The oddity of prayer


On Oct. 12, 1985, a captain with the New York City Fire Dept. pushed two of his men out of the way as a burning ceiling fell from above. The man’s name was named James McDonnell. He was 46-years old, and he lived about a half-mile away from us in Mahopac, N.Y.

Mr. McDonnell (as I called him) was trapped beneath the ceiling, and suffered burns on 65 percent of his body. An ambulance rushed him to Cornell Medical Center, and our town waited and waited and waited to hear some news. I think we all sort of knew his odds weren’t great.

Roughly 24 hours after the accident, my family attended synagogue at the Chavurah Beth Chai. I vividly remember my father approaching the rabbi beforehand and asking him to please say a prayer for our neighbor. Of course, he did.

Two days later, Mr. McDonnell died.

Twenty-five years later, I find those horrible series of days entering my mind. As many of you know, yesterday I blogged about a Haitian man, Lionel Michaud, who lost his wife, his 10-month-old daughter and his home in the horrific earthquake that has decimated Port-au-Prince. The response to the post was overwhelming—the photograph of Lionel is absolutely heartbreaking, and people responded with grief, dismay, anger, etc.

A couple of replies, however, genuinely confused me. They were the ones that said, “I’ll pray for Lionel Michaud.”

If what I’m about to write comes across as callous, it means I’ve done a terrible job of conveying this thought. But, well, what is there to pray for? Lionel Michaud was a young man with, I’m guessing, a beautiful life. He was married, he had a young child, they lived together in a home. And now—nothing. Nada. Nil. His world has been taken from him, never to be returned. So (and I’m genuine in this question), what exactly do people think prayer will accomplish? Are you looking to give Lionel Michaud peace of mind? Hope? Or is the sentence “I’ll pray for him” merely an automatic response; something to say when there’s nothing otherwise appropriate to utter?

I have no doubt that the intentions behind the words are noble. But do you who say, “I’ll pray for him” honestly believe it’ll do some good? And, if the answer is YES, how exactly? His loved ones are dead—what good can there possibly be? Furthermore, if God listens to your prayers, what does that say about Him? He killed a man’s wife and kids, but—because someone thinks good thoughts—he’ll turn around and help a defeated man recover?

Back in 1985, my father surely realized Mr. McDonnell wasn’t going to survive. But he asked for a prayer because that’s what you do in times of grief.

But does it make sense? I’m not so sure.