The healing power of prayer surpasses medical measurables

April 14, 2006|By MARTIN E. MARTY

"If you are ill, don't let anyone pray for you - it could be hazardous to what's left of your health." Or: "If you are praying for those who are ill, don't tell them, because they will get `performance anxiety' or fear that things are desperate, and will get sicker."

Those are two flip conclusions that some have drawn from news reports about a recent scientific experiment testing the power of prayer by anonymous people out of the sight line of coronary bypass surgery patients, who are the focus of their prayer.

Harvard Medical School, Mayo Clinic and others spent $2.4 million in five years measuring responses of 1,802 patients. Scientists were not questioning the existence of God but putting to test the efficacy of some kinds of prayer.

One group of patients made the headlines. Among them a reasonable number seemed worse off. Some who responded to news of this result gloated: "Danger: Prayer: Handle with care!" Others asked, "What did you expect? Science cannot touch the sacred." More probing responses asked, "What does prayer for healing mean?" "Who does and should do the praying?" and "If awareness of the kind of praying in this test could be destructive, are other kinds constructive?"

One commentator took care of most of the issue. People who pray in this way for these benefits, he summarized, are dealing with the supernatural, and science can only measure the natural. That leaves the question: What kind of prayer might offer measurable benefits?

A significant percentage of believers look for clear "miraculous" healing, and their God sometimes obliges and satisfies them. That leaves the majorities in the believing communities. They pray for others and welcome being prayed for, especially when they are in crisis. We must presume that they welcome relief from stress and other benefits.

Pastors, chaplains, priests, rabbis, lay caregivers at hospices and others in a cast of many thousands regularly call on afflicted and frightened people in clinics, senior residences and homes. These callers abhor prayer as snake oil or prayer as deception. They would be pleased, of course, if patients experienced physical healing when they prayed or when they were aware of people praying for them.

I spoke, however, of "believing communities" that surround patients as key. Awareness that family, friends and congregations are praying for them makes vivid the role and power of faith - and leaves the rest to God.

At a retreat last summer, we were comparing the terrors of pain vs. aloneness among the agonized. The physicians present at once zoomed in on "aloneness." In company, be it spiritual or physical, alert to the concerns of those who love them and even of some who know little more than their name, patients experience kinds of healing that are fulfilling, be they measurable or not.

Chaplain Dean Marek of Mayo, a chagrined co-director of the study, summarized, "The best prayer probably is, `Thy will be done.'" Jesus taught Christians to pray that, but one story about him puts such prayer into context. "Thy will be done" often sounds like: "I throw in the towel! God, I wanted health. You didn't provide it, and you're bigger than I am, so have it your way."

Today, Christians will hear and read stories of Jesus praying in a garden the night before he is to die, and because he didn't want to die: "Thy will be done."

In three Gospels, however, he does not simply throw in the towel. Instead, he keeps on praying. "Thy will be done" is not a sullen stab in the dark, only a desperate cry or an anonymous act monitored by medical measurers.

In those stories, prayer is a continuous but not always vocalized conversation, part of a way of life, a dialogue that prepares the person in crisis for any future - except being abandoned. Trusting that they will not be is what keeps them and theirs praying, oblivious to measurement, and less stressed.

Martin E. Marty is an ordained Lutheran minister and the author of "When Faiths Collide." This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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