Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Let us pray

He who sings prays twice, so the saying goes. So it's appropriate that today's post, following my interview with the young chanteuse Emmie Beckitt, should be about prayer. Serious stuff, I know. But then, today is a serious day. Holocaust Memorial Day, to be precise. The day 71 years ago that the Auschwitz death camp was liberated by the Soviet army. So bear with me...

My musing on the subject began early - very early - this morning thanks to being woken by Charlie. He'd had a bad dream. Settling him, cuddling him and gently persuading him back to his own bed, I climbed back into mine certain I was unlikely to sleep. So, my nocturnal friend, the radio. (I have a pillow speaker, so as not to wake my wife) came to my rescue as I lay in the darkness.

Early on BBC Radio Four, following the Shipping Forecast, after an item rather misleadingly called News Briefing and the weather forecast and before Farming Today there is an anachronism known as Prayer for the Day. It's preceded (the prayer, that is) by a short sermon. Today it was about the holocaust - specifically, the liberation of Auschwitz.

In the course of Rabbi Julia Neuberger's two minutes on air she happened to mention that not only did the liberation free the Jewish inmates of that and all the other death camps but also a number of Allied POWs (as well as other opponents of the NAZI regime, of course).

This was the story: these POWs had been used as forced labour, but had secretly sabotaged the building project they were engaged in. A German engineer grew suspicious. The men were lined up against a wall to be immediately shot if tests confirmed that sabotage had, indeed, occurred.

As they waited, one man prayed. And at that moment, the air-raid siren sounded. Everyone fled to the shelters. A bomb fell, and fell (miraculously) on the very building project that was about result in the execution of the POWs.

It's a lovely story. Anything that provides a glimmer of light in the evil darkness of the death camps is to be welcomed, of course. But were the man's prayers really answered? If God exists, would he - could he - intervene to save a handful of POWs when the combined prayers of six-and-a-half million of His chosen people would appear to have been ignored?

The religious answer, the cop-out clause if you like, in cases such as this is that we can't know the mind of God, He moves in a mysterious way, etc. Which is a bit like saying you're right even when you're wrong. Or swearing black's white. Because it simply won't do.

I've thought about this a great deal, as an average agnostic with an interest in (and sympathy for) the spiritual and an unwillingness to close my mind to any of its many possibilities. I'm not certain (is anyone?) that God exists, let alone that prayer 'works' in the sense that it is heard and acted upon by this potential divinity.

My best guess is that - if God exists - then whatever He might do to intercede in world affairs is done through the actions of humans - each and every one of us - and not through divine intervention of the Almighty Hand variety, whether that's by dropping bombs on NAZI building projects or anything else.

This isn't because it's otherwise impossible to explain why God should intervene in certain circumstances and not in others. No. It's because, quite simply, an intervention of a supernatural nature would be the end of the world as we know it. Such things really are impossible. God either works within the laws of nature, within the limits of human imperfections and the gift of free will, or he doesn't bother. Try telling the mother of a dying child that 'God' has chosen to heal the warts on Mrs Herbert's hands instead - and I've been at a service where thanks were given for just such supposed divine interventions.

That doesn't mean, of course, that prayer is useless. As a meditation, as a way of engaging with our deepest thoughts and interrogating out own motives - mindfulness, maybe - it might be an extremely worthwhile activity.

I just can't quite accept that Arthur Dodds, as he stood with his back to the wall with his fellow POWs in 1943, waiting for the inevitable, suddenly happened to get through to The Almighty while the men, women and children across the camp whose bodies were being incinerated failed.

If I'm wrong, of course, then I'm with Job and Ivan Karamazov - the whole thing is an appalling travesty. No God can possibly allow such a thing.

But then, as Dostoevsky also said, if there is no God then everything is permitted.

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