The Healing Power of Prayer:
A Return to Spiritual Medicine
In today's advanced technological world, it is increasing difficult to believe that not everyone is convinced that modern medical science is the cure-all, particularly Western medicine. Developing countries that do not have or maintain the same technological advances attest to the need for Western medicine via such items as vaccines and antibiotics. Turn on the television and you will see any number of commercials marketing a new "cure" for a wide array of ailments. Medical researchers are constantly exploring new technologies and less invasive procedures to predict, diagnosis or treat illness, such as the "virtual colonoscopy."
Modern Western medicine tends to focus on the physical aspect of a person only. Is treatment of the physical ailment alone beneficial to the patient? It is becoming increasingly evident that many people want a more spiritual approach to medicine. Log into the Internet, search for the words "healing and prayer" and you will see thousands of results relating to the topic; people requesting prayers for themselves or others, books about how prayer heals, organizations promoting "alternative medicine", and so on. An organization, The Presidential Prayer Team, has even created a website requesting people to "adopt a government official or an overseas soldier, and pray for them" (Gordon, 2003).
"Healing for many people entails a more wholistic approach which means treating not just the physical part of the person, but the whole person body, mind, and spirit" (Brandi, 2000). But is this truly a new phenomenon or perhaps revitalization of older philosophies? Is prayer or spirituality a separate entity from medical science? Does prayer actually have healing abilities? Prayer is (and always has been) an integral and valuable part of medicine. Western medicine tends to focus on prayer as a separate entity, but recently there is a movement towards returning to a more "spiritual medicine."
In order to understand the concept of spiritual medicine, let us first take the word prayer out of its usual context. For the purposes of this report, prayer refers to any action that attempts to connect a person with a divine or universal force/energy for a specific purpose, without attaching or limiting itself to a specific religion or belief practice. By this definition, prayer itself becomes universal in many forms including such concepts as meditation, reiki, spells, or laying of hands, as well as the traditional view of praying to a single deity or even deities. Religions, throughout the centuries, have often incorporated prayer and healing. "Prayer may actually be the most traditional of therapies. Long before medicine had its wonder, prayer was almost the only medicine. In fact the same person dispensed medical and spiritual care" (Healy, 1999).
No one particular religion seems to have a monopoly on prayer and healing either. Prayer is most definitely a universal concept. In the Lakota tradition, the sacred pipe is form of prayer. The tobacco, containing herbs with both male and female medicine, acts as the connection "to the divine energy of the Great Spirit." When the White Buffalo appears, it was a sign that prayers were being heard (Sams & Carson, 1999). The Tibetan Medical Institute in Dharmsala, India follows the tradition that "both plants and prayer are combined to make medicine" (Johnson, 2003). In Peru, Shamans practice healing arts passed down by ancestors (Johnson, 2003).
Catholics have been praying to God and Saints for centuries for healing of the sick. Holy water often used in prayer as a connection to God is used to anoint patients in order to transfer its healing affects. Holy water from the Lourdes in France is believed to especially have healing properties above that of just normal holy water. A friend of my boss's daughter recently gave birth to a little girl prematurely. Her premature birth led to many medical complications, including an enlarged heart and non-normal functioning lungs and diaphragm. My boss would go to the hospital every few days to bring holy water (from Lourdes) and pray over the little girl. She sent emails to an organization call United Prayer Tower, as well as to other Christian friends, asking for prayer from others for this little girl. Doctors felt that there was very little they could do to save this little girl, but still my boss and everyone continued to pray. Doctors performed a surgery that had never been attempted at this particular hospital in an effort to repair the undeveloped organs. The doctors felt that it would take months, if the surgery even worked, for this child to be able to go home, and even then they were not sure she would live a normal life. Still everyone prayed, and after only a few weeks, the little girl came home from the hospital much earlier than anticipated able to completely breathe on her own.
Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, based her entire belief system on the principle that prayer alone heals. According to Mrs. Eddy, prayer's ability to heal exists in its connection to Truth (or God). Often a misconception exists as to whether or not Christian Scientists can or do seek medical attention. Sue Jackson, Christian Scientist, said to me in an interview, "If prayer heals all things, why would one need to seek more traditional medical attention?" While this represents the core of their beliefs, it does not mean that a Christian Scientist is not allowed to seek modern medicine. One such example is a testimony offered at a recent Wednesday night meeting.
