Does Anyone Else Pray for Fictional Characters?

Can’t write a whole post about putting faces to prayers and then not show you the one I’m using in this example, can I?

In a Catholic Mass, the whole ritual is subdivided into two basic parts: the Liturgy of the Word (where we read parts of the Old and New Testaments) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where Christ offers us his Body and Blood.  During the hinge point, where we move from one part to the other, is a section called named the General Intercessions or Prayers of the Faithful where someone will read out a list of prayer intentions for the congregation.

I don’t quite zone out during this section, but it can be hard to feel as focused or engaged, since the list might be very repetitive week to week. We almost always pray for the sick and suffering, for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, and for the safety and peace of servicemembers and civilians working abroad.  And I tend not to feel much more than the words.

I didn’t really notice how disengaged I felt until I was watching the “Resistance” webisodes from Battlestar Galactica.  I want to avoid spoilers (because I would quite like for everyone to watch BSG), but I think I can get away with saying that one of the resistance fighters (named Jammer) thinks his side might be going pretty seriously wrong, and wants to find a different way to move forward.  And then things gang aft agley, and he’s left wondering whether he’s made things worse, but now is keeping too many secrets to be able to look for counsel or comfort from his friends.

I felt an urgency about Jammer’s situation that I never felt about the generic prayers for soldiers.  Now, I’m not such a fan of the show that I could think that praying for Jammer specifically would do him much good.  After all, the show’s already wrapped, and, well, he doesn’t exist!  But, thinking about Jammer specifically instead of a more abstract reference class (resistance fighters, people who feel like they’re in too deep, people who are trying to make peace unsuccessfully) made me think more concretely about what I wished for him.

I didn’t just want generic safety for Jammer, I wanted him to be able to channel his will for peace better.  I wanted him to be able to work against the tactics of the resistance in a community.  I wanted for him to be able to take the people whose tactics he was trying to subvert and make them part of this growing community.  Bringing to mind the specific things I wanted for Jammer made me think about how many of them were shared across the whole reference class, and whether there was anything I could do to provide help or support for one of these specific problems.

But even as I was able to think more about what actions I could take to help Jammer, or the people like him, I was also able to think of the whole reference class I’d pinned to Jammer as more than their problem.  When we say “the sick and suffering” it’s hard not to avoid using the reference as a Homeric epithet, summarizing a fundamental part of their identity.  But meditating on Jammer made me think that the part of him that felt most suited to be a Homeric epithet was his strong sense of wrongness and his inability to shut it off.  That feeling made his life harder, but it was something I envied a little.  Instead of just thinking of Jammer as someone I could help, I could also recognize that he could help me, and, in fact, he had.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Pseudonym

    Given the number of saints who are apocryphal, I think the answer to the question posed in the title is “yes”.

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      We don’t pray for the saints. They pray for us.

      • Pseudonym

        I know that. (Catholics do pray for people who aren’t yet recognised as saints, though.)
        Nonetheless, I do find it interesting that several of these saints are more legendary than historical.

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  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    In the Anglican church (or the one I attend, anyway), the prayers are written and read each week by a congregation member, not by clergy (with some exceptions–some weeks the deacon does it, but she was doing it before she was a deacon). This means that the prayers of intercession (or prayers of the people, as we more often call them) take on a different character each week, depending on who writes them. Of course there are guidelines to how they are written, and some people take them from online sources, but it can make for some highly specific prayers some weeks. (And there are two skills involved–writing and public reading–so in theory there are two different places where this week’s reader could get boring; I also have the trouble of zoning out.)
    There is also always a place where the reader pauses so that we can pray silently or aloud for whoever we know who needs prayer. This ordinarily allows for the kind of specificity for which this post advocates, but I can see how it might be a useful practice, as an individual, to say, “I pray for those who struggle like Jammer to etc. and so forth,” in the instance that I don’t know anyone personally who is struggling with that kind of thing but assume that there must be such a person somewhere.
    In general, though, I’m really interested in this post’s topic. Yes, they can be kind of like Homeric epithets.

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    Does Anyone Else Pray for Fictional Characters?

    Only Severus Snape ;)

    When we say “the sick and suffering” it’s hard not to avoid using the reference as a Homeric epithet, summarizing a fundamental part of their identity.

    I suppose this is why writing standards like APA and MLA tell you not to refer in research papers to “the disabled” or “addicts” or “the elderly” but rather “people with a disability” or “people with an addiction” or “elderly people.” After all, the emphasis should be on their humanity, not their problem/fault/weakness/difference/disability.

  • http://metabooleans.blogspot.com/ Nick

    I’m surprised you didn’t put a many-worlds spin on this and suggest that we also pray for the us of other universes that are in the situations you describe, given they could conceivably give an even greater sense of urgency, no? If there was a point of divergence from our world where its Nick went on to become a resistance soldier of some kind and had to fight, it’s not hard for me to make the leap that that must suck and imagine what other-”me” is going through, even if we’re literally worlds apart. I could even place someone I care about in that situation, I suppose. It seems to verge dangerously in the territory of making up sympathy, though; after a certain, probably very early, point, I think I’d rationalize that the many-worlds interpretation isn’t necessarily true, that other-mes may very well not exist, that even if they did there is no clear answer as to what effect my prayer will have, etc., and be unable to empathize with other-mes, or any other-others, for that matter. And then the prayers would just become as insincere as before.

