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Prayers for an unbeliever

The Tablet - Sally Read - Sun, Jul 14th 2013

Pope Francis said recently that everyone – atheists included – is redeemed by Christ’s blood. His words confirmed the thoughts of a convert to Catholicism who agonised over the question following the death of her atheist father

In the months before I was received into the Church, the father of a cradleCatholic friend died. “At least we know he’s in heaven,” she sighed. “How do people cope when an atheist dies?”

In the overwhelming unfolding of truths that was – and is – my conversion, I hadn’t yet considered the afterlife. At my friend’s words, my scalp prickled.

My own father, an arch atheist, had died 13 years before at the age of 56. It was mostly from him I inherited my former atheism and scorn of Christianity. My father was colourfully outspoken: fag in one hand, whiskey in the other, he liked to be in charge.

When he was told he had three months to live, he managed it like a deadline, true to the journalist that he was, and died three months later to the day. The inevitability of his death, and our certainty we would never meet again, meant we discussed everything by the fire, that bleak autumn. For this reason, he told me, it was, paradoxically, a

peculiarly happy time. I asked him if he was still sure there was no God. “Absolutely,” he replied. Then, with a grin: “Bloody hell, I hope I’m right.”

The atheist death is not lacking in beauty.

Words have enormous weight, because we are sure they’ll be the last. Truths are spoken. Having no faith can also lead to a certain amount of exhaustive planning. My father gave me three instructions: to marry a steady, quiet man; to move nearer to my mother; and to never convert to any religion. I disobeyed him, decisively, on all three – which almost gives them the flavour of prophecies.

True to form, during the course of his illness, my father never relinquished control or dignity. Even when I was summoned to the hospice, both of us knowing he would not leave it alive, I fell into his arms like a child: he was the one that did the comforting.

We all kept vigil by his bedside – yet he protected me from witnessing the moment of his passing by dying when I popped out to the car. After the death, after the cremation (which, according to his wishes, was simply “pushing a button”, with no prayer, no celebrant, no ritual), I went back to my flat, my job as a nurse, a ruinous love affair, and a sensation that the earth had slipped off its axis. I can’t say if atheist deaths are more traumatic for those left behind but I buckled under that instantaneous, crashing dismantlement of a life. It taxed my psyche to comprehend that all that could, abruptly, be nothing.

I was so scared, my hair came out in handfuls; painful lumps came up under my skin, but were gone by the time I could see a doctor. At work, in bars, I felt an urge – like something independent in my gut – to yell out. I remember sitting on my bedroom floor and saying with great lucidity, “I’m in hell. This is hell.” 

It was a very particular place. Behind my eyes was constant blackness and the fearful feeling I was about to fall a long way backwards on to rock. But in all that fearful darkness, I now see proof of God’s being. His absence sang so painfully that now I see it as a vital sign of his existence. That place of no faith threatened to tear me to physical

pieces – it begged the question, what was it I lacked? Now, when I pray the Psalms and find the image of a rock it seems like the other side of that immense, hard blackness. No matter what we believe or reject, this infinity against our finitude contains us; it reaches every perverse space we occupy. 

For me as an atheist, this was a glimpse of hell. As a new believer, I couldn’t avoid wondering about the eternal hell, and heaven, my father, and the extent of God’s mercy. Popular conjecture might be that my dad, a man who did much good, and no foul deeds to my knowledge, could not be consigned to hell. Yet he, of his own free will, rejected

God.  When the priest who oversaw my conversion suggested I pray for the soul of my father, it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Frankly, it seemed a hopeless case: guilty of rejecting God, as charged. Plus, I was too late to attend the hearing. I cried, stormily, after the conversation with my friend whose father had been presumed into heaven. But it was an aimless crying – I didn’t know what to think.

In addition, the idea of praying for the dead was profoundly alien to me. But I was beginning to understand how much of a spiritual catastrophe the English Reformation ban on the practice must have been. How it stuffed the most consoling prayers back into the mouths of the desolate. The thirteenth anniversary of my father’s death fell two days after my reception into the Church and Divine Liturgy was celebrated for his soul at the hermitage where I’m poet in residence.

The Eucharist would, as usual, offer intercessions for Mary. In his homily, the priest expounded on that point. Why would we pray for the Theotokos, she who is already so close to God? Because liturgy renders all time eternal; we are not solely in linear time that consigns the young Mary of the Annunciation to the annals of history. Our prayers for her in those moments and all the moments that would follow – when she lost her 12-year-old in Jerusalem, when she saw him crucified – are part of the exchange of the merits of Christ within his mystical body. I saw Mary as a set of Russian dolls – the Queen of Heaven containing the worried mother, the devout little girl. My prayers for my father now, the priest went on to explain, were also heard the night he died. Though my father’s death and my prayers seemed separate, through liturgy they were united.

Thomas Aquinas wrote that God “knows the flight of time in His Eternity, in the way that a person standing on top of a watchtower embraces in a single glance a whole caravan of travellers.” My prayers, now, are surely inextricable from the frozen night my father died.  “No one knows what passes between God Atheism and redemption.


Atheists don’t see suffering as redemptive, and often have the illusion it can be controlled out of existenceand man when he dies,” the priest concluded. Is it too far-fetched to believe that, as he slept into death, my prayers were answered and my father accepted God?  Simone Weil referred to atheism as a “purification”. The honest atheist has rejected false consolation, the handy personalized god, and the evil that can exist in any Church. Like the good  Catholic, the good atheist is an uncompromising truth addict. Like my dad, the atheist may be rigorously moral and stand up for the disadvantaged. In other words, the atheist’s soul may be perfectly readied for God.  

What we perceive as the irreconcilability of opposites, such as atheism and Catholicism, can also be connections in the mayhem of our own free will. The gauntlet my father laid down in telling me not to convert (he well knew my propensity for doing the opposite of what I’m told) shines as just one such connection. And when those connections pass over into faith – however brief or late the process – they can colour the entire chronology of a life, like a watermark.

My capacity to pray for the dead has grown with my understanding of the afterlife. After my conversion, my glimpse into hell met its counterbalance with a glimpse of heaven. During prayer, I became intensely aware of Christ’s gaze on me – my history, wants, needs, contradictions – all of me seemed radically to resolve, as a city’s lights resolve into one pattern from the window of a nightflight, and to be resolved in immense love and comprehension. There were no loose ends, no sharp edges – instead, there was the warm sense of completion we feel when an ache stops. We can’t see ourselves, or others, as God does. 

A year before my father’s death, I met him for drinks in Leicester Square. I saw him through the crowd long before he saw me. It must have been the light: he looked older, greyer – as he might have done had he lived into his seventies. As he came closer, he returned to the robust-looking man he would be till his death. But I’d had a vision of what my father would have been like as a vulnerable old man.  

Being personally vulnerable was anathema to my father. After all, atheists don’t see suffering as redemptive and often have the illusion it can be controlled out of existence. My father was determined not ever to need looking after and in some ways he got his wish. But I don’t believe in the hopeless and simple story of his death. Perhaps providentially, as I wrote this piece, the media was full of Pope Francis’ words about atheists and their chances for salvation. There can surely never have been a more relevant time in Christian history to consider atheists’ souls – and how we, as believers, can help them. My job now – finally, as a grown-up – is to look after my father.

?Sally Read is a poet based in Italy. Her most recent collection is The Day Hospital 

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