How to say "I'm praying for you" when, well, I'm not.
April 15, 2011 10:58 AM   Subscribe

Prayer alternatives.

Lapsed Catholic here. Typically, when friends of family have fallen on hard times, I've sent a card or email saying something like "I'm praying for you" or "Keeping you in my thoughts and prayers." Lately, I've felt like prayer isn't something I really do so I feel fake saying it.

I've always thought of prayer as talking to God but when I think, yo, God, please help my pet rabbit be less of a jerk so I don't eat her, I think this all-knowing God should know that I want the rabbit to stop being less of a jerk. I feel like prayer is redundant. Why do we need to talk about it? It's like pouring myself a bowl of cereal in front of my husband, then announcing that I'm hungry.

Anyway, I would like to say something along the lines of "Keeping you in my thoughts and prayers" but "Keeping you in my thoughts" sounds weird to me. I don't want people to think I'm going to start stalking them (they've got problems, last thing they need is a stalker, too). I've thought about something like "thinking happy thoughts for you" but that sounds silly. Any ideas?

Also, do non-religious or secular or humanist people pray? I realize that if I think of prayer as "talking to God" and one doesn't believe in a God, that might not make sense but humor me. How does that work?
posted by kat518 to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
"You're in my thoughts" is the standard non-religious "you're in my prayers". I don't think anyone will think you're stalking them.
posted by downing street memo at 11:00 AM on April 15, 2011 [23 favorites]

"Keeping you in my thoughts" is fine. With more casual friends I've heard "sending you good vibes" or the like. Of course people who don't believe in God don't pray to God, but the tradition of a moment of silence allows for anyone to pray or just be still, whichever suits them.
posted by zadcat at 11:01 AM on April 15, 2011

I'm non-religious and I feel great comfort when family and friends tell me they'll keep me in their thoughts, or they're wishing the best for me.
posted by cooker girl at 11:02 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Regarding your concerns about whether "official" prayer is necessary alongside "unofficial" prayer -- you may appreciate this C.S. Lewis quote from a fellow intellectual: "I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God- it changes me."

As far as what to say, how about simply expressing the thought you are thinking? "I hope the cancer treatment is successful and that your family has all the support they need." "I am so sorry Dan died, and I hope that you are comforted right now."
posted by michaelh at 11:10 AM on April 15, 2011 [10 favorites]

Also, do non-religious or secular or humanist people pray? I realize that if I think of prayer as "talking to God" and one doesn't believe in a God, that might not make sense but humor me. How does that work?

There are a lot of types of secular folks, but I'm one of them, and I can tell you I just don't pray. It's really that simple. I may, for example, think about the hard times my friend is going through, and give him a call, or send a note, or try to help him out by having some food delivered, or whatever; but I don't do anything that looks like prayer.

And yeah, "Keeping you in my thoughts" is the non-religious equivalent of "you're in my prayers." I say it, it's been said to me, and it's never seemed strange or stalkery in the least.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:12 AM on April 15, 2011

Thinking of you...

Thinking of you [plus]
...sending good energy your way!
...sending positive energy your way!

"Keeping you in my thoughts" is used a lot in my circles (and does not make folks think of stalking).

Sending good wishes...

Heard about X and
...wondering if there is anything that I can do?
...wondering how I can support you?
posted by anya32 at 11:13 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like "wishing you and yours all the best."
posted by chatongriffes at 11:15 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, do non-religious or secular or humanist people pray?

I'm buddhist, so I don't believe in a God. But there is something called metta meditation that covers "sending good thoughts" to people in need, starting with yourself because we all need to take care of ourselves.
Recite the following phrases to yourself at a pace that keeps you focused and alert.

1. May I be safe and protected.

2. May I be peaceful and happy.

3. May I be healthy and strong.

4. May I have ease of well being (and accept all the conditions of the world)

Continue reciting the phrases in the first person.

Then when you are comfortable, try offering Metta to a beneficiary, someone who supports you, who has always "been on your side." Forming visualizations of this person while reciting the phrases can be helpful; for example, imagining this beneficiary as a child or grandparent, can assist in 'opening the heart.'

