And while Rogelio thanked his God, Xiomara was praying to hers (…) the one and only Paulina Rubio
(Jane the Virgin, Episode 9, Netflix)
My Catholic Italian grandmother used to light candles in the church for people. It was a kind and sweet gesture, we all agreed, but also a bit of an ongoing joke in my family: she would often do it before me and my cousins did school tests and exams, and they usually went bad. Lesson learned: God wants us to study, no shortcuts allowed.
However, I only came across the sentence “I’ll pray for you” or “Please pray for me” when I moved to the U.S. I assume that older people in Italy, like my grandmother, pray at the church to ask for something on behalf of other people, but it never occurred to me that it can be something so public. Once a waitress in a café in Italy heard I was sick with migraine and suggested I pray to make it go away and also prescribed an exorcism (possibly performed by Pope Francis), but I am quite sure this is not the norm.
When hearing the “I’ll pray for you” sentence, as a non-religious, unable-to-pray person, I was a bit perplexed about what should be said: shall I reply “Thank you”? Shall I lie and say “I’ll also pray for you”? Shall I smile and let an awkward silence dominate the conversation? Once a friend asked me to keep him and his family in my thoughts, as he knew I didn’t pray, and that sort of gave me an easy solution: I’m great at thinking about people! Also at hugging them (in non-Covid times) and calling them and sending them cards! All of this I can do, but the prayer part remained mysterious.
As I started to study religion, I read several works discussing religious practices, including prayers. The matter of prayers is also fascinating for studying digital religion, as the Internet creates new opportunities and challenges. For instance, news that Facebook was launching a prayer post and a prayer button soon captured my attention, as well as the controversies surrounding the authenticity and the business aspects of such tools. As my former colleague Tim Karis analyzed in an article, there are several smartphone apps for praying. Often, they are organized like social networks and they are not connected to a specific religion, but people can freely offer and request prayers. This makes me ask some questions: when people say they’ll pray for you, online or offline, do they actually do it? Do they expect you to reciprocate? How do they pray, at home or in a religious place?
Being a good scholar of digital media, I turned my questions to Twitter:
To my surprise, this tweet got a lot of attention. With 1.2K answers, is definitely one of my tweets that circulated the most (topping also tweets with pictures of my shoes or those where I complain about academia). Now, as a good researcher I know that these answers do not constitute a representative sample, as they are limited to people in my network or who saw the post through mutual connections. This is why I’m not writing an academic paper, but I still want to summarize here some of the main trends, because these answers really made me learn a lot. Here are some of the insights:
Some general impressions:
- Not all answers described particular religions, but the users who did usually self-identified as Christians or Jews.
- Some people said they were/would pray for me. I am touched, I am not sure if it is because I am destined to hell or because they are actually caring and nice people, but I’m touched.
- Some people reiterated that prayers work, and brought examples of situations where people were cured or saved by prayers. This is not my personal belief, but it is very interesting to see that for some prayers can have such a powerful meaning.
- For some, “I’ll pray for you” can be passive-aggressive, as can imply moral superiority or be sarcastic, but my understanding is that this depends on the context.
- Some people questioned the fact that I’m a non-religious person, or debated the importance of religion, or said religion is bad for society… these debates can easily occupy another blog post, but if you are interested you can have a look at my Twitter replies.
Then, I collected the main ideas of the people who said they usually engage in prayers, and here’s a summary:
- The majority of people said that they actually do pray for others when they say so. This was not completely surprising, as I assume the tweet attracted religious people who are into prayers. The reasoning was interesting: as prayers are important for them, they would not say “I’ll pray for you” unless the sentence is meaningful and true.
- Something that most users were vocal about, was the fact that praying is a private experience. So, even if they do pray for others when they promise so, they cannot guarantee everybody in their religious community does so. Which is interesting, because it seems that a very public claim is then connected to a very private practice.
- Some people admit that they easily forget the names of the people they want to pray for, so they stop and say a prayer immediately on the spot, under their breath or in their mind. In this case, praying is not associated with a specific place or pronouncing specific words out loud.
- Some users, for fear of forgetting to pray for the person, ask them to pray together. This is also interesting and I assume is done when the religious belonging of the other person is known (and definitely I am happy this never happened to me, as it would be awkward).
- In some other cases, people do not pray immediately and do not mention all the names of the people they want to pray for, but they say a general prayer for all of their friends who need it.
- In other cases, some people wrote that they have a notebook where they write the names of the people they intend to pray for, together with prayer intentions. Then, they pray at meals or for the evening prayers.
- Some churches and congregations have prayer lists or books and prayer requests where people put the names of those they want to pray for. In this way, it becomes a collective prayer instead of an individual practice. I also had people attach pictures of prayer books used in synagogues with black spaces for adding names to prayer lists.
- There are also some users who admitted they forget to pray or they say the sentence only a nice way to feel connected to people, which is how I sometimes understand the sentence, but they aren’t the majority.
Overall, the impression is that there are many different approaches to prayers, but in general people consider it genuine both if it is done mentally and on the spot, or if it is done “more officially” in a church with sounds and body postures, and within a community.
Not a lot of people mentioned media explicitly, but of course I looked for tweets that discussed digital religion:
- Some of the people who said they pray immediately as soon as they hear someone’s situation, do so also online. If they read a request for prayer on Twitter, for example, they stop their scrolling and say a prayer while they push “like”.
- Some pray for Twitter friends by the username or handle. One said it is a bit funny to pray, for example, for “HappyBunny123”…
- While some have paper lists of names of people they want to pray for, others use their phone.
- Some mentioned some apps, such as Day Audio Bible (which, I have to admit, I don’t know), as encouraging people to pray for each other.
From this small sample/experiment, it seems that some users do not see a huge difference between praying online, silently on a physical venue, or in a church. This is fascinating as it may explain the (potential) success of the Facebook prayer button or the prayer apps I mentioned before, as they are probably seen as genuine and authentic tools by some people.
What is sure, is that so much more research needs to be done on this topic. Please contact me if you have ideas, want to share your prayer practices, or have some reading recommendations.
I won’t pray for you, but I can mention you on my blog and be very grateful!