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Prayer: it's just what the doctor ordered.

No one can explain the phenomenon, but modern medicine can't ignore the miraculous results. It's no wonder that doctors are beginning to take a second look at the power of prayer.

Richard Medved's only daughter lay on the operating table, bleeding uncontrollably. She'd been spotting ever since a miscarriage several months before, but tonight the blood was flowing freely, and her life was slipping away. The doctors were mystified. They didn't know what was causing the bleeding -- or how to stop it.

Medved did what any doting father would do. He fell on his knees in the hospital chapel and begged God to save his daughter.

Twenty minutes later, the doctors returned. This time they were smiling. On a chance, they had decided to dig through the original blood clot. Underneath they found an artery, cut by mistake during a procedure performed after the miscarriage. They stitched it closed, and the bleeding stopped.

Coincidence? Medved doesn't think so. "We have absolutely no doubt that the doctors were guided," he says. "They admitted they didn't know what they were doing or why they were doing it."

Now two years later, his daughter is not only healthy, she's seven-months pregnant with a baby girl.

Can prayer heal? Today, even medical science is beginning to say yes. And while your doctors may not join you on your knees, they may join you in spirit. At least they won't belittle the value of your beliefs. Consider the following:

* A recent study by the National Institute for Healthcare Research shows that 43 percent of doctors pray for their patients.

* One-third of the medical schools in the country now offer courses in alternative or complementary medicine, many of which emphasize spiritual issues in health care.

* Ninety-nine percent of the doctors attending the October 1996 meeting of the American Academy of Family Physicians agreed that "a patient's spiritual beliefs can be helpful in his or her medical treatment," and 58 percent said they had themselves actively pursued information on spirituality and healing.

It would be overstating the case to say that U.S. doctors are getting religion. But many doctors are taking a second look at prayer.

"There is at work an integration of medicine with religion, of spirituality with medical practice, the twin guardians of healing through the ages," Dr. Dale Matthews, an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University's School of Medicine, told a Virginia conference 1995.

That meeting was billed as "the first conference on spiritual dimensions in clinical research," but it wasn't the last. In March, the Harvard Medical School Department of Continuing Education presented "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine II," a 21-credit course that brought together doctors, researchers, and representatives from major world religions to explore the relationship between spirituality and healing.

The rising price of medical care and consumer demand for less impersonal, more natural, alternative, or complementary approaches has led to a revolution in healthcare. Midwives deliver babies, naturopaths prescribe herbs, and HMOs offer biofeedback and acupuncture. According to a 1993 study reported in the New England Journal of medicine, Americans made 425 million visits to alternative medical practitioners in 1990, spending some $13.7 billion. Prayer -- cheap, easy-to-use, and with no apparent side effects -- has an obvious appeal. Even the most hardened skeptics concede that it couldn't hurt to try.

Does prayer work?

Oncology nurse Cindy Thomas first decided to add prayer to her patient care after taking a class on healing at her parish in 1984. She started small -- praying silently for her patients as she gave them a back rub or tucked them in to sleep.

Almost immediately, she noticed results. "People would do better," she says. "Or a patient would say, 'I slept better than I ever slept before.'"

Soon she was praying for guidance as she drove to work. Patients began asking her to pray with them. Many nights, all her patients would be sleeping peacefully, except the one who needed extra time to talk and pray. Thomas got to know the chaplains and began sharing her stories with other nurses. "The things I saw at work reinforced for me how we could be instrumental just by laying a hand on someone," she says.

The stories that Thomas tells -- both small and dramatic -- leave no doubt that she believes in the healing power of prayer.

A woman in her late 40s was admitted to Thomas' hospital, Providence Hospital in Everett, Washington, with a rare and deadly form of cancer in the lining of her heart. As Thomas got to know the family, she learned that they had already lost two young children.

Thomas took the woman's hands and said, "You've had enough tragedy. It's time to pray for a miracle. You're due for one." At 1 a.m. the next morning, the pathologist called the nurses' station. He sounded confused. "This is a weird thing," he told Thomas. "Something made me go back to the lab and look at the slides [with the fluid specimen taken from the woman's heart lining]. And they're completely negative."

"That sounds like a miracle," Thomas said.

"l, I guess it does," stammered the pathologist. An ultrasound the next morning confirmed the new test results.

Such stories are inspiring. But the evidence for the healing power of prayer is more than anecdotal.

