The other day I was watching the preps for a football game on TV and caught sight of a player propped down on one knee on the sidelines. He mumbled to himself, made a sign of the cross, bounced up and jogged off perkily to join his team in a huddle.    I thought to myself, “How does God handle that? How many people are there on earth who say prayers, and how does He decide who gets what?”

Usually I let little questions like this slip away but, for some reason, this one wouldn’t go.  Besides, if my own experience was anything to go by, I wasn’t entirely certain how effective prayers are anyway. A little reflection was in order.  First of all, I had to deal with God. OK, so my version is that hombre in the clouds with a once-firm six-pack, white beard, reaching out to Adam with a finger. But I had to admit that may not be how everyone sees it – maybe God is a woman; or black; or gay.

Maybe people like me don’t have a corner on the market – do Jews own this turf, or Muslims? Could it be further outside the box like Shamans, Shintos or Jains? What if we’re all God’s creatures but God is a cricket and we’re a side-bar in an insect scripture?  “Maybe I shouldn’t go there” I thought; too much baggage.  Prayers – how does God work that? What’s the planet’s population – seven billion? How many people say prayers? I guess everyone says a prayer now and again, some more than others. But, for the sake of estimating a ball park figure, let’s say five percent of us, at any given time, are actively seeking communication with a higher power – that we’re wishing for something to happen and not minding a little support: that a sunburn doesn’t peel; that a loved one gets better; that supper defrosts; that a fortune comes true; that a bomb explodes; that Santa will come.

This must be a challenge for the Almighty. Imagine five percent of seven billion people telepathically sending thought-mails to a holy server in the firmament – 350 million celestial ones and zeroes coming in all at once, again and again. How does a spiritual acrobat juggle that? Which requests are the most important? Who does the triage? Are the criteria for assessing priorities, fair? And what about service standards?

Then there’s the matter of how to answer, are supplicants deserving? And if a prayer is granted, will expectations be raised – what about repeat requests? If an average cadger says a prayer, how soon and how frequently will recidivism occur? If every supplication received tangible feed-back, expectations over the course of a lifetime could become unreasonable, even outrageous. On the other hand, no response could, over time, risk eroding conviction.   And it would be difficult to ration distribution of favours, to manage expectations, because of the spectre of invidious comparisons.

The early days of funnelling the world’s collective orations into paradise must have been stressful for the first angelic router. I thought about this: hemlines go up, hemlines go down but, dollars to doughnuts, they most likely would never reach above the waist nor below the ankle. Keeping responses within limits could weather generational change.  The nostrum, clearly, involved incrementalism – something to minimize prospect-creep; nano rejoinders designed to encourage, nurture and comfort but imperceptively so as not to create unfounded presumptions.

Yes, all those millennia of heavenly communion; all those desires for assistance; all that bewilderment at unconvincing outcomes, big and small – come into focus.  Results may not be compelling but results they are: tiny, immeasurable stakes in the ground – markers on a glacial racetrack – to attenuate desire, satisfy craving, stroke yearning and reward the deserving, comfortable in the knowledge that one day, on a scale of great reckoning, the big answers will come to the resolute.

The football game I’d been watching came to a climactic finale. In the closing moments, my praying footballer completed a dramatic touchdown bringing his team’s loss to within single digits of illusive triumph. A little nod in his direction, but not overplayed.

© Richard Kohler, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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