2016-06-30
I recently went to my first healing Mass. We prayed for the recovery of a member of the parish who is suffering from cancer, and one by one we went up to anoint her with oil. This week, 300 people came to a prayer service for a young man who had been struck down with bleeding in the brain and was battling for his life in the intensive care unit. In a neighboring Westchester County, N.Y., parish, another intensive prayer vigil went on day and night for a young girl hovering between life and death. Similar healing services and vigils are appearing all over the country and include many young people who pray for the recovery of their friends.

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

Yet the theological foundation for these healing Masses and spiritual therapies remains shaky. How can prayer make a difference in physical health outcomes? Some religious thinkers retreat from any such claims and conclude that it is superstitious to pray for remission of biological disease. At most, prayer can change the consciousness of the persons who pray. Prayer or rituals that invoke ultimate spiritual truths may increase the participants' love and desire to become one with God's eternal will. Only in this sense can persons be said to become healed. Intercessory prayer can change nothing in the material order of nature. True?

To explore this question, a massive double-blind controlled experiment on the efficacy of intercessory prayer is in progress. With 1,200 persons in the study, one group of postoperative patients is receiving intercessory prayer (unbeknownst to them) from volunteers, and a matched group is not. In a test of placebo effects, a third matched group of 600 is being prayed for and knows it. The hypothesis being tested is whether believers praying for patients they know only by their first name will affect health outcomes. The difficulties of interpreting any findings will be daunting. Who knows how many other prayers from family and friends the untargeted group may be receiving? And how can the experiment control for the quality of an individual person's prayers? Saints, for instance, have always been thought to be so imbued with the Holy Spirit that their prayers possess powerful healing effects. Saint Thérèse's prayers may pack more of a wallop than your ordinary Christian's. If, on the other hand, the effect of prayer is deemed to be greater simply by increasing the number of people and the amount of time spent in prayer, another puzzle arises--Why is more better? Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is always infusing love and healing the sufferings of the world. With God on your side already, who needs anyone else?

On the other hand, Christ and the early church clearly believed in the power of 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 in the healings performed by Christ and the disciples. More troubling for believers are questions that arise when the most heartfelt prayers are not effective. One explanatory strategy has been to say that unanswered prayers were not energized with enough faith. (At times, Jesus implies this.) The other tack taken is that what appear to us to be unanswered prayers actually are instances of God's refusals for our own good. Only God can know what will be best for everyone in the long run. Since we don't know God's plan beforehand, 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 the idea that God gives Godself completely in the Incarnation. In God's humility, God accepts self-limitation on behalf of human freedom. God has given up divine omnipotence in the created world of time. The creation has been given its freedom, and both chance and lawful necessity operate in an evolving universe. God depends on humans--as co-creators--to bring Christ's work to completion. The Spirit continues to work through human hearts, minds, and hands in divinely creative ways that will not violate the freedom given the world. Since God continuously creates as well as sustains the world, humans cannot know what potentialities and creative possibilities exist in an open universe. There may be many possible plans for each life, many ways in which complicated systems can work together for good in history. 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. The necessity of physical death for humans is fixed, but the path to it may not be. Prayer may affect those factors that remain open and subject to chance and creativity on the part of God and humanity. Since God does not coerce, human efforts and prayers invoking divine aid make a difference in the workings of chance and necessity. The analogy of prayer as a magnifying glass has been used: Holding up the glass allows the sun's encompassing rays to be focused and intensified so that fires can be lit on earth. God's ultimate victory of love over suffering and death is assured in the coming of the kingdom, but in this "not-yet" time, our creative work and prayers for healing count.

I'd bet my life that prayers and healing Masses make a difference, but they cannot do everything alone. The employment of scientific medicine and the complement of alternative modalities of care are also graced operations of the healing Spirit. There is a struggle for wholeness going on as our creation groans in its birth pangs. That's why we continue to work, and "pray without ceasing."

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