I realize that “thoughts and prayers” are being widely mocked as superficial and thoughtless. Prayer is far from useless, though. In a situation like last year, in which our best friend died of a brain tumor, losing her mind by inches, there was nothing empirical that we could have done. We could not have increased the efficacy of her treatment or the expertise of her doctors; we could not have altered the course of her cancer. It is in this kind of situation that prayer is useful because it goes beyond the usual channels of causation. Prayer addresses our Creator and asks Him to provide what we cannot supply ourselves.
Prayer requires focus and intention; it is not a little thought that from time to time surfaces in one of the eddies of the mind. Sustained prayer takes a while. On Yom Kippur, for just over a day, we do nothing but pray (except for the congregants gossiping and the kids running around in the synagogue courtyard); if we take the day seriously, we pray for our very lives. Now we feel it; our own lives may be forfeit in the coming year. Sholem Asch’s story of a fool/sage, “The Village Saint,” makes the stakes no lower; in the end, the fool/sage, who does not know how to read, communicates with God on Yom Kippur with a whistle, and it is enough to avert God’s severe decree.
But prayer does not substitute for action. You did not see the religious leaders of the SCLC, in the late 1960s, immure themselves in their churches and assume that their prayers would change everything around them. They had to go out, to march, to sit in, and to stand up. They had to stand up to the worst our society had to offer them, and they did so without regret. They likely did pray for their own lives and those of their congregants, but they went out and faced the policemen, dogs, and water cannons.
Most of the prayers I have made, either from the prayer book or my heart, have not been “successful.” It may have been due to my intention being less than complete, or to my having sinned in various ways and not taking care of that before my petition. It may have been due to hypocrisy on my part, or due to my having told someone of my intention to pray. And as for the greater problems that affect us in this country and this world, God may have already decreed that they take place. As the angel Gabriel says in the Martyrology on Yom Kippur, “You must accept this, my righteous, beloved ones, for I have heard from behind the heavenly screen that you have been ensnared.”
And yet still I persist — as some friends would say, holding an imaginary dialogue with a nonexistent old man with a white beard. The greatest effrontery of the “thoughts and prayers” locution is that prayer seldom takes place, even for a second. Perhaps if the “thoughts and prayers” people took ten or twenty minutes to pray from the heart, not to comfort themselves but to offer something up whose chances are unknown, the balance of our merits would change. Perhaps they would realize that it was still within their power to go out and change things and that the old man with the long, white beard was waiting for them.