    That said, maybe someone should include in the intentions to pray for all logically possible beings in the event they exist in some form. (…And then some devilish author would start inventing logically impossible yet beloved characters like a talking square circle….)

  • Name

    I don’t pray but I think there’s a danger of mischaracterising a group if you use a fictional character to represent them. It’s dangerous enough to use the people you know as representatives of groups; groups usually have a wide variety of members and the person you know who is, for example, a soldier, might be very different from the actual statistical norm of what soldiers are like. It’s easy to get a false impression of groups if you base it only on your own personal experience. A fictional character is even more likely to lead you astray because most of the time they are written by people who haven’t actually experienced the type of life that character has gone through and so they rely on stereotypes or what they can learn through research. Also, character’s wants and desires will be twisted to fit the storyline. That would make it easy to get a false idea of the actual group’s needs.

    Maybe if you’re zoning out already, you should rethink your commitment to Catholicism?

    • Kyle

      Yeah, Leah, if you’re zoning out you should rethink it. Likewise, people who zone out in classes at school should rethink their commitment to their education. Or if you’ve ever zoned out at a sporting event, you should rethink whether you really like sports. Ooh, or if you’ve ever zoned out while someone you love was talking to you, you should rethink whether you *really* love them.

      • deiseach

        No, she just needs to up the mortification.

        Honestly, who amongst us has not at some time, even with the best will in the world, glazed over at the umpteenth time of hearing/reading/watching something?

        • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

          Yup, plus it’s traditional. In the (now) Extraordinary Form of the Mass, which used to be the only one, the intercessions had long shrunk to “Oremus.” (“Let us pray.”) without any actual intercessions following. That is about the maximal out-zoning one could imagine, no?

          To be clear, I think restoring the actual intercessions was a good thing. Still, their getting lost in the first place says something about how people work.

    • Darren

      Oh, that seems a bit harsh.

      If a bit of visualization helps one to better connect with the otherwise faceless men and women in harms way, what’s the harm. If that visualization takes the form of an engaging sci-fi character, again, I see no harm.

      If one were crafting social policy or writing a dissertation on what ‘real’ soldiers where like, based upon a fictional account, sure, not a good idea there. This was not what was being proposed, though.

      And a transitory bit of zoning is just the way brains are wired…

  • ted whalen

    I wonder if fictional characters are included in the book of Common Prayer’s “all sorts and conditions of men”?

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      Certainly “fictional” could be considered a condition, yes?

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

    I’ve just recently finished re-watching the New Caprica episodes in BSG; the Jammer storyline was in many ways the strongest element of the episodes.

    I frankly often don’t just disengage but zone out in the General Intercessions; and I find it doesn’t help when someone somewhere along the line tries to come up with creative ones, because they more often just end up odd. I suspect that’s perfectly standard. The General Intercessions represent the general prayers of the people, and, really, our general prayers aren’t exciting, thrilling things, but very mundane: peace, consolation, hope, avoidance of trial and tribulation, our daily bread, safety for family and friends, over and over again. Those are the constants. I find two things occasionally helpful: (1) linking it back to the themes in the Liturgy of the Word; and (2) taking the intercessions not as just vague intercessions but as the seeds of action: intercessions not just for aid to the sick and suffering, but intercessions for aid to the sick and suffering through me, should opportunity arise — then the intercessions become the beginnings of questions to ask myself about things I can do, and prayers for grace to do them. But there are days when both are a little more ambitious than I manage to reach.

    • http://www.shipwrackharvest.blogspot.com Fr. Christopher M. Zelonis

      “Seeds of Action”–well articulated. “Let peace begin with me,” the song says, but a self-composed petition for concrete examples of peace, etc., is a fruit of what the Liturgy plants in the heart: the impulse to charity.

  • http://www.shipwrackharvest.blogspot.com Fr. Christopher M. Zelonis

    If zoning out should prompt a rethinking of one’s commitment, “Lord, who can stand?” (Ps 130). Anyhow, the General Intercessions are just that: general, and yet the universal is found in the particular (another name for the G.I. is the “Universal Prayer”), so feel free to allow particular persons to come to your mind as their “categories” are mentioned. If you run out of time for all the persons, remember that another lull in the action occurs straightaway, in the Preparation of the Gifts. Catholic piety of yesteryear suggested that we “place on the paten” (the dish holding the priest’s Host) anyone/anything that we wish to join mindfully to Christ in His Self-Offering to the Father.

  • Darren

    Yeah, I remember the BSG: Resistance arc at the time it aired – at the height of the pres. Bush Iraq war, and it was some majorly fracked up stuff.

