In the immediate aftermath of the attack in Westminster, a number of those issuing statements about the events said how ‘our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families’.
It is common for such sentiments to be expressed after any tragic loss of life and in that sense they are a striking reminder of the human instinct to prayer. Furthermore the assurance of offering prayers in these circumstances will not be out of place on anyone’s lips. It is a democratic, universal instinct not the preserve of the religious specialist.
For all that, however, perhaps it is worth exploring what the suggestion ‘our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families’ does or does not amount to.
Clearly it cannot be a way of telling God what he already knows and nor in these circumstances is it a way of trying to persuade an otherwise reluctant God to see the world from the same perspective as ourselves. Rather it is placing people, especially people whom we might not know, in a bigger context and just ‘leaving’ them there.
In that sense holding victims in our thoughts and prayers is a way in which we slow ourselves down and resist the rush to judgement.
When Seamus Heaney was once asked what contribution poetry might make to the political process, he said poetry’s gift was to offer ‘a pause in the action’. Perhaps that is the gift of prayer as well; a time when there can be a collective slowing down and our own thoughts and preoccupations give way to silence and space.
Nowhere is this better expressed than by the Welsh poet priest, RS Thomas:
There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in
rising and falling, rising and
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village that is without
and companionless. And the
of that other being who is
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.