One of the last things Thomas Peters does each day is face the Cross of St. Benedict that hangs over his bed and pray.
The final phrases of the Hail Mary prayer have taken on a unique relevancy: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
The conservative Catholic writer recently challenged readers of the American Papist Web site to join him in praying one Hail Mary a day on behalf of the iconoclastic atheist Christopher Hitchens, 61, who has been stricken with esophageal cancer, a disease with few survivors.
"I am going to begin praying … for the salvation of his eternal soul," Mr. Peters wrote, "that God will be with him 'at the hour of his death,' that God will help his unbelief in this life, and that those he has led away from God will come back to His infinite love and mercy. I am in no way praying for him to die, I am praying for him to live eternally."
Mr. Peters is not alone and Mr. Hitchens knows it. While some believers hope that he suffers and dies, post haste, the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything told CNN that he has been surprised that others - who are "much more numerous, I must say, and nicer" - are praying for his healing, both body and soul.
This has been one of the strangest side effects of his journey across the "stark frontier that marks off the land of malady."
Mr. Hitchens told evangelical broadcaster Hugh Hewitt that he remains convinced that people's prayers "don't do any good, but they don't necessarily do any harm. It's touching to be thought of in that way."
The bottom line, Mr. Peters explained, is that his faith asks him to "pray for everyone, even those who hate us."
Meanwhile, a quick Internet scan reveals that some believers are, predictably enough, praying for Mr. Hitchens to be converted to Christianity for the sake of his own soul. Others are specifically praying that the scribe who - with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins - is called one of the "four horsemen" of the New Atheism will not only convert, but also become an apologist for faith.
That happened decades ago with an atheist named C.S. Lewis, after all.
"Ultimately, I simply will pray that Hitch has a good and holy death," Mr. Peters said. "I really do not care if he has a public conversion. I care that he, somehow, has a private conversion and that he will be reconciled to God."
As much as believers love these kinds of "foxhole conversion" stories, Mr. Hitchens is convinced he will not surrender.
However, should rumors spread that he has "hedged his bets," the writer has made several public statements warning his admirers that if such cry to the Almighty were to take place, they should ignore it.
"If that comes it will be when I'm very ill, when I am half-demented, either by drugs or by pain, and I won't have control over what I say," he told CNN. "I can't say that the entity that by then would be me wouldn't do such a pathetic thing. But I can tell you that - not while I am lucid. No, I could be quite sure of that."
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