Prayer and Spirituality

views updated

Prayer and spirituality


Prayer is an act of communication with God or the Absolute. The spiritual beliefs of the person praying influence how the Absolute is perceived. For some, the Absolute is known as the Great Goddess. Others experience the Absolute as God, Allah, the Tao, the Universal Mind, Brahma, the Void, or a myriad of other forms. Spiritual, or faith, healing is the relief of illness through some type of religious belief system held by the sick person or by someone praying for them.


Prayer in one form or another is a spiritual practice found in nearly every culture. The use of prayer for healing is a vital principle of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Even in a non-theistic religion such as Buddhism, prayer is important in healing. In the traditional medicine of Mexico, curanderismo , health is perceived as a gift from God. Disease is seen as a punishment for sins and God's help is necessary for a cure. Patients may pray or make a spiritual pilgrimage as part of their medical treatment.

Spiritual healing in the West dates back to Biblical times, when some of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus used the power of prayer to heal the sick and injured. In the Jewish and Christian religions, praying for healing and medical miracles has been common for 3,000 years. The Christian tradition of faith healing formally developed out of a first-century prayer ritual for healing. Among contemporary Christians belonging to liturgical churches (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, and Lutherans), spiritual healing is related to the sacraments of the Eucharist and anointing the sick, especially in churches, shrines, or sites where miracles have taken place. In the United States, numerous spiritual healing or faith healing groups and movements have appeared since the early 1800s, such as the Emmanuel movement and the John Alexander Dowie movement.

Christian Science, a movement that grew out of the Association formed by Mary Baker Eddy in 1876, holds faith healing at the core of its principles. Christian Scientists believe that death and illness are illusions. Eddy claimed that the end result of knowledge gained through Christian Science is the power to heal. Eddy's beliefs stemmed from her claims that she was cured of various illnesses in 1862 through massage, positive reinforcement, and mental healing. In 1875, she published Science and Health, the founding text of Christian Science.

People have always prayed, especially when sick or facing death. Still, despite the scientific evidence pointing to the effectiveness of prayer, it is not generally accepted as a treatment method by the Western medical community. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, believed that the mind and body were separate, and this point of view is the foundation of modern Western medicine.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, with the philosophy of René Descartes, the West has increasingly focused on a material view of the world. In medicine this has meant that an almost exclusive concentration on the physical aspects of disease. The contribution of emotions, thoughts, relationships, and spirituality to disease and health were either ignored or discounted. Only since the 1960s has there been an increase in interest about the effectiveness of prayer, meditation , and other mind-body approaches to health and healing.


Perhaps the two most obvious benefits of faith healing is that the cost is minimal or zero, and that it involves no medications or medical devices. The medical, scientific, and religious communities almost unanimously agree that the human mind has a tremendous amount of untapped potential, including the power to heal physical and emotional ailments. A person's faith has a strong influence over his or her sense of well-being, ability to fight disease, and desire to get well, according to many researchers.

Prayer and other spiritual approaches can be particularly beneficial for people with stress-related disorders. Dr. Herbert Benson reports that meditative prayer can ease anxiety , mild depression , substance abuse, ulcers, pain, nausea , tension and migraine headaches, infertility, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), insomnia , and high blood pressure.

Prayer also plays an important role in helping people cope with difficult circumstances such as chronic illness and death. Prayer offers new meaning, purpose, hope, and a sense of guidance or control. These perceptions may help instill a fighting spirit, which has been reported to be an important factor in healing. Prayer can enrich the quality of one's life and also bring a feeling of peace and acceptance at the time of death. In addition, being part of a religious community can benefit patients by counteracting the social isolation that many sick people experience. Visits from friends or their spiritual leader are reminders that they are still part of a faith community and the larger human community.

More recently, researchers have recognized that prayer and spiritual practice are often related to people's connections with other creatures. Although the strength of the bond between humans and animals was first discussed in the context of people's grieving for dead pets,

the human-animal connection and its role in spirituality is now being studied in its own right.


