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JONAH GOLDBERG: I just followed your link to the wonderful postings on prayer by so many different readers. They all go to show what a quite remarkable sophistication — in all its simplicity — is represented by such a wide cross-section of people. The power of religion in so many lives, and an examined and thoughtful religion, often tried under great sufferings and exquisite pressures, is wonderfully encouraging to witness. Thanks for bringing us this testimony, way back in 2003 — and I am very sorry I missed your contribution then.

Once in a university classroom, I told the class that it was time that they heard a lecture on prayer, since the term came up so often in many of our readings. I began to set out the many different types of prayer, the many different ways of praying. The difference between silent contemplative prayer and oral prayer. The difference between prayer alone and in secret, and prayer in community — either publicly or in silent, invisible communion. You could have heard a pin drop. No one even stirred for forty-five minutes. The attentiveness set off internal alarms in me, since I saw that I could say not a single false word or misstate even a fragment of what needed to be said. Everyone took each word with such seriousness, or seemed to.They had never heard anyone talk about this before, and it meant a great deal to them to have the discussion opened up.

Under pressure, practically everyone prays. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, he tried hard all his life to be a serious atheist, but even he felt himself breaking out in thanksgiving to God for certain beautiful days, certain stunning events. Of course, he then withdrew these “prayers,” but he quite recognized the naturalness of the impulse in himself. He wrote that being atheist is in practice much harder than many let on. One needs to stay on watch at every moment against little surrenders. The world so often seems “as if” there is a God.

If a committed atheist feels thus, what does one with a hard-won faith feel?


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