Pray for me, just don’t tell me
All those prayers, and my cancer still spread. That’s my real objection
Until Monday of this week, I thought nothing worse could happen to me as I pad my way about my daily Hendon living than the nowfamiliar ritual of people appearing and saying: “What is your mother’s name, Dina?” That was before Monday.
Let me explain. They do this, these people, because they want to pray for my recovery from cancer, and the accepted format is to pray for the person’s health as the “daughter of so and so”.
What’s so bad about that, you’re asking. What’s wrong with folk wishing one well, and what’s more, being prepared to put the force of their prayers behind their wishes?
I’ve had two-and-a-half years to think about it now, to try and formulate the visceral fear and loathing that bubble up in my stomach (where I keep my emotional responses) whenever this encounter takes place, and I wrestle with it.
I wrestle with it particularly because it’s something I do myself; every Friday I stand before the beautiful old silver candlesticks my husband’s mother gave me, and I say a prayer for the kidnapped Israeli soldiers. I speak a formatted paragraph, a prayer that’s circulated round the Jewish world and lists the names of the soldiers missing since 1982 — Tzvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zachary Baumel; Ron Arad, missing since 1986; and Guy Hever, missing since 1997.
The names of Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev have not been added to the printed sheet of paper I keep near my candles, so I’ve written their names out on a separate note.
I think it is a good custom, this thing we Jews do, of praying for each other. I think that if one is in captivity, one of the things that might help mentally is the sense that your connection to the outside world is not broken, that people are remembering and fighting for your freedom. That is the point, really; it is not about God making miracles in response to humans praying, it’s about an action that means we out here don’t live comfortably while they are in prison. Speaking the names out loud, having to remember them, is more, somehow, than just nebulously thinking of “the kidnapped soldiers”. We are fickle, on the whole, humans, and we forget easily.
But there is a difference, it seems to me, between praying for men in captivity and people coming up to sick folk in the streets and offering to pray for them. For me, these encounters felt like black crows swooping. It began swiftly, long before I had come to terms with the fact that I was ill at all. Denial, maybe, but it’s my coping mechanism — I recommend it, in fact, refusing to believe anything was wrong with me. People gravely offering to pray for me filled me with fear, as if these were faces gathering around my open coffin and I was in there, quite live, looking up at them.
Every so often, studies are done either proving, or disproving, that those ill people who have been prayed for do better than the ones who have to get by on doctors alone. For every study that demonstrates some positive effect, another one proves the opposite. Of course. Which is why I was surprised when a cancer bigwig from Tulane said to me: “We will help you, but in the meantime keep up your positive approach.”
“Really,” I said, “you, a medical scientist, you’re telling me this? Being positive helps control cancer?” You know, you’re used to every man in the street saying it, but he’s the first doctor I’ve heard it from. “Oh yes,” he said, “we have studies that show patients who know they are being prayed for do better — and we assume it’s because it makes them feel positive, and that feeling is what is helping them.”
But people coming up to me and saying they’re praying for me makes me scared. Moreover, their prayers are just too much responsibility for me to bear. Whose fault is it going to be, I keep finding myself fretting, if the prayers don’t work? I know, they’re going to think it’s mine; it won’t be that their prayers were rubbish, or even, a little more sensibly, that God doesn’t intervene with the course of nature, which I thought was a tenet of Judaism. Oh no, it’s going to be that I wasn’t good enough to be saved. All those prayers, and my cancer still spread. And that’s my real objection to this whole business.
An objection that was formulated tangibly this Monday, when a woman said to me, “Dina, should we still be praying for you? Because some authorities say that when it isn’t working, one shouldn’t carry on with the praying.”