Spiritual healing can involve a person praying alone by themselves for healing, one person praying for the healing of another person, or a group of persons praying for an ill person. It can involve formal ritual and the administration of the sacraments. Many Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran congregations in the United States hold special Eucharists for healing; people can come for their own healing or in behalf of someone else.

Another common type of prayer is meditative prayer, which involves quieting the mind and focusing on an object, sound, movement, visualization, or simply the breath. Eastern types of meditative prayer may involve the repetition of a sound or phrase (mantra) or repeating the name of the Divine (japa). In India, there is a tradition of sacred temple dance as a form of meditative prayer. Western types of meditative prayer may focus on quieting the mind and opening the heart to listen to God, often repeating prayer-like mantras. Dr. Herbert Benson has studied the effects of meditative prayer and found many significant health benefits.

Many healers also use prayer as a form of spiritual healing. Healing utilizing prayer can be done at a distance or through the laying on of hands. Spiritual healing is often not distinguished from psychic and energy healing, although some researchers do make a distinction. A spiritual healer is primarily concerned with a way of being, while other types of healers are concerned with the sick person's body and try to heal the physical symptoms of the disease. A spiritual healer allows an infinite consciousness, intelligence, and love (known as God, or nonlocal mind) to express itself through the healer. Other types of healers direct their energy outward and concentrate on replenishing or changing the energy flow of the patient. Energy healers do this by using their hands or fingers. Examples of subtle energy healing include reiki, therapeutic touch, qigong , and pranic healing . Psychic healers are able to relieve symptoms from a distance with their minds.


People can pray at any time at any place. There is no advance preparation needed. However, most of the major religious traditions have developed certain patterns or practices associated with prayer, such as the use of rosaries, prayer books, or prayer shawls, that are meaningful to members of those traditions and help them to focus their attention when they pray. There are many clergy and spiritual leaders in the major faith traditions in the United States who can explain the various practices associated with prayer and why they can be helpful preparation for praying.


Prayer and spirituality are not a substitute for other medical care. It is a complementary practice. Patients with serious illnesses should not choose prayer over other medical therapies and delay seeking necessary treatment.

There is also potential for harm in prayer and spiritual practices. Studies have shown that the growth of microorganisms can be retarded or inhibited depending upon the intention of the healer. There is also evidence of negative prayer in many different cultures.

Side effects

There are no known side effects of positive prayer, although negative energy focused on an individual has been shown to produce negative results.

Research & general acceptance

A 1996 Gallup poll showed that nine out of 10 Americans pray and 75% pray every day. The most common prayers were for family well-being (98%), prayers of thanks (94%), prayers for strength or guidance (92%), and prayers for forgiveness (92%). Eighty-two percent of Americans prayed for health and healing. Prayer is one of the most common complementary practices to standard medical treatment.

As of 1993, one American researcher had compiled a list of over 130 English-language clinical studies that have documented the effectiveness of faith and prayer in healing. For example, a 1987 study at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco involving 393 patients with heart problems were divided into two groups. One group had people pray for them at a distance (intercessory prayer), and the other group did not. The prayed-for group had fewer deaths, medical interventions, and complications that the control (not prayer for) group. Dr. Larry Dossey, who was co-chair of the Panel on Mind/Body Interventions in the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in 2000, has written several books on laboratory studies of prayer and the historical reluctance of the mainstream scientific community to examine the connections between prayer and healing.

A number of studies, also at Duke University, have shown that the combination of active involvement in a religious community and frequent prayer has powerful effects on blood pressure and smoking .

Over the past three decades approximately 200 studies have examined the ability of prayer to affect human beings, animals, plants, and even microorganisms. Evidence so far shows that there is no one best way to pray.

