I recently went to my first healing Mass. We prayed for the recovery of amember of the parish who is suffering from cancer, and one by one we went upto anoint her with oil. This week, 300 people came to a prayerservice for a young man who had been struck down with bleeding in the brainand was battling for his life in the intensive care unit. In a neighboringWestchester County, N.Y., parish, another intensive prayer vigil went onday and night for a young girl hovering between life and death. Similarhealing services and vigils are appearing all over the country and includemany young people who pray for the recovery of their friends.

Is this the Holy Spirit stirring up the church and culture? My hunch is thatthis dynamic also accounts for the proliferation of alternative medicine and"spiritual" therapies that we see. The growth of complementary andalternative medicine in the last decade has involved millions of Americans.Whether formally religiousor not, Americans seem convinced that the unity of mind/body/spirit callsfor a variety of efforts when illness strikes. Many alternative healingpractices include stripped-down and syncretic spiritualities that mixEastern, Western, and indigenous folk traditions. Christian prayer servicesdraw on traditional New Testament practices that employ group prayer, layingon of hands, and anointing with oil.

Yet the theological foundation for these healing Masses and spiritualtherapies remains shaky. How can prayer make a difference in physical healthoutcomes? Some religious thinkers retreat from any such claims and concludethat it is superstitious to pray for remission of biological disease. Atmost, prayer can change the consciousness of the persons who pray. Prayer orrituals that invoke ultimate spiritual truths may increase the participants'love and desire to become one with God's eternal will. Only in this sensecan persons be said to become healed. Intercessory prayer can change nothingin the material order of nature. True?

To explore this question, a massive double-blind controlled experiment on theefficacy of intercessory prayer is in progress. With 1,200 personsin the study, one group of postoperative patients is receiving intercessoryprayer (unbeknownst to them) from volunteers, and a matched group is not. Ina test of placebo effects, a third matched group of 600 is beingprayed for and knows it. The hypothesis being tested is whether believerspraying for patients they know only by their first name will affect healthoutcomes. The difficulties of interpreting any findings will be daunting.Who knows how many other prayers from family and friends the untargetedgroup may be receiving? And how can the experiment control for the qualityof an individual person's prayers? Saints, for instance, have always beenthought to be so imbued with the Holy Spirit that their prayers possesspowerful healing effects. Saint Thérèse's prayers may pack more of a wallopthan your ordinary Christian's. If, on the other hand, the effect of prayeris deemed to be greater simply by increasing the number of people and theamount of time spent in prayer, another puzzle arises--Why is more better?Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is always infusing love and healingthe sufferings of the world. With God on your side already, who needs anyoneelse?

On the other hand, Christ and the early church clearly believed in the powerof prayer. Christians are told in Paul's letter to the Philippians, "If there is anything you need, pray for it." Prayers for healing were particularly valued. Unfortunately,the New Testament does not include an exact explanation of what happens inthe healings performed by Christ and the disciples. More troubling forbelievers are questions that arise when the most heartfelt prayers are noteffective. One explanatory strategy has been to say that unanswered prayerswere not energized with enough faith. (At times, Jesus implies this.) Theother tack taken is that what appear to us to be unanswered prayers actuallyare instances of God's refusals for our own good. Only God can know whatwill be best for everyone in the long run. Since we don't know God's planbeforehand, we should keep praying with all the strength and faith we can,while trustfully accepting whatever comes.

Lately, another theological approach is suggested in kenotic theology, or theidea that God gives Godself completely in the Incarnation. In God'shumility, God accepts self-limitation on behalf of human freedom. God hasgiven up divine omnipotence in the created world of time. The creation hasbeen given its freedom, and both chance and lawful necessity operate in anevolving universe. God depends on humans--as co-creators--to bring Christ'swork to completion. The Spirit continues to work through human hearts,minds, and hands in divinely creative ways that will not violate the freedomgiven the world. Since God continuously creates as well as sustains theworld, humans cannot know what potentialities and creative possibilitiesexist in an open universe. There may be many possible plans for each life,many ways in which complicated systems can work together for good inhistory.Yet evil, sin, suffering, and death have already entered the story in this creation, and they remain to be struggled against until the final day. Thenecessity of physical death for humans is fixed, but the path to it may notbe. Prayer may affect those factors that remain open and subject to chanceand creativity on the part of God and humanity. Since God does not coerce,human efforts and prayers invoking divine aid make a difference in theworkings of chance and necessity. The analogy of prayer as a magnifyingglass has been used: Holding up the glass allows the sun's encompassing raysto be focused and intensified so that fires can be lit on earth.
God'sultimate victory of love over suffering and death is assured in the comingof the kingdom, but in this "not-yet" time, our creative work and prayers forhealing count.

I'd bet my life that prayers and healing Masses make a difference, but theycannot do everything alone. The employment of scientific medicine and thecomplement of alternative modalities of care are also graced operations ofthe healing Spirit. There is a struggle for wholeness going on as ourcreation groans in its birth pangs. That's why we continue to work, and"pray without ceasing."