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Use This Hashtag to Talk to God

Does it really count when you retweet a call for prayer?

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Last month, my father had a stroke. Feeling completely helpless, I took to Facebook and requested prayer, as did several members of my family. Before long, hundreds of our friends were praying for my dad. Many wrote me personal notes, and some commented on the thread. But by far, most people who participated in my prayer request did so by liking my status.

Two days after he was admitted, my dad was released from the hospital with no short- or long-term injuries. The only sign that he’d even had the stroke was a slight weakness of his right arm, which only last a few days.

“No one can tell me that God’s not good,” my dad wrote on Facebook upon leaving the hospital, attributing his speedy recovery to God’s intervention, which he believed was the result of hundreds of petitions from devout social media users.

When I first read my dad’s Facebook post about being healed, I rolled my eyes so hard they almost dislodged from my skull. “Oh, so you don’t believe in prayer now?” asked my mother in the sing-song voice she saved for rebuking what she believes is my growing reprobacy.

And with that, I’d been got.

If I didn’t believe in prayer, I reasoned, then why in the world was my first response to my dad’s stroke to ask everyone I knew to join me in prayer? If I didn’t believe the prayer might actually result in my father’s healing, why waste my and everyone else’s time?

The answer was as simple as it was embarrassing: I do believe in prayer. I do believe that God cares about my father’s health. I do believe that God intervenes in the physical world that God’s created.

That might sound crazy, but at least I’m not alone here. According to a 2013 Pew poll, more than half of all Americans (53 percent) say they pray every day, with about a quarter (23 percent) saying they pray weekly or monthly. What’s more, 83 percent of Americans say that God answers prayer, according to a USA Today poll from 2010. To be sure, it doesn’t seem like this trend is going away any time soon: though Millennials’ involvement in organized religion is on a steady decline, more than 60 percent say they talk privately with God, according to a study from Carnegie Melon.

One of the greatest reminders of the prevalent role that prayer plays in our lives is found on social media. #PrayForBangkok, #PrayForThailand, #PrayForKorea, #PrayForMerbabu—these are just four of the popular prayer hashtags that dominated Twitter this week. #PrayForFerguson, #PrayforBaltimore, #PrayForBoston are other popular hashtags we’ve seen in recent memory.

There are also prayer apps, like Instapray, that let users join virtual communities in round-the-clock praying. Just as I did on the day of my father’s stroke, plenty of people instinctively take to Facebook and Twitter to both request and pledge prayer when tragedy strikes.

“My thoughts and prayers are with so and so” has become our typical collective response to bad news. Everyone from our president to reality TV stars express the familiar sentiment in times of trouble. And, like most predictable trends, social media prayer is easily mocked.

“Thoughts and prayers Twitter stand by,” tweeted writer Jesse Berney last week when an earthquake hit. Here they go again, seems to be the joke. Pretending to pray.

Which raises the question: What does prayer mean in the context of social media? How does prayer work? On the day of my father’s stroke, prayer was a Facebook like. But does that really count as prayer?

“I think there’s something within the Catholic tradition that suggests you need more than a like,” says Timothy O’Malley, director of the Center for Liturgy at Notre Dame. A like or a hashtag, he explains, is a low-level commitment which tricks someone into “feeling like you’ve prayed even if you haven’t.”

He suggests Twitter calls for prayer might edge toward #slacktivism, the self-congratulatory idea some Millennials hold that participating in social justice work is as easy as participating in social media campaigns.

Of course, he added, becoming aware of someone’s burden on social media is important because it teaches us how to desire someone else’s good. In that way, O’Malley thinks liking a Facebook status can be considered a pre-prayer, “the acknowledgement that, ‘Yes, I’m with you.’” This is, after all, not unlike how prayer works in many faith communities. One person requests prayer, and her fellow parishioners agree to pray for her. So is agreeing to pray for someone a moment of prayer? “Well, it’s sort of on its way,” he says, “but ideally what comes next is actually praying for that person.”

Fr. James Martin, author and Jesuit priest, also thinks that liking a Facebook status could be a first step on the way to praying, but cautions that unless the activity exceeds “pushing a button,” and the person actually prays, something is missing. “It’s like telling someone you’ll go to their wedding and not showing up. You have to do more than just RSVP.​”

Unlike traditional models of prayer, the hashtag variety comes too easily. But this is a criticism that extends to all social media, as Samuel Loncar, a Ph.D. student in Philosophy of Religion at Yale, points out. The nature of the virtual world, he says, is “rapid stimulus without any real commitment,” which means in the case of praying for social media friends there’s no risk associated with it, “literally no skin on the game.”

“No skin” is an appropriate way to describe the phenomenon of online praying: Whereas in the physical world, fellow believers might join hands with me to pray for my father, in the virtual world, the prayer is not physical. It is disembodied.

Loncar says this is worth thinking about. Though we assume that prayer is a thing we do in our head, historically prayer “took up space,” because it was considered a “deeply physical act.” “There was a need to put your body where your voice was,” he says. In contrast, he says, virtual prayer, like all social media, “gives you a voice you can’t ever put a body to.”

The question, then, for Loncar is: How important is the body in prayer?

“Neurologically, we know that by taking on certain postures physically, we can affect ourselves mentally. Body language affects us. In that sense, you could think of prayer as much a posture of the body as of the soul.”

I’m reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which a senior demon teaches his student to convince humans to think of prayer as a purely mental exercise. “At the very least,” writes Screwtape, “they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”

To pray is to assume a posture, usually of deference. Praying requires that we reposition or humble ourselves in the eyes of those listening. Which means that we should think about who is listening. When I click-pray on social media, who am I offering that prayer to? To Loncar, there’s no denying that, even when believers intend for their social media prayer requests to reach God, they are undeniably addressed to their virtual communities—if not, then why make them public in the first place?