1. May s/he be safe and protected.

2. May s/he be peaceful and happy.

3. May s/he be healthy and strong.

4. May s/he have ease of well being (and accept all the conditions of the world)

Next offer Metta to a loved one.

1. May s/he be safe and protected.

2. May s/he be peaceful and happy.

3. May s/he be healthy and strong.

4. May s/he have ease of well being (and accept all the conditions of the world)

Once your Metta flows easily to a loved one, begin to include in your practice one or more of the following categories of persons to whom you will offer Metta:

A close friend.
A neutral person (someone you neither like nor dislike)
A difficult person (no need to start with the most difficult person, but someone whom you have a distaste for)
All beings, individuals, personalities, creatures (choose whichever word to describe all 'beings' that you please; it may be helpful to break up this category into subcategories; i.e., all men, and then all women, all enlightened ones, and then, all unenlightened ones, all beings who are happy, and then all beings who are both happy and suffering, and all beings who are primarily suffering.
1. May s/he/it be safe and protected.

2. May s/he/it be peaceful and happy.

3. May s/he/it be healthy and strong.

4. May s/he/it have ease of well being (and accept all the conditions of the world)
posted by desjardins at 11:18 AM on April 15, 2011 [38 favorites]

I don't pray because I believe my prayer isn't going anywhere. I do meditate, which is like prayer in a lot of ways, I guess.

When I send a note to someone who's in a difficult time, I try to offer kind thoughts and wishes in lieu of prayer. I back the offer up with action when I feel it's warranted and appropriate. I hope in this way to make the world a kinder place (if only incrementally) both for the person who is suffering and for nonbelievers, to show that we value compassion just as much as the faithful.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 11:19 AM on April 15, 2011

As a longtime atheist raised in a religious household who has attended a non-creedal church for several years, my take on prayer is this: It is the act of taking a moment out of time to focus on an intention, a need of your own or of another person, or of gratitude, or similar. It is taking the time to put things into words, put them "out there in the universe" so to speak. I believe that this is the great value of ritual in general: that it gives you a brief moment to focus, to regroup, before moving forward. When you light a candle in a church for a loved one, you are for that few seconds thinking of nothing but that person. When you take a moment to pray for guidance, you are clearing your mind of nothing but whatever it is you need to untangle for yourself.

I do not think there's anything wrong with the idea of "keeping someone in your thoughts", nor with actually taking a moment to really think about that someone.
posted by padraigin at 11:20 AM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

I say things like "I'm thinking of you, and if you need any help I'm here." I find the offer of actual practical help is a much kinder and more rational thing to do than prayer which, as an atheist, I find to be the equivalent of doing nothing useful at all - except maybe making the praying person feel better.

Also, do non-religious or secular or humanist people pray?

Can't imagine why. We just call that talking to ourselves. :-)
posted by Decani at 11:22 AM on April 15, 2011

i grew up a super religious and devout mormon. prayer was a big deal. we were given pillows specifically to place under our knees about the age of 8 so we could start saying longer prayers.

now i'm an atheist. i'll admit, i've missed praying a time or two. i've tried meditation, and while nice, it's not the same. prayer has this sort of "i'm going to take all this off my shoulders and just set it down here" feeling to it - footprints in the sand and all that.

gradually, i realized, the entire time i was praying to god and getting that feeling of relief, i was praying to myself. i was giving myself permission to put down certain loads, to unstress certain situations, to receive clarity about hard times. the whole time, all of that was me.

so now, sometimes i pray to myself. i don't get down on my knees or anything, but i sit with myself and work through the things that are bothering me, sometimes i do it out loud, walking around my house.

as for what to say to friends and family - "i'm keeping you in my thoughts" has been the go-to as far as i know. it also neatly fits into my self-prayer.
posted by nadawi at 11:47 AM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't pray. I do "hope" and "think" and "worry". I hope the cancer treatments go well. I worry that they may not. I think about the person and what they're going through. So "thinking of you and hoping for the best" would work out pretty well.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:52 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think this is a feature and not a bug of atheism/agnosticism. I sometimes feel like people tell others that they will be "in my prayers" and then they never think another thought (much less say a prayer) about that person's problem. Now of course that is not true in all cases, but it does seem to be true pretty often.

