You hear bad news -- somebody is ill -- and you pray. That's what conservatives tend to do. We prayed for Tony Snow and for his family. We now pray for Robert Novak as he battles a brain tumor. We prayed for the family of the fair-minded Tim Russert. And the conservative blogosphere even prayed that Ted Kennedy not suffer when news of his own brain tumor first was released.
Tony Snow said that the prayers helped. He said (and I paraphrase from memory) there were times when he so strongly felt the prayers of so many people for him that he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. We all know, of course, that the prayers didn't keep Tony down here with us, but by his own account they made him feel almost infinitely better while he lived. Maybe that was enough: Perhaps the prayers for him to live were for our own sake as much as his, so we wouldn't lose him, but the prayers for him to feel better were the ones that were answered, in God's own unfathomable ways.
Most of us have known people, too, who swear, absolutely swear, that they are alive today after some dread illness only because the prayers of others got them through. But then we wonder about those like Snow who did not survive, and none of it makes sense. Do prayers work? How? Why? And when they don't seem to, at least not by our understanding, why not?
IT IS NO SECRET that many prominent conservative columnists are willing to openly bear witness to their faith. Snow was and Novak is a convert to Catholicism, each one with poignant spiritual tales to tell. Fred Barnes and Brit Hume are Anglicans who speak in public about a prayer group they regularly attend. William F. Buckley -- another terrible loss to conservative letters this year -- wrote a whole "autobiography of faith" book called Nearer, My God.
In this, these conservative writers are of course not alone. Even though one of the top news magazines -- I can't remember if it was Time or Newsweek -- once expressed bewilderment at the "surprising unsecularity of the American public" (note that by that construction, "secularity" is portrayed as the norm), praying nevertheless seems second nature to the vast majority of Americans. And they -- we -- don't just say it, we mean it. We pray regularly, we pray spontaneously, we pray quietly at our desks or in our cars, sometimes in mere ten-second snippets... but yes, we pray and pray and pray again.
And we do so even though we know that prayer doesn't necessarily bring comfort, or at least not "comfort" in the way the world usually understands it. Prayer does not bring comfort in the sense of ease or luxury or softness.
In a 2007 essay for Christianity Today, Snow wrote that "the life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies." He also wrote that "God relishes surprise. We want lives of simple, predictable ease -- smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see -- but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension -- and yet don't. By his love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise."
Note that Snow wrote not, as in the Christmas hymn, of "comfort and joy," but of "wisdom and joy" instead. Is it wisdom we pray for, or that we at least ought to pray for, rather than a particular result? And can wisdom -- so often acquired through occurrences we think of as sad -- truly be paired with joy? Do wisdom and joy actually go hand in hand?
Tony Snow was right: In prayer, they do belong together. In prayer, wisdom and joy are complementary. Or so the faithful believe. We believe it even as we suffer fate's slings and arrows, even as we stumble, even as we see good people like Snow taken too early from us. In prayer, we believe as Paul wrote in Romans that "suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us."
'TIS FAR EASIER to write it, though, than to live it. And even harder, at least at first, to live it in public.
"For a number of years I kept my faith as secret as possible," Fred Barnes told me Wednesday night. But, he said, after he asked a question about faith to Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale during the 1984 presidential campaign, other journalists turned the question on him. He gradually realized, he said, that "after a while you get comfortable with it. Not that you are trying to impose it on somebody else, but what good does it do if you hide it?... One of the things about faith is that you are recognizing something bigger than yourself. I can't do it alone, I need help. It helps you at least try to be not the modern, totally self-absorbed sort of person."
And, Barnes said, he does think "prayers are answered -- one way or another, even if you don't get the answer in a way you understand."
Our prayers for Tony Snow's survival clearly weren't answered in a way we understand. We hope our prayers for Bob Novak's recovery are answered in a way we can celebrate. We hope Novak can feel the way we pray for him. Either way, we pray. And maybe some little redemption, no matter how well disguised, will come of it.
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