Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
A while back my husband and I were at a dinner party where most of the other people in attendance were not religious. When the food was served, we faced an awkward moment: Do we say our usual prayer?
I don’t know whether it’s because both of us spent so much time living secular lifestyles or because of all our taciturn English and German genes, but public displays of faith don’t come naturally to us. At all. (The other day I crossed myself after saying a silent prayer when I was out for a walk. When I noticed that one of my neighbors had seen me do it, I briefly felt the urge to rush up and apologize to him for my overbearing holy rolling antics.) And so at the dinner party, my husband and I opted for a silent prayer of thanksgiving, bowing our heads in a safely ambiguous way that could have indicated either prayer or indigestion.
I spend a fair amount of time around people who don’t share my religious beliefs, so this kind of situation comes up a lot. I typically do what I did at the dinner party and go into “stealth Catholic” mode ... but I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to do.
Personally, I tend to find public displays of faith inspiring. Even when I was an atheist, I recall being quite moved on the rare occasions that I saw people pray before meals in public. There was something refreshing about the humility in seeing food as a gift, rather than as something deserved or earned. I thought it was interesting that God was real enough to these people that they were willing to stand out and look weird to acknowledge him. In general, I had a low opinion of anyone who believed in God—Christians especially—but it was touching to see people pray before meals, and I respected the gesture in spite of my usual cynicism. In fact, those were some of the few occasions that I thought about God with an open mind.
Of course, it’s possible for any kind of public display of faith to seem self-righteous, and that’s what I always worry about when I consider praying in front of others. I suppose it comes down to what your motivation is: If what’s driving you to pray is a thought along the lines of, I WILL CONVERT THESE PITIFUL HEATHENS BY SHOWING THEM HOW SUPER HOLY I AM, it will probably be off-putting. But if you’re simply so focused on the Lord that prayer in a public place is a natural outcome, an overflow of the Spirit’s work within you, it’s probably a good thing to do.
Still, though, I have this irrational fear that the power of my social awkwardness is greater than the power of the Holy Spirit, and that no matter what my motivation I’d still make everyone uncomfortable if I cross myself and pray quietly at a mixed-faith dinner. What do you think? Do you pray openly when you go to restaurants? What about if you were at a dinner at someone’s home who wasn’t a Christian?