i read this piece on the daily dish and the full article it links to with interest...
here's my own response:
"They kept a vigil day after day, but all their prayers could not save him."
i take that to be a turn of phrase, not a theological statement. i doubt such an expression intended (in the context it was originally expressed) to define the point of prayer or tell us anything definitive about the existence of a deity beyond. it speaks to the helplessness and the fervent desire for life, as held the people gathered. to use that as an argument against prayer seems not only rationalist but a little callous to their hope, love and then pain in losing a colleague and friend.
i can't speak for the beliefs of the people involved but i think Heather MacDonald perhaps misses the point...
prayer might be seen, as Walter Brueggemann says of Psalmic prayer, "the speech of extremity" . it is uttered toward something (that is more like nothing) beyond us.
i was reminded of that, "speech of extremity" as i have read various perspectives on the layered meaning in the cries of "Allah O Akbar!" from Iranian rooftops.
we might be better then understanding prayer as an instinct to cry out to something beyond oneself. prayer is not a rational or reasonable proof of the existence of a deity, but it remains an authentic human expression - a desire, hope, plea. perhaps of a deep hope that the future might be different than what we expect, especially when we feel on a rooftop or in a hospital waiting room, a natural feeling of helplessness or desperation.
it makes me think of two expressions, neither of which i know the source:
"Pray like the solution is all in God's hands. Act like it's all in your hands."
"We don't understand so we can believe. We believe so as to understand." in that light, i totally accept and understand the vigil and the statement, "their prayers could not save him."
i would deny no one the ritual expression of such prayer - prayer is ultimately saying, while the surgeon does their work, "this is out of my hands. i cannot control the future.
and yet i wish it were not so."
prayer speaks to our lack of control and sometimes expresses an understanding of the weakness of God rather than God's magical power. i can't help but think of that young Iranian woman on a dark rooftop in Tehran, wondering if Allah is, like her, shaking too.
i have sat desperately in hospital vigils and prayed, "thy will be done". and i don't think that actually tells me anything about the existence of God, or God's character, or indeed prayer's efficacy. but it helped me express my humanness, my helplessness and my hope. the person for whom i was praying wasn't conscious. but i still wanted to express my love, hope and desperation.
reason had nothing to do with it. it was simply my own speech of extremity, when there was nothing left for me to do but shake. "thy will be done" was me believing, so as to accept, if not understand, a painful situation beyond my control and my own helpless inability to control what was to come.
the friends of Officer Eric Hernandez were perhaps doing no different. i am left wondering, despite MacDonald's rationale, what's so obscure about that?