A good many years ago, in the monthly meeting of our book club in Waynesville, North Carolina, the subject of prayer came up during a discussion of Anne Tyler’s “Saint Maybe.” A doctor, an intelligent and well-spoken man with a wry sense of humor, asked of us, “What exactly is prayer? I mean, what do you do when you pray?”
His question was sincere. He had grown up in a non-religious household, and as it turned out, had never prayed in his life.
Several people tried to answer him, but when we said our goodnights my friend looked as puzzled as when he had popped the question.
So what is prayer?
Belief, Connection, and the Pathways of Prayer
From the old Baltimore Catechism, young Catholics learned that prayer “was the lifting up of our minds and hearts to God.” Evangelist Billy Graham once stated that “Prayer is more than a wish. It is the voice of faith directed at God.” Devout Jews pray so their hearts can reach out to the Almighty.
All these religions, and others, believe that we connect through prayer to God. My friend’s atheism no doubt accounted for his inability to understand prayer.
People who worship a higher power pray in different ways. Some use devices like the rosary, prayer wheels, or the Jewish phylacteries. Some assume different postures for formal prayers. Some pray aloud, others silently.
Although reasons for prayer may vary from individuals, most religious faiths promote prayers of thanksgiving, praise, gratitude, and intercession. This last form of prayer involves asking for help from heaven, begging for a miracle to cure a loved one’s cancer, seeking strength and courage when your world comes crashing down around you, asking for wisdom in dealing with a wayward teenager.
Does Prayer Work?
So what about it? When you tell your friend whose husband has just deserted her you will pray for her, will your intercession help to bring her peace of mind? Will the “lifting up of hearts and minds to God” by family and friends do any good for that man being rolled on a gurney to the operating room for a heart transplant? By knocking at heaven’s door, can we perform better at our job? Do our prayers go from our mouths to God’s ear or are they just a waste of breath, the wishes of children lost and wandering in a cold, indifferent universe?
Let’s take a look.
In her online article at WebMD, “Can Prayer Heal?” Jeanie Lerche Davis presents evidence from numerous studies showing that prayer not only heals, but can also prevent disease and even promote good health.
For 30 years, Davis reports, Harvard scientist and physician Herbert Benson has studied the effect of prayer and meditation on patients, and has discovered their positive effects on the brain, breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate. Duke University’s Harold Koenig, MD, has uncovered some remarkable connections between health, faith, and prayer, reporting that “heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not participate in a religion” and that “hospitalized people who never attended church have an average stay of three times longer than those who attended regularly.”
Mitchell Krucoff, MD, also of Duke University, reports that “all of these studies, all the reports, are remarkably consistent in suggesting the potential measurable health benefit associated with prayer or spiritual interventions.”
Mental Health and Strength
In addition to possibly affecting our physical health, prayer and meditation bring mental and spiritual rewards as well. Some listen for the “still, small voice” of God while others empty themselves of the noise and hustle of the world. Such attempts can lower our anxiety and stress, improve our mental abilities, and increase our energy.
Many draw strength from prayer. The soldier going into battle, the woman facing an important job interview, the football player who bows his head with a teammate before a game: all are examples of people asking for courage and intercession.
Family and Community Life
Prayer can also strengthen our marriages and families. Mark Merrill, founder of Family First, Inc., writes in “8 Benefits of Praying Together with your Spouse” that praying with a wife or husband increases “trust and intimacy with a spouse,” teaches “you to be other-focused,” and helps “your spouse know your struggles and needs better.”
In “The Power of Prayer for Families,” Alysse ElHage reports that praying together helps reduce family tensions, allows for the opportunity to pass on religious traditions, and creates a sense of family unity.
Finally, prayer can also strengthen communities. When faced by some disaster—a mass shooting, a hurricane, a terrible fire—some people offer up “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and the survivors. Others mock them, claiming, for instance, that “pie in the sky” orisons won’t end mass shootings. They may be correct, but they fail to see that these prayers draw those who lived through that shooting closer together as a community.
Fifteen years ago, when my wife lay dying and in a coma in a hospital, our children prayed the Rosary and other prayers around her bedside. After a while, one of the nurses pulled me aside and said, “About these prayers … your children do know that their mom will never recover, don’t they?” “They do,” I told her, “and they are praying for a miracle, but mostly they are praying their mother will be with God after she dies.”
The power of prayer does not prove the existence of a Divine Power. Those with religious faith believe that it does. Skeptics would reply that prayer and meditation might offer physical and mental relief but no indisputable sign of any god.
Whichever side of that fence we stand on, we might reflect on the famous words of Blaise Pascal, mathematician and philosopher: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
To sit quietly in a room alone is the beginning of prayer. It is the beginning of an answer to my friend’s question during that book club get-together long ago.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.