it was more consoling. But I have to say theres some extremely nice people, including people known to you, have said that Im in their prayers, and I can only say that Im touched by the thought.
Among the comments on the first two posts, by the way, were some from Christians that criticized praying for Hitchens as an expression of “the celebrity culture,” and a kind of public pious showing off. This is a point to be considered, and one that’s bothered me in the past. It does seem both worldly and unjust to choose the famous for one’s prayers when so many others with whom you have a closer relation, like the old man at the other end of the pew on Sunday, need your prayers as well.
But beyond the obvious point that you can also pray for more people than you do, I think there are two reasons to pray for the Hitchens of the world, the first general, the second personal.
The first is that we are supposed to pray for the rulers of this world, and the liturgies of most churches include such prayers in the prayers of the people. These prayers speak solely of elected officials, but the principle can be extended to those who are rulers of a different sort: gifted writers who affect the culture for good and ill, for example.
The second and as a personal reason it certainly doesn’t apply to everyone is that we ought to pray for those for whose work or life we’re grateful because we have received something from them. It has nothing to do with their possible celebrity. Prayer is a natural expression of gratitude. I’ve been reading Hitchens’ work for years and benefited from it in several ways, ways that are distinct and more affecting than the effect of other writers I’ve read. Not to pray for him when he’s ill would be ungrateful.