I’ve been thinking about deathbed confessions. I’m feeling fine, thank you for asking, but I’ve begun to wonder what such a thing might mean. The game, as I have heard it described in a hundred bad novels and maybe a few good ones, goes like this. God is good-hearted and endlessly forgiving. I live a life permeated by cruelty and greed—a life for which I deserve eternal punishment—but not to worry: at the last moment, I can confess my sins, receive absolution and gain everlasting bliss. That’s how the game is played.
Crime show deathbed confessions are a lot easier. I committed a crime but was never caught. Someone else was convicted of the crime and is now in prison. On my deathbed, I confess to the crime and give evidence that will cause the police to believe me and the court system to release the patsy who has been serving my time for me. Except for the banality of the plot device, I’m fine with that as a practice. The dying man provides information and the living use it to achieve a much-delayed justice.
The religious deathbed confessions are more troublesome. I think that’s because I have a much less malleable notion of what prayer is. Can you really pray what you want, when you want? I don’t think so. You can say the right words, of course, but does anyone think that the words and the prayer are the same thing? Surely not.
A prayer is a meaning, an intention, and appeal, put into words. It’s the appeal which takes form as words that makes it a prayer. It isn’t just the words. So now the question for someone who has this game in mind is, “Are you really sure you can intend an appeal for mercy at just the right time? I don’t know about you, but I have gone into a lot of situations hoping that I would have my heart in the right place—to truly hope, for instance, that a meeting I opposed would succeed—only to find that I was not able. Inside, I still wanted the meeting to fail and for my own judgment to be vindicated. If I was asked to give a welcoming speech, I am sure I would have said that we all hope for the success of this meeting. But words are not intentions and whatever I said in the welcoming speech, I am NOT yearning for the success of the meeting.
So not only is it true that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but you can’t even always want what you want. And if you can’t, then you can’t slip in a deathbed confession at just the right moment. If there are any actual, as opposed to literary, persons who are counting on working this game, they might be advised to think it through a little more.
 Or not put into words. Silent prayer is not hard to understand as a concept.