But that doesn’t mean we’re praying to each other. It means we’re communicating with each other, which is one of the functions of prayer, says Loncar. Think about how sharing our own requests with friends helps us disclose deeply personal information about our lives in a way that isn’t so scary.

This communal aspect of sharing our fears and anxieties with others is one way to think about what prayer is, according to Kathryn Reklis, Research Fellow at the New Media Project at Christian Theological seminary. “For a lot of religious people, part of prayer is holding each other up and affirming each other and encouraging one another,” she says, noting that these activities can be accomplished in both the physical world or on social media.

Reklis thinks it’s very important to think about the various ways in which prayer does and doesn’t function. “Prayer is rarely an actual belief like, ‘God heal this person,’ and then God does that.” Of course, she notes, that’s not an impossibility within most traditions, but that isn’t the point of prayer. “If God is going to do what God is going to do,” she says, referring to God’s sovereignty, “then why pray?”

Here’s what she’s driving at.

My dad believes that God heard his friends’ prayers, and that’s why he made it through his stroke. But what about the other guy who didn’t make it through his? Did his son request prayer on Facebook? So why was my dad healed and not the other guy’s? Did my status get more likes than his? Is prayer a numbers game? And do those numbers change God’s mind?

All of these questions, says Reklis, have been tackled by various theologians throughout church history. But at the end of the day, she says, “there’s no schema to guarantee that your prayer will be efficacious. Any human being knows it doesn’t work that way. You get some things you pray for, and you don’t get others.” In other words, God is our father, not our granddaddy or sugar daddy happily granting all of our requests.

And anyway, notes Reklis, if the most mature Christian prayer is “Thy will be done,” then we shouldn’t really treat prayer “like a help desk at the mall.” Once we realize this, she says, “then prayer becomes about different things, like cultivating our own dependence on God, or our reliance on a community of believers.”

Or our identities. When we click like on someone’s prayer request, when we announce that we are praying for the victims of a tragedy, we are announcing who we are. In that sense saying, “I pray” on social media is akin to saying, “I am the kind of person who prays.”

This is kind of like the phenomenon of over-reporting church attendance, which I have written about. When respondents are asked if they attend church regularly, they say they do — even when they don’t. But they’re not lying; they’re simply mishearing the question. They don’t think they’re being asked if they go to church, they think they’re being asked if they are church-going kinds of folk. “I go to church” is a coded way for them to say, “Yes, I am that kind of person.”

According to O’Malley, we form our identities largely by our public actions, including liking prayer requests on Facebook. But the danger, he says, is when we begin to praise ourselves for being praying people. “Insofar as you are publicly praying for the sake of praise, then, as Jesus says, you already have your reward.”

So maybe prayer is as much about what happens on Earth in our communities as it is as what happens in Heaven when God hears us. In that sense, then, liking a Facebook status might be accomplishing one of the functions of prayer: acknowledging someone else’s need.

“At its core, a click is attention,” says Matt Lumpkin, a former chaplain who now works in User Experience Design. For him, there’s real value in giving someone your attention, since attention is the main commodity of social media. Prayer on social media, he says, “boils down to empathy—it’s saying, ‘I care about the outcome of this,’ plus whatever individual theology of prayer I might have.

That’s a good way to put it. The formula for social media prayer is, empathy + personal theology. While each person who liked my prayer request for my father had his or her own nuanced belief about the function of prayer, each one gave me her acknowledgement. The empathy runs deeper than the theology.

So where does this leave us? When we request prayer on social media, are we hoping for those prayers to be divinely answered? Do we expect those who like our statuses to keep us in their prayers even after they’ve stepped away from their computers? Or are our intentions less metaphysical—do we merely wish to express our own trials in a way that doesn’t emphasize our vulnerability? Or affirm our own sense of belonging and cultivate our spiritual identities?

Yes to all of that.

While we might engage in complicated theological discussions about the efficacy of prayer, we can’t deny that there’s something very simple, very primitive about it. For St. Therese Lisieux, for instance, prayer is a simple glance toward Heaven. For Pope Francis, it’s even simpler than that: the mere acknowledgement that Heaven is looking at you. For many of us, prayer might be as simple as a Facebook like, a quiet gesture signifying our “yes.”

That kind of prayer might seem trivial, nothing but an empty platitude to be mocked by the comedians on Twitter. But in a world destroying itself daily with the unyielding no of human hatred, that yes seems to be quite powerful. “There’s so much that’s bifurcating us,” my rabbi friend told me. “Prayer binds us to each other.”

As the late theologian Karl Barth said, “To raise one’s hands in prayer”—or, we might say, to like a Facebook prayer request—“is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” Maybe in its own mystical way, Thoughts and Prayers Twitter isn’t about people saying prayers but people becoming prayers, learning to become aware of other people’s struggles, and to desire good for them.

Is this desire itself anything less than prayer? One of my Facebook friends, an Episcopal priest named Elaine, doesn’t think so. “If you read someone’s request for prayer and click ‘like,’ you have brought that intention, that desire, into your awareness and, in a sense, placed that name before God.”

French Catholic philosopher Antonin Sertillanges has a similar take on prayer:

Has a child who says nothing but looks longingly at a toy in a shop window, and then at his smiling mother not formulated the most moving prayer? And even if he had not seen the toy, is not the desire for play, innate in the child as is the thirst for movement, in the eyes of his parents a standing prayer which they grant?

We ought always to pray is the same as saying: we must always desire eternal things, the temporal things which serve the eternal, our daily bread of every kind and for every need, life in all its fulness earthly and heavenly.