The testifier's mother's heart stopped beating as she was raking leaves. Her husband had a thought to cut short his daily errands and was just driving up as his wife collapsed. He didn't understand what was happening and thought perhaps she had just fainted, but immediately began prayerful work. At that moment, a neighbor, who never drives past their house but always take a different route home, had a thought to go the other way for some reason. As he drove past the house, he noticed the husband leaning over the wife and he immediately called 911 on his cell phone. A policeman was in the area and arrived on the scene within 60 seconds. This policeman needed to use defibrillator paddles (electric shock) right there on the lawn to get the mother's heart beating again. The doctors said that any delay in the policeman's shock treatment, even of 60 seconds would have made it impossible for them to do anything for her medically and the woman would have passed on. Meanwhile, a few days later the father woke up in the middle of the night and found himself paralyzed, apparently having suffered a stroke. He couldn't even move to look up the phone number of a Christian Science practitioner, so he called 911. So here were both parents in the hospital, each for the first time ever! But both were able to be home for Thanksgiving! The son, giving the testimony, expressed great gratitude for the loving care of the doctors and nurses in the hospital, and for the joy they expressed in seeing his parents have such "amazingly quick" recoveries. But the son was also grateful to leave the "gloom and doom" atmosphere he found in the hospital. He said some would call this experience a wonderful series of incredible coincidences, but he has had a life filled with too many "coincidences" to believe in chance. Consistent reliance on God in one's life makes a difference (Jackson, 2003).
In the Jewish tradition, "illness is viewed as a potential barrier separating us from God" (Sherwin, 2001). Prayers are often said at services requesting health and well-being for members. "The Hebrew infinitive 'le-hitpallel' 'to pray,' means 'to examine oneself.' Prayer is therefore both theocentric and anthropocentric. It strives to improve both our relationship with God and our relationship with our own selves. Petitioning God to allow divine grace to flow into our world, into our lives, and into our bodies for curative purposes was part of the practice of the Hasidic masters, and other Jewish mystics before them" (Sherwin, 2001). In the past, many Rabbis were also medical practitioners.
Islamic traditions state that "it is the command of Allah for a patient to seek for a medical cure" (Ghouri, 2003). This tradition lies in the example that Muhammad set for his "ummat (community)" through his own search of medicinal cures. Allah's will is of the utmost importance within the Islamic belief system. "With dawa (medicine), dua (prayer/zikr) is also essential so that Allah Subhana wa Taala cures thorough the hand of Hakeem (doctor) so that both Hakeem and patient both receive their rewards from Allah. Both the Hakeem and patient must be firm in their faith in Allah so that Allah may cure the sick" (Ghouri, 2003).
Meditation has been used in many religions as a form of prayer healing, a silent connection to the divine. Evangelical faiths have claimed healing through the laying of hands. Reiki, the use of energy (Chi) to "strengthen a person's aura" (Herron, 2003), is another form of prayer used by many religions. Buddhism offers prayer banners for healing, in addition to what are known as Prayer Wheels. Prayer Wheels are inscribed with om mani padme hum mantras. Turning a prayer wheel is the equivalent of chanting the prayers inscribed on the wheel. One Prayer Wheel located at the Land of Buddha Medicine is said to contain 64 billion prayers. These Prayer Wheels purify negative karmas and aid in stopping disease (Rinpoche, 1994). Buddhist prayer ceremonies called pujas are often used to "invoke the blessings and activities of all the Buddhas" (Rinpoche, 2001).
These models, both religious and spiritual, are but a small representation of the use of prayer in medicine. For centuries, prayer and medicine were interlinked. Prayer (or spirituality) was an integral part of a patient's recovery. It is not necessary for prayer to be performed solely by the ailing person, as "intercessory prayer", which is prayer offered for the benefit of another, had the same spiritual healing value. But not until recently, and more particularly the last ten years, has Western medicine started to look into the intrinsic value of prayer. More and more research is being conducted to study the effectiveness of prayer on healing. "Investigators at John Hopkins are studying a group of women with breast cancer who say a meditative prayer twice daily. At the University of Pennsylvania, neuroscientists are documenting changes in brain scans of meditating Tibetan Buddhists and praying nuns" (Hales, 2003).