When you do not have that "default" response about prayer, it forces you to actually think about the person's grief or hardship or troubles and say something that you hope will comfort them. This may be as simple as "keeping you in my thoughts", but more often it is something more specific and concrete, like an offer of help, or perhaps a shoulder to cry on. Don't look at finding something appropriate to say as a struggle, but an opportunity.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:59 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

"All the best to you in this trying time. You have my support.

posted by inturnaround at 12:11 PM on April 15, 2011

Anyway, I would like to say something along the lines of "Keeping you in my thoughts and prayers" but "Keeping you in my thoughts" sounds weird to me.

That's what I say, and if people find "prayers" conspicuous by its absence, that's fine with me.

I don't want people to think I'm going to start stalking them

Do you honestly think if you use the expression "Thinking of you" in the context of them falling on hard times, they will think you're going to start stalking them? Don't you think they'll understand what you mean by this very common phrase?
posted by John Cohen at 12:12 PM on April 15, 2011

I tell people "I'll keep a good thought for you." Sometimes I get non-plussed looks, but it's close enough to the formula that people get the sentiment behind it.
posted by Ys at 12:36 PM on April 15, 2011

"I'm praying for you" is a potentially awkward thing for even devout people to say, depending on who they're trying to console. It could conceivably sound like preaching, and that could (understandably) rile a mourning atheist.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:04 PM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thing with "keeping you in my thoughts" is that often when a person is going through a rough time, they feel very lonely and abandoned. It is shorthand for "during this very rough, potentially isolating time when all of the rest of the world feels like shit, I am thinking about you and I care for you. I hope that helps somewhat." Then, of course, by all means offer practical help if appropriate/possible. But I think "keeping you in my thoughts" or the equivalent is very nice indeed.
posted by teragram at 1:44 PM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Myself, I use "keeping you close at heart." It has the same vibe as "thinking of you" without coming off like "Hi, there, I'm an atheist; this is what atheists say!" Not that there's anything wrong with that...just prefer not to call attention to my own non-religious sentiments when I'm trying to comfort a friend.
posted by iceprincess324 at 1:46 PM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bake them some cookies. Self-made food says "I took the time to make this stuff and, while making it, thought of you and hoped you'd soon be better". (Except it works better because you're omitting the clumsy wording.)
posted by The Toad at 1:47 PM on April 15, 2011

I am religious and do pray for people, but just want to see if there is anything you can do. I generally add, "Please let me know if there is anything I can do that would be a comfort or helpful to you at this time."
posted by littleflowers at 1:51 PM on April 15, 2011

I'd usually say (and mean!) something like "let me know if there's anything I can do to help you through this." Cooking a meal or giving a ride or whatever is actually useful. (Yes, I'm atheist.)
posted by Brian Puccio at 1:52 PM on April 15, 2011

I am so very sorry for your loss/to have heard the news/etc... My thoughts are with you during this difficult time. Please remember I am always here for you if you need me.
posted by triggerfinger at 2:00 PM on April 15, 2011

I find that you can get to a secular translation of most religious sentiments by translating, at least in your mind, "God" as "Self-giving Love."

Instead of "talking to God," think about "How can I get outside of my own ego and be most loving and self-less in this moment?" or "What is keeping me from getting outside myself to view the world apart from my personal desires and attitudes?"

Spending a few minutes meditating on these questions would serve the same function as prayer.

With a few mods, The Prayer of St. Francis works pretty universally.

I wish to be an instrument of peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

Let me not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying to our selfishness that we realize our truest selves.

I submit my intellect and will to these intentions

That is, assuming you think empathy and selflessness are good things. If not, I got nothin'.
posted by cross_impact at 2:12 PM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Insofar as what to write to people, I think "you're in my thoughts" or "sending good vibes your direction" works perfectly well. If you share some metaphysical ground with someone, you can get more specific perhaps.

As for what to do other than pray... well, if you aren't on the Catholic church's (or anyone else's) trip you can do whatever works for you.