The case for prayer

Dr. Larry Dossey, former chief of staff at Medical City Dallas Hospital and former co-chair of the Panel of Mind/Body Interventions for the National Institutes of Health, is a leading proponent of the scientific credibility of prayer.

The author of Healing Words (HarperSan Francisco, 1993) and Prayer Is Good Medicine (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), Dossey says that there is scientific evidence -- and plenty of it -- that prayer works. More than 130 studies have tested intercessory prayer (prayer at a distance), and more than two-thirds of these studies have found a positive, statistically significant difference.

"Prayer works," says the soft-spoken Texan. "More than 130 controlled laboratory studies show that prayer or a prayer-like state of compassion, empathy, and love can bring about healthful changes in many types of living things, from humans to bacteria."

It was a 1987 study at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco that first caught Dossey's attention. In that study, 393 patients hospitalized with heart problems were divided into two groups. Researchers sent first names and brief descriptions of the patients in one group to intercessory prayer groups across the country. The other group, the control group, didn't get this prayer. Neither the patients nor the medical staff knew who was in which group.

The results were dramatic. The prayed-for group had fewer deaths, needed fewer medical interventions, and developed fewer complications. "If what was being tested was not prayer but a modem drug, this would have been heralded as a wonderful medical breakthrough," Dossey says. "People would have been lined up around the block to get their hands on it."

Admittedly, prayer is tougher to study than a new antidepressant. If patients know that they're being prayed for, any improvement may be due in part to the placebo effect, where a patient's belief in a treatment makes it work. Even in a double-blind study (where no one knows which patients are receiving prayer and which aren't), it is impossible to ensure that the control group is prayer-free. Someone, somewhere, may be praying for them, too.

Researchers have typically focused on prayer from a distance, since face-to-face prayer involves other factors that may also prove therapeutic such as touching, listening, or human contact. Researchers have also looked at lower life forms because such organisms do not have a personal set of beliefs that could affect the outcome of the study. Bacteria, as far as we know, don't do theology.

In one study, researchers placed bacteria in test tubes and then divided the samples into two groups. They asked people 15 miles away to pray for one group of samples -- that those particular bacteria would grow faster. In 14 out of 15 trials it worked.

Because lower life forms have the same biochemical processes as humans, researchers believe similar results occur when people, not bacteria, are the objects of someone's prayer.

There are other signs of the extent to which healing prayer is on its way to becoming mainstream. For example, the most controversial aspect of Dossey's book has not been his fundamental assessment that prayer heals. Instead, Dossey's most controversial finding states that how much you pray or what you believe in doesn't really matter. That's something conservative religious groups weren't ready to hear.

"There was no correlation between your private religious beliefs and the effect of the prayer," notes Dossey. "This means that no religion has yet cornered the market on prayer."

Dossey says that the key ingredients in effective prayer are compassion, empathy, and love. This needn't be a stumbling block for Christians, he adds. Because Christians believe that God is love, any prayer that is offered in love is filled with God's presence.

The universality of prayer -- and its proven good effects -- have led Harvard doctor Herbert Benson to make a case that human beings are genetically programmed for belief in God.

A recent Gallup poll found that close to 90 percent of people pray. On average, people with a strong religious commitment have better overall health, fewer psychological symptoms, and lower blood pressure than those who don't. They live longer, too.

In his book Timeless Healing (Scribner, 1996), Benson argues that humans are "wired for God" in a deep, physiological way and that they know instinctively that worshipping a higher power is good for us. Prayer, he says, is a survival instinct.

"Whether or not God exists, our genes guarantee that we will bear faith and that our bodies will be soothed by faith," Benson says. "I have found that faith quiets the mind like no other form of belief, short-circuiting the nonproductive reasoning that so often consumes our thoughts."

President of the Mind/Body Institute in Boston, Benson began his research 25 years ago by studying the effect of mental focusing techniques on the body. He found that by sitting quietly breathing deeply, and focusing on one word or phrase, people could induce a relaxed state in which their breathing and heartbeat slowed and their blood pressure went down. Practicing these techniques regularly -- along with good nutrition, exercise, and stress management -- gave relief from a variety of health problems, including pain, migraines, insomnia, anxiety, and PMS.

Benson also found that when asked to select a word or phrase on which to focus, 80 percent of his subjects chose something spiritual, such as "The Lord is my shepherd," "Hail Mary," or "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."

But wait a minute. Doesn't sitting quietly with your eyes closed while repeating "Hail Mary" or "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me" sound a lot like prayer?

