The Power of Prayer in an Agnostic Life
It’s not about religion. It’s about being honest with yourself.
It was Christmas Eve, but it sure didn’t feel like it.
The previous Christmas Eve, I’d watched a midnight Mass outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I suppose it couldn’t get any more “Christmas” than that. But there had been snipers on the rooftops protecting us from an ISIS threat — their eerie silhouettes surrounding Jesus’ supposed birthplace (which I’d recently learned was up for debate). And even without that added touch, the truth was that the Palestinians just didn’t celebrate Christmas like we did at Gramps’ condo in Sacramento.
But I was back with my family for this Christmas. For all intents and purposes, everything was the same as it had been for the past 20 years. The highly anticipated steak and lobster dinner, the jazz crooners, the gilded jesters covering the sizable fake tree, and our polite and tedious present-opening beneath it — they all happened just as planned. Everyone involved, whom I’d missed last Christmas, was still alive and in relatively good health. Nothing had changed. But as I sat alone beside the tree in the fading afterglow of the evening, I realized that I had.
Christmas no longer held the magic of an infallible ritual. Whatever sensations and sentiments I’d associated with the holiday were illusions kept alive by my loved ones — and they were so very fallible, so very vulnerable.
Between the time I had finished my semester abroad and arrived at this Christmas Eve, I had spent a summer studying in Nice, France. That summer brimmed with good wine, freedom, and the tepid waters of the Mediterranean. But that summer was also when a homicidal ISIS recruit drove a truck through crowds of people on Bastille Day.
Eighty-six people died, and hundreds were injured. A classmate of mine — a handsome Berkeley student from Italy — had been left lying on the pavement for hours before his body was identified. It had rained that night, and an image of him crumpled and unclaimed wouldn’t leave my mind. It was blazing in my head when his parents flew out the next day to stand vigil with us, and I could scarcely stand it. A week later, at the top of a…