Today is Ash Wednesday, a day of solemn repentance and atonement, when Christians mark the beginning of the Lenten fast. For them, the forty days and forty nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness, resisting the temptations of Satan himself, signify the pilgrimage of faith. This journey of the soul culminates in the joy of Easter, but before that comes the darkness and despair of the Crucifixion.
“Ash Wednesday” is also the title of TS Eliot’s first great poem after his conversion to Anglicanism. It is full of allusions to biblical texts, especially Psalm 102, the prayer of the afflicted that has echoed down the ages. The last line of “Ash Wednesday” is a direct quotation from the psalmist: “And let my cry come unto Thee.” Eliot’s spiritual anguish is palpable through the poem and it is this which gives it such undiminished force today, even for a secular culture in which most readers no longer hear the scriptural echoes.
As the world confronts the grim reality of a pandemic that now threatens the lives of untold thousands, it is good to be reminded of the value of prayer. In past times of plague, prayer was not only humanity’s last resort but often the only one. Today, fortunately, there is a great deal that we can do to prevent or mitigate the spread of coronavirus. But we are also beginning to realise that in our globally interconnected era, there is a high price to be paid for any interruption in trade or travel. Our best laid plans are of limited effect; and the freedom of movement that we prize is now problematic.
If coronavirus proves impossible to contain, and Britain suffers an outbreak on a large scale, we must brace ourselves for a period of self-denial. Schools may close, with an impact on the workplace too, while travel restrictions are bound to be onerous for many. A society such as ours is ill-prepared for the limitations on our liberties that dealing with a pandemic could impose. We are used to doing as we please and the sacrifices we make for the common good are few and far between. Above all, we are unaccustomed to being told that we have no choice but to submit to unwelcome privations. Blaming the Government is our safety valve, but when faced with a global threat such as coronavirus, there is little point in pretending that our politicians can make it all go away.
Hence this is a time when the power of prayer comes into its own. Prayer does not presuppose faith. We do not all pray to the same God or gods. Many people who do not believe in any God, who never visit a church or mosque or temple or synagogue, nevertheless find comfort in prayer.
Prayer is in any case not about asking God to do what we want. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The words of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, and which draws on a long tradition of Jewish prayer, embody a profound truth. It is not given to us human beings to determine everything that befalls us in our lives. We must learn to accept our frailties and our insignificance in this often unforgiving world. The universe is not there for our benefit.
Yet through prayer we are reminded that none of us is alone. Our cries are heard, even if we do not know it. Faced with challenges that surpass our strength, we can take comfort in the idea that each and every one of us does matter, if only we open ourselves to the idea of something beyond ourselves. To pray is to be human; to be human is to pray. It is what we have always done. Faith is a gift from God; prayer is a human right.