Since Christopher Hitchens, renowned atheist and author, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer this summer, it seems everyone has started praying. Some are praying for his salvation, some that he will burn in hell, some pray that he will recover, and others pray that the spirit in which he lives his life – the wine-loving, controversy-inciting, love-to-hate him atheist – will continue in his life and his death.

Hitchens’ father died of esophageal cancer at the age of 79. It happened quickly in a time when medicine offered few treatment options. The junior Hitchens is 61, and while doctors have prescribed a rigorous regimen of what Hitchens calls chemo-poison, for the most part, effective detection and treatment of esophageal cancer remains a mystery. The odds are not good.

Since his diagnosis (which also includes cancer that has metastasized into his lymph glands and lungs), Hitchens writes that he is “badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste.” He has more book ideas. He wants to see his children marry. He plans to spend more time with his wife. He writes about the language of cancer: how one doesn’t merely have cancer, but instead battles cancer. One must fight bravely even when it’s clear that it’s a losing battle.

In reflecting on the unexpected acceleration of his death, Hitchens talks about how he must now make preparations both to die and to live. He spends much of his time with lawyers and doctors, yet he approaches his days as though he will write more books and attend his children’s weddings. The balancing act of living life well, and all the while sensing death’s approach is the stuff of religion, and also the stuff of humanity. While one’s beliefs about what happens after death can aid us in living, no one really knows what’s next. Instead, those of us who do not feel death’s cold breath observe the actions and struggles of those for whom death is imminent: we look for hope in the face of peril; we look for those who fight a good fight.

Now, the world turns its gaze to Hitchens. We want to see what fights he pursues in his final days, and what gets him down. We want to see if he changes his mind in his final days, as we’d wonder about anyone who holds to strong and public beliefs. Hitchens swears he won’t convert to any religion.

While the chemo-poison saps his energy, Hitchens continues to try to make – and keep – appointments. He travels to promote his book and wouldn’t mind a debate with Tony Blair about the relevance of religion in the third world. He acknowledges that people are praying for his recovery. For a man who has built a career around denying the existence of God, at times he speaks graciously and un-cynically about the thoughtfulness of the intercessors, yet he still manages to fire back doubt that prayer will change his prognosis.

Chances are, many of those who pray also doubt that prayer will change the prognosis. Sally Quinn of the Washington Post is one of many who prays for Hitchens without offering petitions for recovery or salvation. She says she prays for Christopher, using his first name as a sign of their friendship, and she gives an example of the most appropriate prayer she can think of, one that originates from the Navajo people:

With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk,
With beauty below me, I walk,
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.
It is finished (again) in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

Quinn says the prayer is also for herself, to appreciate his life and mourn his illness, as much as it is for Hitchens. She assures him that its not an insult; instead prayer, even prayer for an athiest, is a gathering of a loving community. It doesn’t really matter if he likes it or not.

 
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Jessica Belt

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