Consider that prayer (whether you're a theist or solipsist gnostic or what have you) is only one of many ways someone might invoke the highest (in themselves, in a particular dominion or in all space and time) to augment any particular desirable process. Things that are often part of Christian prayer, but which need not be implemented with Christian symbols and which can be mixed and matched and implemented with whatever aesthetic you like:

* visualization (i.e. visualizing someone healing faster)
* invocation (i.e. lighting a candle to a saint or the lords prayer -- each of which calls forth specific properties of that god or his agents)
* consecration (i.e. making chicken soup and dedicating it to a specific persons wellness)
* banishing (i.e. casting out any forces inhibiting the positive result... this could be any form of ritual from a thorough cleaning of a living space to verbalizing your desire for certain things to be gone and/or more complicated manifestations)
posted by Matt Oneiros at 2:33 PM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

At work (for a florist, natch) I type out a ton of card messages. The nonreligious seem fine with "You are in my thoughts."
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:43 PM on April 15, 2011

Best answer: Prayer is more about the prayer than the prayee (ostensibly god). Sometimes, expressing yourself is saying the obvious. Sometimes the obvious needs to be said. More often than you might expect, in fact, so I wouldn't worry that god has already heard it, or even that he doesn't exist.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:23 PM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I was just joking about people thinking I'm a stalker. It just feels weird to say "we'll be thinking of you" but maybe I just need to say it more often. I think I want something along the lines of "sending you good vibes" but less like vibes or positive energy. Again, probably a personal thing that I just need to get over. I like "wishing you and yours the best but that sounds like something to write in a card but not say. I have a habit of signing things "xoxo" or "hugs" but that doesn't sound like something a real adult person does.

I also like the idea of being able to do something practical but that's not always accessible. Like, I want to send my diabetic grandmother cookies but I don't think that's a good idea. And I'd like to make dinner for someone but sometimes I eat cereal for dinner so before I send them a box of cereal and some milk, maybe I should start with a card. I like offering a general "if there's anything I can do, please let me know" but I feel like that's fake because I don't think I, except in rare circumstances, would be like, hey, I just need to talk and cry, can you listen. I did once to my sister and it still felt weird.

I like the CS Lewis quote and the metta meditation. I realize prayer is more about me than the person I'm praying for or the god I'm praying to but I think it's also, at least in a Catholic context, about my relationship with God. That said, I think we're taking time off from our relationship, or at least I am. I also agree with and like the idea that this is a feature/benefit of atheism/agnosticism. I also appreciate the thought that when people are going through rough times, they mostly feel lonely and abandoned so just saying that you're thinking of them is helpful.

One of my issues with "I'll be thinking of you" is that, well, I think of a lot of things and people. I think of a dog named Boo and I look at his pictures on Facebook. I think of hockey players. It feels weird to be like, in between hockey players and Boo, I will take a time out to think of you. I feel like, even though it's clearly arbitrary, prayer was a thing I could do for someone - not make dinner but something. I realize "I'm praying for you" has the potential to offend atheists but I think it's on par with saying "bless you" when someone sneezes - it just feels right for the occasion.

I'm rambling but thanks again for all of your input.
posted by kat518 at 6:29 PM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: This is a little off-topic but it just makes me think of how being there, in one way or another, is what's most important. When my mother died, my paternal grandfather, in his 80's and never one for expressing feelings, didn't know what to say so he just patted my sister on the arm and walked away. I thought it was funny but it was also like he was saying "acknowledged."
posted by kat518 at 6:35 PM on April 15, 2011

Catholic here (like all practising Catholics I lapse all the time).

I would say, this is an opportunity to understand what prayer is - is it just an action or is it the (gr)attitude that defines one's life?

"Prayer is the ultimate awareness of self, an awareness of structural dependence." (from the above linked book).

In our modern culture we don't see it that way; it's become reduced to a method of acheiving results instead of truly knowing oneself and others.
posted by KMH at 4:46 AM on April 18, 2011

One of my issues with "I'll be thinking of you" is that, well, I think of a lot of things and people. I think of a dog named Boo and I look at his pictures on Facebook. I think of hockey players.

Words have different meanings in different contexts. Yes, everyone thinks about lots of things. (The word "prayer" has lots of different meanings too. "I'm so swamped at work, I'm just praying I have enough time to finish doing my taxes.") It isn't the word "thinking" that's so special. It's the act of telling someone: "I'm thinking of you / your family," when you are clearly referring to the hardship they're going through.
posted by John Cohen at 9:36 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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