In 1996, Dr Mitchell Krucoff of Duke University conducted a double blind experiment to measure the effectiveness of prayer on patients undergoing catheterization procedures. His study also included examining the effects of noetic practices such as touch therapy. In this study, eight prayer groups were utilized. These prayer groups ranging from Buddhists monks to Baptists were only told the names and ages of the patients and that they were scheduled for a cardiac procedure. They were then asked to pray for the patients according to their own customs (Waring, 2000). Various quantitative biological functions, such as heart rate and ischemia, were measured, as were "incidents of stroke, heart attack, heart failure, and death, as well as length of hospital stay and need for additional surgery" (Waring, 2000). According to Dr. Krucoff, an apparent 30% reduction was found in the group receiving prayer for every adverse outcome measured (2000). Dr. Targ, director of the Complementary Medicine Research Institute at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, created a similar study in relation to AIDS patients. Twenty of the 40 patients were prayed for-six days a week for ten weeks-by experienced healers from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, shamanic, and other traditions. The healers had photos of the patients and knew their first names, CD4+ counts, and symptoms. A rotating healing schedule randomized healers to patients on a weekly basis to minimize possible differences in healer effectiveness. The study employed a pair-matched design to control for age, higher T cell count, and illness history. After six months, the investigators found that the prayed-for patients had significantly fewer new AIDS-defining illnesses (2 vs. 12), saw their doctors less often (185 vs. 260 visits), and spent fewer days in the hospital (10 vs. 68 days). They also showed marked improvement in mood. "Every way we turned the stone, the patients in the prayer group did better," says Dr. Targ. "The results are not a matter of hopefulness, since half of the patients in the treatment group thought they were in the control group." (Waring, 2000)
In an in-vitro-fertilization study at a hospital in Seoul, Korea, Christian prayer groups in the US, Canada, and Australia were assigned patients. They were each given a picture of a woman. The women in the study did not know they were being prayed for, nor did their medical caregivers. According to Dr. Rogerio A. Lobo, during this study which occurred between 1998 and 1999, "the women in the 'prayed for' group became pregnant twice as often as the other women" (Davis, 2001).
It is important to point out some of the problems that may arise from the current research being conducted. The research is not necessarily quantifiable in that there are variables outside the control of researchers. How do you create a true control group? It is nearly impossible to guarantee that a control group will have no one praying for them. In addition, how do you assess the level of faith of a person? Some professionals feel that prayer and religious involvement is multidimensional in that it promotes healthy behaviors (less smoking and drinking), provides social support (faith, communities) and produces positive emotions (less stress anxiety) thus it naturally has an effect on health and well being (less immune suppression and stress) (Myers, 2000).
Another problem exists within the actual results of the research. Will the combination of prayer and western medicine lead towards promoting less religious tolerance? Will medical professionals push one form of religion over another? Will those who do not practice religion feel pressured to do so? Will people stop going to doctors and utilize prayer only as ways of healing? In actuality, it is already a concern because some religions do promote prayer over medicine, and in some cases this has resulted in death. Richard Sloan, director of behavioral medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, in a recent interview with Claudia Kalb of Newsweek, pointed out similar concerns. What are your biggest concerns? Manipulation of religious freedom. Restriction of religious freedom. Invasion of privacy. And causing harm. It's bad enough to be sick, it's worse still to be gravely ill, but to add to that the burden of remorse and guilt for some supposed failure of religious devotion in unconscionable. (Kalb, 2003).
But even with the concerns facing researchers and western medicine regarding the use of prayer, it is irrefutable that people are expressing a desire for a more spiritual approach to medicine. In a recent "NEWSWEEK Poll, 72 percent of Americans say they would welcome a conversation with their physician about faith; the same number say they believe that praying to God can cure someone" (Kalb, 2003). In the same poll, 84 percent of those polled stated that they believed that intercessory prayer would be effective, and 74 percent believed it would be effective even in cases where the patient was unknown. A majority of the medical schools in the United States are now offering courses regarding spirituality. "At a (1996) meeting for the American Academy of Family Physicians, a survey of doctors found that nearly all of them felt a person's faith could help the physical healing process. And 75% said they thought the prayers of others might help as well" (Healy, 1999).
"Physicians and healers agree that the main goal of all healing arts is to improve quality of life. If we accept the premise that prayer and spirituality can enhance quality of life, then these practices are far too important and intriguing to be ignored by science and medicine" (Juncos, 2003). While some of the critics of Western medicine integrating and using prayer argue some exceedingly valid points, the fact that prayer has for centuries been incorporated in medicine is of extreme importance. The critical factor in establishing a firm foundation of prayer in western medicine relies on establishing non-religion-conforming spirituality. "The studies on prayer show no correlation between religious affiliation and the effects of prayer in the laboratory" (Dossey, 1996).
The key, as with all things, will be attaining and maintaining a balance between medical science and spirituality. If prayer is taken in a more general context as described at the beginning of this paper, then it offers an advantageous approach to medicine as a whole. As western medicine begins to open its doors to more alternative treatments, such as prayer, it will begin its transition into a more harmonious existent of spiritual medicine, incorporating all aspects of the human existence mind, body and spirituality.
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