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Prayer: Medical science's 'best kept secret'
The Ottawa Citizen
Prayer has the power to heal the sick, says a new book published by the Anglican Church of Canada.
"Only when we connect with our inner silence and profit from its richness can we heal," proclaims the foreword to Healing Through Prayer, a collection of interviews and testimonials. "The door to that inner silence can be opened through the use of prayer and meditation."
The book, released by the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto, includes interviews with doctors, nurses, religious leaders and spiritual healers. It provides a glimpse of some of the scientific studies done on the power of prayer, but does not delve into the details.
"We know that certain kinds of prayer elicit physiological changes in the body," says Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and medical professor at Harvard University.
"The rate of metabolism decreases, the heart rate decreases, the rate of breathing decreases, brain waves get slower."
In the book, Dr. Benson says this is particularly true when ill patients recite phrases repetitively in prayer: Hail Marys, for instance, can help relax the body and aid in healing.
And he says healing is improved if patients believe they will get better, noting that 50 to 90 per cent of many conditions either improve or disappear completely in patients who believe they are taking medication but are only given "placebos" or sugar pills.
Dr. Larry Dossey, a physician and author in New Mexico, says studies on how praying helps the ill have been "one of the best-kept secrets in modern medical science."
In an interview published in the book, he says this is now changing.
He points to the 60 medical schools in the United States teaching classes on it. And he points to a growing number of studies -- 150 of them -- examining how someone else praying for a sick patient can help.
"Some have suggested that if you have an empathic, powerful, loving thought for me, you could be transferring some sort of subtle energy to me," says Dr. Dossey, who has written three books on the subject of prayers and healing. "The problem with this explanation is that, although researchers have diligently explored whether or not any sort of subtle energy is transferred between the two people, no one has ever been able to discover any."
Reached at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, yesterday, Dr. Dossey said the healing powers of prayer are becoming widely accepted among doctors and the public, despite the cry from critics that advocates are pulling medicine back to the Dark Ages.
"Spirituality is back in medicine," he said. "The taboo has been broken."
"People want more than just simply surgery and medication. They want something that answers their inner needs. And they see in prayer an element of that," he said.
He points to a study published last week in the American Medical Association journal Archives of Internal Medicine showing that heart patients did 11 per cent better when someone prayed for them.
After a year-long trial of nearly 1,000 cardiac patients, researchers in Kansas City, Missouri, found that those hospital patients who had been prayed for suffered fewer complications and heart attacks than the others.
Neither the patients nor their doctors knew they were being prayed for by volunteers outside the hospital. It wasn't the first study to show this -- Dr. Dossey said other researchers have come to similar conclusions.
"There is no guarantee that if you pray you are going to get well," he said in the telephone interview from his home. "But if you look at the effects of prayer on people who have heart attacks, you can show that the people who get prayed for, on average, do better."
Dr. Dossey and others who have researched this are stumped as to how the prayer helps. They are reluctant to say that God is answering the prayers, leaving that for others to decide.
"I think this is a huge mystery. I don't think science can give an answer to that," he said. "We can't look behind the scenes and answer that question, in my opinion. I think everybody is pretty much on their own about the theological interpretations here."
Meanwhile, even some believers in the power of prayer to make people feel better remain unconvinced that silent prayers from a distance can help
"Since I think of prayer as being very much a personal contact between an individual and God, it is difficult for me to imagine prayer having some effect on people who do not know they are being prayed for," John Polkinghorne, a physicist, Anglican priest and former administrator at Cambridge University in England, says in Healing Through Prayer.
"I would need to examine the evidence very carefully before I could accept that prayer works that way."