Rules Are for Schmucks: Praying for Dollars

Amazing news emerged from Russia last Friday. According to the Associated Press, “A Russian regional court has ruled that an Orthodox Church diocese can repay part of an outstanding debt in prayers rather than money.”

I want to do that, too.

It seems a Russian Orthodox Church diocese ordered a new boiler system, costing the equivalent of approximately $11,000. They paid part of the bill, but not all of it. So the boiler company sued. The case was resolved by an order of the court, which it has a duty to enforce, requiring the church to say prayers for the health of the two owners of the company, in full payment of the remaining balance.

There is important historical precedent for this. In 1760, a Jesuit-owned slave trading business on the island of Martinique stopped paying its bills in cash and offered to pay by saying masses instead. Angry merchants back in Marseilles brought a lawsuit against the entire Jesuit order, claiming it was a single entity responsible for the bills of each of its subsidiaries. The result was a thorough investigation of the hitherto secret governing documents of the order, ostensibly to determine just how independent the Martinique operation really was. Revelation after revelation piled up, not only about Jesuit business operations but about their disdain for government officials who did not carry out God’s will as they saw it. The ultimate outcome was a shocker. After the court confirmed every claim of the merchants, a special council concluded that for promoting “a doctrine authorizing robbery, lying, perjury, impurity—all passions and crimes; inculcating homicide, parricide, and regicide; overturning religion, in order to substitute in her stead superstition; and thereby sanctioning magic, blasphemy, irreligion, and idolatry,” the Jesuit order must be banned from France. Its schools were closed, its wealth nationalized. Within a few years, after the Jesuits were kicked out of most other European countries as well, Pope Clement XIV dissolved the order altogether. It was only reinstated after the French Revolution was crushed.

Despite this cautionary tale, on the very day the Russian prayer-for-debt story broke, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was meeting with none other than the world’s #1 Jesuit, Pope Francis himself. Ostensibly, they chatted about the two churches getting back together again, after a 960-year split. But this would mean one side or the other giving up power, and that’s never going to happen. Could it be that Francis was really talking to the patriarch about this cool new way to avoid paying bills? Is it significant that their meeting was happening in Cuba, a place with its own dubious history of not paying its bills?

Certainly, Francis could use some help in getting his bills paid. His latest ploy was to drag out and put on display the corpse of Padre Pio, whose claim to fame was burning his skin with carbolic acid to fake “stigmata.” The corpse itself has a silicone mask covering the face to make the body look “incorrupt.”

Not to be a party pooper, but the Associated Press story cited above is a tad misleading. Further research on a Russian-language website suggests that the case actually involved a voluntary settlement between willing parties, not a ruling forced on the plaintiff. Still, every precedent starts with a camel’s nose under the tent before it gets bigger—and it’s clear that under Russian law, the settlement terms can be enforced. What if one of the business owners gets sick, despite the promise of prayers for his health? I think he can reopen the case, because the church hasn’t been holding up its end of the deal—at least with any prayers worth their salt. In the Alice-in-Wonderland-world of religious privilege, stranger things have happened.

I guarantee you one thing: if we humanists could start paying our bills with prayers rather than with cash, our movement would take off like a rocket. Trouble is, the one thing all of our sub-varieties (atheists – agnostics – secularists – freethinkers – “nones” – deists – whatever) agree on is that prayer is like talking into a dead telephone. So there are no humanist prayers we can use.

Well, almost none. Just last week, in this very publication, Harvard’s Rick Heller presented a moving humanist invocation for use at meetings of government bodies that insist on inflicting prayers on people before getting down to business. It’s wonderful for that purpose, but as a substitute for paying bills…I have my doubts. So rather than idly complaining, I’ve been hard at work on creating some new prayers tailored for exactly this purpose.

My favorite rosary prayer growing up was the Glory Be, because it was so mercifully short. With slight variation, it could be made right on point:

Payment be to the electric company, to the water company, and to the gas company.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
Bills without end. Amen

I could easily rattle off a thousand of these prayers once a month if that would satisfy collectors. Couldn’t you? This prayer is, however, somewhat lacking in poetry. And it has no specifically humanist content. Both flaws are remedied in the following:

Let us praise the force of evolution
Which made us what we are today.
And pray it holds the true solution
To evolve my bills so they go away.

Pretty good, huh? Still, there’s an argument for having a prayer specifically targeted at not just our biggest bill, but at our sucker of a government that rolls over every time some wacko comes up with a bright new idea for a religious privilege:

Our Taxman, who art in Washington
Flattered be thy name
Thy audit come
Thy will be done
When you vanish from earth
Which would be heaven
Give us this day
A bigger deduction
And forgive us our trespasses. All of them. Back as far as the statute of limitation runs.
As we forgive government, which preaches against us.
And lead us not into litigation,
But deliver us from levies.
For thine is the house, the car, the bank account, the furniture, and everything else I’ve got
If this prayer goes unanswered.

And finally, my masterpiece:

O Universe, how great thou art
The stars and planets course you chart
Shine your blessings
On my creditor
And send this prayer
To an editor

Beat that—if you can.