A nonlocal event

If scientifically proving that prayer heals is difficult, explaining why it works is even tougher.

Dossey finds an intriguing parallel in the world of quantum physics. When two subatomic particles that have been in contact with each other are separated, a change in one simultaneously produces the same change in the other -- no matter how far apart they are. Physicists call this a nonlocal event.

Nonlocal events are unmediated -- there is no transmission of energy between the two particles; unmitigated -- the strength of the change is not affected by distance; and immediate -- they take place simultaneously. It's as if the two particles are somehow part of one whole.

Dossey says that distant intercessory prayer can show some of the same characteristics: the effect may be felt immediately, distance is not always a factor, and there is no measurable transmission of energy. But, Dossey adds, "To say that distant prayer may be based on nonlocal quantum connections is merely to replace one mystery with another. Physicists don't actually know how nonlocal quantum events happen; they know only that they do."

For those who believe, the power behind prayer is simple: God.

Sister Mary Frances Hackman and Sister Mary Matthew Griffith -- both Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace have prayed with thousands of people, sometimes with dramatic results. "We cringe when people say, `Here come the healing nuns,"' says Hackman. "The Lord does the healing; we don't."

In April 1996, the sisters prayed with Maria Petrish, a woman in their Anacortes, Washington parish who had a diseased gall bladder and a tumor between her pancreas and liver. With her permission -- "we always ask for permission," the sisters say -- Hackman had Petrish put her hand over her stomach, laid her hand on top of Petrish's, and prayed. "I experienced a real energy going from my hand to hers," Hackman recalls. "I said, `I don't know what the Lord is doing, but I think the Lord is doing something very nice for you."'

Petrish, director of the Vela Luka Dance Ensemble, a Croatian folk-dancing group, was also well-doused with intercessory prayer. "My sister had people on five continents praying for me," she recalls.

At her presurgery consultation, the doctors gave Petrish a gloomy prognosis. When they left, Petrish turned to her sister and said, "Let's pray that the tumor is benign."

"No," said her sister. "Let's pray that God makes the tumor go away."

When Petrish went in for surgery, doctors removed the gall bladder. But when they looked for the tumor, it was gone.

That same month, Hackman and Griffith were called to the hospital to pray for a parishioner who had suffered a massive heart attack. Doctors gave Verna DeForrest only a 5 percent chance of survival.

The sisters tiptoed into the ICU where DeForrest, the grandmother of four, lay unconscious. "Father, in Jesus' holy name," they prayed quietly, "we humbly ask, according to your holy will, that Verna will be made well. Thank you, Lord." Then they made the sign of the cross on her forehead and left.

Four days later, Deforrest was out of the hospital.

"One thing you are aware of," Griffith says, "is that you know that you haven't done anything except say a prayer. The Lord does the healing."

When their prayers seem not to be answered the sisters aren't disturbed. "All sincere prayer is answered," Hackman says. "Sometimes the Lord answers quickly with a `Yes.' Sometimes he says, `Wait.' Once in a while he has to say `No,' but he does something better in its place."

When prayer doesn't work

The thorny question of why prayer doesn't always seem to work is one that has baffled theologians for centuries. There is no shortage of theories. The inability to forgive, bitterness, and lack of faith are often cited as blocks to healing. But most who practice healing prayer say that it's a question that can't be answered.

"I think that's lost in the mystery of healing," says Benedictine Father Ray Roh, prior of the Benedictine Monastery of the Risen Christ in San Luis Obispo, California. "Sometimes I pray for people who aren't healed the first time but are the second time. Sometimes things just aren't ripe or ready. God has his time. When it's time for someone to release something or forgive somebody, they're ready in their emotions and not just their will."

Roh, who conducts retreats and healing services nationwide, always asks a woman to pray with him to illustrate the need for complete wholeness. Sometimes prayer brings physical healing -- like the woman who was healed of the migraines she had endured for 17 years. More often though, there is an inner healing, a sense of peace and release.

"If you're not healed," maintains Father Desmond McMahon of Tacoma, Washington, "it's for a higher purpose."

McMahon points out that jesus wasn't spared the cross and Saint Paul sought in vain to have his "thorn in the flesh" removed. "For Jesus, the higher purpose was our redemption," McMahon explains. "For Paul, he became a wounded healer, a channel of healing for others."

McMahon spends two to three hours a day praying before the Blessed Sacrament and conducts healing missions as invited. "It's not a glamour ministry," says the priest, who focuses on prayer, celebrating the Mass, and blessing people with the Eucharist. "I never see things happening when I'm there." But the calls and letters he gets later assure him that people are being healed.

