I was doing my residency at parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas, when I had my first patient with a terminal case of cancer. It had spread throughout both lungs. I advised him what therapy was available and what little I thought it would do. Rightly enough he opted for treatment.
And yet whenever I stopped by his hospital bedside he was surrounded by visitors from his church, singing and praying. Good thing, I thought when I heard them, because soon they'll be singing and praying at his funeral.
A year later, when I was working elsewhere, a colleague at parkland called to ask if I wanted to see my old patient. See him? I couldn't believe he was still alive. At the hospital I studied his chest X rays. I was stunned. The man's lungs were completely clear. there was no sign of cancer. "His therapy has been remarkable," said the radiologist, looking over my shoulder.
Therapy? I thought. There wasn't any-unless you consider prayer. I told two of my medical school professors what had happened. neither of them were willing to acknowledge the man's miraculous healing. "That was natural course of the disease," one said. the other professor shrugged. "We see this," he said. I had long given up the faith of my childhood. Now I believed in the power of modern medicine. prayer seemed an arbitrary frill. So I put the incident out of my mind.
The year passed and I became chief of staff at a large urban hospital, I was aware that many of my patients used prayer, but I put little trust in it. Then one day in the late '80s I came across a study done by Randolph Byrd, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital. Half of a group of cardiac patients were prayed for and half were not, those who were did better in a significant number of ways.I could not ignore the evidence. The study was designed according to rigid criteria. It was randomized, double- blind experiment - neither the patients, nurses nor doctors knew which group the patients were in. If the technique being studied had been a new drug or a surgical procedure instead of prayer, it would have been heralded as some sort of breakthrough.
This study inspired me to look for others. To my amazement I found an enormous body of evidence: more than 100 experiments exhibiting the criteria of good science. Many were conducted under stringent laboratory conditions; about half showed that prayer brings about significant changes in a variety of living beings. Scientists, including physicians, can have blind spots. The power of prayer seemed to be one of them.
I have since given up practicing medicine to devote myself to writing and research about prayer and how it affects our health. here is some of what i have found:
1. The power of prayer does not diminish with distance. Prayer is as effective from the other side of the world as it is from next door or at the bedside. As research William G. Braud has pointed out, "The operating characteristics of the remote influence are not a function of spatial distance or time, and it is not influenced importantly by physical barriers or shields."
2. Prayer can be continuous. As a child I was puzzled by the advice "pray without ceasing." I would fight sleep as I said my prayers in bed. Eventually, sleep would overtake me and I felt as though i has failed. only recently have I seen how prayers might continue in my subconscious. In the fourteenth century, St. Peregrine, still a young priest, was scheduled for amputation of his leg because of cancer. The night before the surgery, he prayed fervently and dreamed he was cured. on awakening, his dream had become reality. He lived to be 80, dying in 1345 without any further evidence of cancer. An attitude of prayerfulness can exist even during sleep. As Isaac the Syrian stated, "When the spirit has come to reside in someone, that person cannot stop praying; for the spirit prays without ceasing in him."
3. There is no one right way to address God. I once attended a seminar given by a well-know authority on prayer, and when a man in the audience boldly asked, "Doctor, how should I pray?" the expert replied "ask God." It seems that there is more than one "best" way to pray. For instance, in the coronary care experiment that so impressed me, both Protestants and Catholics were simply told to pray, not how to pray. Or when Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School studied the health benefits of prayer and meditation, he found there was no difference in the effectiveness of Catholics using " Hail Mary, full of grace" or Jews using the peace greeting "Shalom" or Protestants who said the first line of the Lord's Prayer. The only contrast that could be made was that those who meditated on simple phrases instead of prayers with personal meaning to them eventually gave up.
4. Relinquishing prayers work best. In our prayers it's tempting to dictate to the almighty, but sometimes we simply do not know what to pray for. Suppose we want to control our physiology in a way that promotes healing of a particular health problem. Should we pray for an increase or decrease of blood flow to a specific organ? For an increase or decrease in a specific type of blood cell? Or what is the best in the long run for everone involved? These questions can be bewildering. Fortunately, research suggests that nonspecific prayer, the "Thy will be done" approach, works as well or better than when we specify the outcome.
5. Love added to prayer increases it's power. One survey of ten thousand men with heart disease found a fifty-percent reduction in frequency of chest pain (angina) in married men who perceived their wives as supportive and loving. As the faith healer Agnes Sanford wrote, "When we pray in accordance with the will of God." empathy, compassion and love seem to form a literal bond between living things. For example, a young boy found a wounded pigeon in his backyard. He nursed the bird back to health and gave it an identification tag. The next winter the boy suddenly became ill, and was rushed to a hospital two hundred miles away. While he was recovering from surgery, he heard tapping at the window. The boy summoned a nurse and asked her to open it. In flew the same bird. Pigeons are known for their homing ability, but this bird was traveling to a place it had never been before. Love had drawn it there.
6. Prayer is outside of time. A man diagnosed as having colon cancer asked his minister to pray for his recovery. He was not a religious man and never prayed for himself. A very private person, he told no one else about his diagnosis. When he returned to his physician later the same week, follow-up studies showed complete disappearance of the cancer. When the dates of the diagnosis, the initial prayer request, the minister's prayer and the disappearance of the cancer were compared, it was apparent that the cancer had disappeared before the minister had actually prayed for the man. Can a prayer be answered before it is made? It certainly seems possible. As the Almighty say's, "And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer" (Isaiah 65:24)
7. Prayer is a reminder that we are not alone. A patient of mine was dying from lung cancer. The day before his death, I sat at his bedside with his wife and children. He knew he had little time left and he chose his words carefully, speaking in a hoarse whisper. Although not normally a praying person, he revealed to us that recently he had begun to pray frequently. "What do you pray for?" I asked". "I don't pray for anything," he responsed. "How would I know what to ask for?" This was surprising. Surely this dying man could think of some request. "If prayer is not for asking, what is it for? " I pushed him. "It isn't 'for' anything," he said. "It mainly reminds me I am not alone."
Prayer is like that, it is a reminder of our unbounded nature, of that part of us that is infinite in space and time. It is the universe's affirmation that we are not alone.
The man whispered, "God, speak to me" and a meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear. So the man yelled "God, speak to me" and the thunder rolled across the sky. But the man did not listen. The man looked around and said, "God let me see you" and a star shined brightly. But the man did not notice. And the man shouted, "God show me a miracle" and a life was born. But the man did not know. So the man cried out in despair, "Touch me God, and let me know you are there" Whereupon God reached down and touched the man. But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on. Don't miss out on a blessing because it isn't packaged the way that you expect.