Acceptance of prayer and spiritual healing among medical professionals varies. Some feel quite strongly that medicine and spiritual practice should not be mixed and that doctors and nurses should refer patients to religious professionals for spiritual needs. Surveys have shown, however, that as of 2002 a majority (about 76%) of physicians and nurses in the United States feel comfortable praying with patients if asked to do so, and 96% would discuss spiritual or religious matters with patients confronting a life-threatening illness or end-of-life issues.

Some researchers have attempted in recent years to develop scales for measuring spiritual experiences, in order to have some basis for comparing findings from different studies. Two such measures are the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale (DSES), a 16-item questionnaire; and the Ironson-Woods Spirituality-Religion (SR) Index, which measures four factorsfaith in God, sense of peace, religious behavior, and compassionate view of others. The Ironson-Woods Index has been used to study the effects of spirituality and religious practice on the long-term survival of AIDS patients.

Training & certification

Clergy and pastoral counselors in the mainstream religious bodies in the United States receive extensive training in the spiritual and mental health needs of patients. The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) is a professional organization that certifies Christian clergy who have undergone advanced training in psychotherapy as well as theology. The AAPC supports about 100 counseling centers across the United States as well as certifying clergy who serve in hospital chaplaincies or mental health clinics. The corresponding certification body for Jewish rabbis and pastoral counselors is the National Association of Jewish Chaplains.

Spiritual healers in less structured traditions may be certified through a school of energy healing, recognized within a particular religious group for their healing aptitude, or initiated into healing by another means. Native American healers have formed the Indigenous Traditional Healing Council to provide certification for healers as well as to protect the integrity of Native American healing rituals. Many other healers develop their healing gifts on their own. Any caring person can develop a certain amount of healing ability through meditation, prayer, study with other experienced healers, and practice. There are many self-help books on prayer and meditation, but personal guidance is usually helpful to learn the subtleties of any approach to healing. Churches and other religious centers usually offer spiritual direction through prayer, meditation, or study.



Benor, Daniel J. "Spiritual Healing." Essentials of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Edited by Wayne Jonas and Jeffrey Levin. New York, NY: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1999.

Benson, Herbert, M.D. Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief. New York, NY: Fireside, 1997.

Dossey, Larry, M.D. Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993.

Koenig, H.G., and M. McConnell. The Healing Power of Faith. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Koenig, Harold G. "Spiritual Healing." Clinician's Complete Reference to Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Edited by Donald Novey. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby, 2000.

Targ, Russel, and Jane Katra. Miracles of Mind: Exploring Nonlocal Consciousness and Spiritual Healing. Novato, CA: New World Library, 1998.


Ironson, G., G. F. Solomon, E. G. Balbin, et al. "The Ironson-Woods Spirituality/Religiousness Index Is Associated with Long Survival, Health Behaviors, Less Distress, and Low Cortisol in People with HIV/AIDS." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 24 (Winter 2002): 34-48.

Lawrence, R. J. "The Witches' Brew of Spirituality and Medicine." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 24 (Winter 2002): 74-76.

Lliff, S. A. "An Additional "R": Remembering the Animals." Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Journal 43 (2002): 38-47.

Siegel, B., A. J. Tenenbaum, A. Jamanka, et al. "Faculty and Resident Attitudes About Spirituality and Religion in the Provision of Pediatric Health Care." Ambulatory Pediatrics 2 (January-February 2002): 5-10.

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Spring 2000): 6681.

Underwood, L. G., and J. A. Teresi. "The Daily Spiritual Experience Scale: Development, Theoretical Description, Reliability, Exploratory Factor Analysis, and Preliminary Construct Validity Using Health-Related Data." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 24 (Winter 2002): 22-33.


American Association of Pastoral Counselors. 9504A Lee Highway, Fairfax, VA 22031-2303. (703)3856967. <>. [email protected].

Indigenous Traditional Healing Council. P. O. Box 646, Tempe, AZ 85280. (602) 209-4759.<>.

National Association of Jewish Chaplains. 901 Route 10, Whippany, NJ 07981-1156. (973) 736-9193.<>.

Linda Chrisman

Ken R. Wells

Rebecca J. Frey, PhD