Once more, I draw my inspiration from Free Inquiry, the magazine for atheists (even though I’m not an atheist). The June/July 2016 issue features two answers to the question “Would You Pray with a Dying Believer?” One atheist writer would; the other would not. I understand this is a little different for me as a believer, but I thought I’d take this on and we’ll address the nuances as we go.
As my regular readers know by now, my parents are Catholic. My mother has been remarkably flexible (she asked me to read to her from what I was reading the other day, and I said, “Mom, I was reading The Book of the Dead,” and she was okay with that, and found the passage beautiful); it’s my father who might pose a problem. We addressed this a little bit in my last post. This man would not only ask me to say Catholic prayers on his deathbed, he would ask me to reconvert to Catholicism. That, I could not do. But I could pray with him.
I think most Christians tend to freak out a little bit when I say that Aset (the Kemetic name for Isis) exists for me because they think that I am then also saying that their god does not exist. And that’s not what I’m saying. Remember, the ancient Egyptians were polytheists, and they added gods to their pantheon as they conquered new territories. According to Erik Hornung in the book “Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many,” a more accurate word to describe the belief of the ancient Egyptians is henotheism: you believe in your god or gods without disbelieving in the existence of other gods. Also, Hornung says that especially before the New Kingdom, the gods were not seen to have much power outside their own territories, and so when they traveled to Nubia, for instance, they prayed to Nubian gods. So I should have no problem praying to Jesus and Mary for my parents.
Except. Except that thing we talked about the last time, that no one in the Catholic “pantheon” (for lack of a better word) seems to want to have anything to do with me. But I guess that’s their problem, not mine. I’ll say the prayers with my loved one, and then it’s out of my hands, as with so many things in life. Anyway, it’s not about me at that point, as Matthew Facciani noted in Free Inquiry; it’s about my loved one, and wanting to comfort them as much as I can while they are dying.
What would you do in this situation? If your parents were of a different faith and they were on their deathbed and asked you to say the prayers of their faith with them, would you? Why or why not? Please leave your answers below.
5 thoughts on “Praying with a dying relative of a different faith”
I spent most of the past four years as the primary caregiver for an elderly relative who was a devout Catholic. I helped take him to his church each week, and sat through the Mass with him. I know part of the reason he insisted on attending was the hope his wayward family would see the error of their ways.
I understood that my function was like that of a chaplain. My role was to be of service; not to denigrate his religion, not to assert the supremacy of my own beliefs, not to try to change his mind. My confidence in my own path is such that I was able to offer comfort to him in ways he could accept. And again, our personal relationship was richer for the experience.
When his pastor came to the hospital to annoint him, I repeated the words of the prayers that were offered that day because I sincerely hoped his god would grant him comfort and assurance. When he was on the verge of losing his faith, I found an inspirational article on the subject on the internet, printed it in a font large enough and bold enough for him to read, and discussed it with him after he read it, because I truly hoped he would find peace in his heart. When he was hospitalized and couldn’t attend to his household shrine, I offered incense to his god, and spoke to Christ frankly, reminding him of his servant’s dedication and service over the years. I sensed that the offerings were received in the spirit in which they were offered.
I became aware that the god and I were engaging in a form of diplomacy. Christianity was my first Mystery religion, and I admit that much of the animosity I had been harboring over the years towards that religion was tempered by my kind intentions for my family member, so that I was able to present myself before the god with feelings of goodwill, and make offerings with a heart free of anger.
And while all this was going on, I continued to pray to my gods, asking them to bless his physicians and caregivers with wisdom, knowledge, skill, and compassion, and grant patience to my family member.
After his death, I arranged for the prayers and masses he’d requested. It didn’t matter that I don’t believe in the efficacy of those things; I had promised to do them. He received the funeral rites of his religion, and was interred in a Catholic cemetary, next to the remains of his wife. And I also addressed our ancestors, asking for them to welcome him to their company, wherever that might be.
I believe that the things that bring people together deserve more attention than the things that hold us apart. As a polytheist, there is nothing barring me from making prayers and offerings to a different god on the behalf of someone else, in helping that person find solace in his beliefs, in listening and offering emotional support, in reassuring someone that I support their religious choices – as I hope others will support mine.
I feel that what matters most, in the end, is being able to freely offer our presence, and to assure one another of our enduring power of love.
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My father is an atheist too, so I have no idea what he will want to say on his deathbed. My mother is a Presbyterian and I would pray with her if she asked me to. Whatever she wanted.
What I am more concerned about, actually, is having people look to me for comfort and nothing to say. Most of my friends aren’t very religious, and while I think that’s generally a good thing, secular words don’t necessarily come easily off the tongue; not as easily as a prayer memorized from childhood. I would say a prayer with someone of another faith if they asked me to. But they’d have to teach it to me.
When I was a Lutheran, 25+ years ago, I learned a little song/prayer, called “Prayer chant of Taizé”. It’s actually here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7s8lfRdz5U
There aren’t very many words, and the words that are there are kind of appalling for a non-Christian if you take them literally. But in my mind I don’t take any of it literally. I still find it uplifting and comforting. The remembrance and repetition of how I used to feel during that prayer chant takes me beyond the words.
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Shows there is a lot of good in all people 🙂
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This was a really interesting post and perspective. I’m Catholic, but my best friend identifies as neo-pagan. If he were to ask me to sit and pray with him, I don’t think I could really, honestly pray. I could put on show for his sake, but there would be nothing of value there for me. As far as if said friend were on his deathbed, I could still put on a show and do it for his sake, but it would be purely for his sake in seeking me pray. He would get none of those spiritual benefits (or whatever he sees the profit of prayers to be) from me because I do not believe in his faith. Interesting thoughts, thanks for the post!
as an atheist/agnostic, I would as you stated, comfort them in the hour of death. reciting a prayer with them, reading their holy text, etc. I hate to see people suffer, especially if it is someone near and dear to me. Though if they asked me to convert their to their particular faith then and their I would say that is something I can’t do but I can share the moment with them. thank you for your post.
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