COMMENTARY: Embarrassed by prayer

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is publisher of Religion News Service.)

UNDATED _ It is a scene repeated over and over in my memory: Our family is bustling around, hurrying to gather at the dinner table or to grab a slice of pizza. No matter how informal the occasion we would still pause for a moment, bow our heads and pray.

Even in a busy restaurant our family always prayed aloud. My father never cut the blessing short because we were in public. He prayed in a voice loud enough for others to hear and expected a round of"amens"at the end from all of us.

We prayed because we were thankful and because it was a natural part of every meal. We prayed because it seemed like a small way to acknowledge God in our lives.

When I was a child many people did the same thing. It was not uncommon for families to pray aloud in restaurants or even to settle into their cars and bow their heads. It may still be common some places, but I rarely see such a gesture anymore.

Perhaps that is part of the reason that initial reaction to a pilot praying in the cockpit of EgyptAir flight 990 was so extreme. Most people couldn't imagine saying a prayer as part of a routine situation. Something bad had to be happening if someone was praying.

For all the tragedy surrounding the crash of the airplane, one of the other tragedies is that Americans have so lost their appreciation of prayer that they find it suspicious.

Some would say they don't pray openly because they don't want to offend others. Yet all major religions include some sort of prayer. And it is typically a personal response to God, not a pronouncement or an indictment of others.

A friend of mine suggested another reason. Remembering how her Catholic family always said a prayer before they started the car or as an airplane took off, one day she realized that people were looking at her as she crossed herself. Embarrassed, she stopped praying openly. Now she simply prays to herself."I'm too embarrassed to let people know I pray,"she told me. I think she speaks for many people.

Most of us don't pray openly because we are embarrassed that people will think we are different. We don't thank God in public for fear others will think we are extremists.

If you believe the statistics, America is a religious nation. But we seem to have grown increasingly compartmentalized in our practice of faith, making it something to be done only in private.

Perhaps some of us keep our faith private out of respect for others. But I think most of us are simply embarrassed by prayer and afraid of what others will think of us if they know we pray.

The recent American response to what Egyptians would call a routine prayer may reveal more about us than we realize. Somewhere along the line, Americans became suspicious of prayer.