No therapy, points out Dossey, is 100 percent effective. "One can never predict ahead of time whether a therapy will work or not. One tries and sees," he explains. "Prayer is not unlike drugs and surgery in this respect. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't."

Because neither medicine nor religion has a monopoly on healing, Dossey says that it makes sense to use the best of both.

The best of both worlds

Noted heart surgeon and researcher Dr. Lester Sauvage pioneered coronary bypass surgery using veins. But he also gave his patients the prayer of Saint Francis.

"That prayer is worth more than a lot of the tranquilizers that a lot of money is being spent on," says Sauvage, who estimates that he has distributed about 5,000 prayer cards. "I highly recommend to people that they commit [the prayer] to memory and say it daily."

Sauvage, a Catholic and author of The Open Heart (Health Communications, 1996), a book that describes how his patients' brush with death gave them a new outlook on life, says that he has often prayed during surgery. "I'd pray, `Not my skill but thine.' It always seemed to steady me down and help me get done what I had to do."

In a scene that's being repeated across the country, Iris Beardemphl, director of the Institute for Christian Ministries (ICM), meets monthly with a small group of doctors at Tacoma General Hospital in Tacoma, Washington to explore how religion and medicine can work together. "We have doctors call a lot," says Beardemphl. "Their healing only goes so far. They are understanding that people are whole, and you can't separate the physical from the spirItual."

ICM, founded by Dominican Father Leo Thomas, has been training Catholics and other Christians for healing prayer ministry since 1977. Today, the two-semester, 70-hour program is used in seven states and two foreign countries.

Prayer, says Beardemphl, is a complement to -- not a substitute for -- medical care. "We've had cases," she says, "where people are diagnosed with breast cancer, and instead of getting the treatment they need, they come to us and think God's going to heal them through prayer [alone]. That's wrong.

"Prayer is one way God heals people. God also heals through doctors and medicine. It all needs to be there," Beardemphl says.

Of course, many doctors aren't ready to accept the notion that prayer heals. Dr. Tim McNamara says he doesn't believe in a God who "zaps" people with healing or anything else in response to their prayers.

"I don't see prayer as magic," says the kidney specialist. "I don't see God directing little miracles here and there. I don't believe that."

Even so, as a lifelong Catholic, prayer -- which McNamara describes as an openness to God and others -- has a place in his life and his medical practice. For McNamara, prayer is making the effort to listen to his patients and be sensitive to their needs.

McNamara adds that as young doctors mature, they realize that healing is more than sewing up wounds. "The mission of a physician is to bring a person to health," he says. "That entails physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Most physicians realize that eventually."

JUST YOUR AVERAGE MIRACLE

Cheryl Cain was 22 and five-and-a-half months pregnant when doctors discovered the brain tumor. After 12 hours of surgery removed 95 percent of the malignant growth, Cain received low doses of radiation to kill the rest.

Her doctors encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy so she could receive stronger treatment. And they warned her that the baby might be born retarded or develop leukemia.

Cain made what she calls the hardest decision of her life. She decided to continue her pregnancy. "I knew it was a girl. I'd heard her heartbeat and seen her on the ultrasound," she says. "I just couldn't bring myself to do it. She was mine."

At that point, prayer wasn't on the top of her list. "I was so angry at God," she recalls. "I said, `I don't understand why you're doing this to me and my family,' and I decided that I was not going to pray anymore.' But everywhere I turned, there he was."

A friend suggested that Cain call the Prayer for Hearing Ministry at St. Luke Catholic Church in Seattle, and Cain began to meet with a prayer team for an hour a week.

On Dec. 28, 1989, her prayers were answered. A healthy daughter was born and was able to come home from the hospital the next day. Mom and daughter were baptized together at the Easter Vigil in 1991.

Today Kylee is a bright, energetic first-grader, and Cain is studying to be a child psychologist.

Cain is grateful for her doctors,' skills, but she adds, "God is a higher physician than all of them. That's what healed me. I believe in the power of prayer."

Christine Dubois, a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Catholic Northwest Progress in Seattle. She is coauthor, with her husband, Steve Bourne, of Waiting in Hope: Meditations for Expectant Parents (T. Nelson Publishers, 1993). The couple lives with their two young sons in Bothell, Washington.
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Title Annotation:includes related personal narrative; power of prayer in healing
Author:Dubois, Christine
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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