    As a former soldier myself, I remember half-hoping that I would have been Jammer, but fearing that I would have been Tigh or Tirol, and thinking in all likelihood I would have ended up as Duck…

    It is interesting to see that you have been treating fictional characters as, in some sense, real. I often wonder about the characters that inhabit my dreams, and to what extent, even temporarily, they might be considered real… And for a character that might inhabit the dreams and imaginations of hundreds, or thousands, of others? Of course, recently reading Greg Egan’s “Permutation City” likely has a lot to do with such speculations…

    One thing I can say, even now as an atheist, before that I am still a soldier, and your prayers are always welcome.

  • jenesaispas

    Where I go to mass there is never a prayer for the unborn, which I’ve always found weird…

  • GFPchicken

    I’ve been doing this sometimes (not the fictional part, but the representing the generic group prayed for with a person/people I know) — for the “sick and suffering” I think about my great-grandmother and it helps me a lot.

  • deiseach

    I don’t know if it counts as “praying for fictional characters” but when I first read the “Divine Comedy” when I was fifteen, the constant refrain of the characters in the “Purgatorio” for Dante, when he gets back to Italy/Earth, to “pray for me, ask our families to pray for us, tell people to pray for the souls in Purgatory” made me go out loud “Yes, I will, I’ll pray for you.”

    And, well, that’s the start of my devotion to the Holy Souls :-) And yes, I do pray for the souls in Purgatory – the Requiem Aeternam every night with my night prayers. And light a candle before the statue of St Nicholas of Tolentine in one of the churches in town whenever I’m near enough to call in there.

  • W J Silver

    Yes. I had a similiar intuition to pray for Éponine when I watched Les Miserables several weeks ago. A girl in love placing her hope in a guy instead of Jesus is enough to break my heart even when I anticipate that it will end well, let alone when it will obviously go poorly. And in a split second you know your prayers are useless and you look for anyone else they can help instead. But it is harder to pray passionately for a million people never met, problems unknown, even if you assume they share a situation, than one problem you have an emotional connection to suffered by a figure that does not, in reality, exist.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    If you really think about things a lot of the images we get when we pray for tings come from fiction. For example, we pray for the people around the Sandy Hook incident. But how do I imagine them? I don’t know the kids. I don’t know the families. I don’t know the shooter. The truth is fiction fills in a lot of the blanks for me. I imagine Adam Lanza is like some psycho I saw in a movie. I imagine the families are like families in stories who have gone through similar incidents. OK, many of those stories may have been based on actual incidents. Still the line between fact and fiction is quite blurry.

    When we pray we are blind. We don’t know people’s souls. We often don’t know many details of the incident we are praying about. Someone is sick. That might be all we know. Our minds will fill in the rest. Where does it come from? Quite often fiction. Quite often our own experience, which can be less accurate. Rom 8 says we don’t know how to pay as we ought even about ourselves. The Holy Spirit intercedes and fixes our prayers. We need that big time.

  • dave

    I felt great compassion for Gatty, the peasant girl in Kevin Crossley-Holland’s “The Seeing Stone”. I knew she was fictional, but still I wanted to do something for her. I ended up sending money to the Glenmary sisters (www.glenmarysisters.org) who work with the Appalacian poor, as real-world substitutes for people like Gatty. Fictional characters can remind us of the world beyond our selves.

  • Hanna

    I know exactly what you mean. I’ve found myself praying a lot lately for the Javerts of the world.

  • Benjamin

    I like the part about the fictional character’s life being wrapped up.

    Now, of course, The Church has a nuanced view on Free Will and Salvation (I’m not sure if it works, that is, the Church avoids determinism, but I’m willing to hear more about it).

    But, say for the Calvinist or Muslim who swallows the deterministic camel: would it be right to say that praying for other people is of the same effectiveness as praying for fictional characters?

    That is, if God truly knows our final destination, indeed what we will choose at every moment, then it is hard to say that prayer is having an influence (unless God just figured prayer into the equation of causal links that is the universe, in which case the act of praying is not, in a strict sense, an act of a free will to begin with).

  • Brandon Jaloway

    It seems that God can use our prayers where they are needed most. For example, if you pray for someone who has already gone to hell, I have heard that God can use your prayers for someone who still needs them. I am not sure how much theology there is behind that but, if it is true, it would also seem that God could use your passionate prayer for a fictional character to help real people who need it.

  • Calah Alexander

    I dont know how I missed this post but I love it. The Jammer storyline hurt, but the Gaeta one killed me. He was my favorite character from day one and I hated everything that happened to.him on New Caprica and especially afterward. Actually, I think Gaeta broke my heart, in the end. Do fictional characters ever make you lose hope in the goodness of humanity?

    • LeahLibresco

      Sometimes, but not Gaeta. He never quite gave himself over to despair. He was an idealist who picked some wrong ideals, but he always seemed selfless in their pursuit, so I hold out hope that given some time with the greatest Person/Idea/God, he’d render up service just as passionately.


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