Subscriber OnlyPeople

Seán Moncrieff: I’ve always liked the idea of prayer, even if I’m not sure why

Sometimes I talk to people, now dead, who made an imprint on my life

When I was a child, my mother went through a phase of insisting that every night the family say a few decades of the rosary. As a strategy to instil in us a greater sense of the ineffable, it wasn’t that successful.

As soon as our knees hit the floor, giggles would start to tremor up through my sister and me. We would try our best to restrain them, to drone out the prayers instead, but the pressure would quickly become intolerable. Tears would stream from our eyes; our throats would become constricted and we would shake so much it was like we were both having some sort of seizure.

Inevitably, this would lead to the prayers being paused while our mother would tell us to have some respect, and of course to ask: what’s so funny?

We could never tell her, because we didn’t know: only that the effect was instant and irresistible.


She tried making us kneel in different parts of the room, where we couldn’t make eye contact, or in different directions where we couldn’t see each other at all. But the more effort she put in to suppressing our laughter, the more she drew attention to it. Eventually the rosary was quietly abandoned.

The prayer was not, though. At Mass I was constantly nudged to ensure I mouthed the responses, and as a surly teenager I was dragged to Knock, where we spent several hours circling around the church reciting Our Fathers. By the end it felt a little like being stoned.

But what she never explained to me was what all this prayer was for. I don’t think she knew herself, other than it was something Catholics were required to do: as if God really enjoyed hearing millions of people reciting the Hail Mary every day; so much so that if you said enough of them, you might get something you wanted or needed.

Increasingly, I feel I’m surrounded by dead people. Their numbers are still in my phone. Their pictures are on the walls, including my mother. I have Mass cards that I use as bookmarks

No doubt other people with belief wouldn’t see it in such transactional terms: more, perhaps, as a conversation. Every day God is having the chats with millions of people. If you’re a person of no belief, this may sound suspiciously like having an imaginary friend.

But my point here isn’t to slag off religion – or more specifically, religious belief. It’s arguable that belief in a deity has provided comfort and meaning to countless numbers of people. It’s also arguable that systemising that belief within organised religions has done more harm than good.

My point is about prayer. I’ve always liked the idea of it.

I’m not quite sure why. Like Nick Cave, I don’t believe in an interventionist god – look at the state of the world – or even a person-God. If there’s any intelligence or system behind the universe, I’m inclined to think that it’s more likely to be an impersonal force. Or there might be nothing at all.

Yet even if there is nothing, I like the idea – and I do this sometimes – of considering myself. I can be waiting for the Dart or eating breakfast, before anyone else is up: I consider myself in a suburb of a smallish city on an island on the edge of western Europe. On a small planet rotating around one of the modest-sized suns, galactically speaking.

Yet the minuscule drama of my existence can, at times, feel enormous to me. Increasingly, I feel I’m surrounded by dead people. Their numbers are still in my phone. Their pictures are on the walls, including my mother. I have Mass cards that I use as bookmarks.

And occasionally I talk to them. I don’t think they can hear me, and I’m certainly not expecting a reply. Yet so many of them made an imprint on my life – more than I realised when they were alive – that I fancy I know what they might say if I asked them a question. Perhaps I’ve been praying all along.