- When Science Investigates
Prayer - A Noted Physician
Finds Tangible Proof
- By Larry Dossey, MD
- Santa Fe, New Mexico
I was doing my residency at parkland Memorial Hospital
in Dallas, Texas, when I had my first patient with a terminal case of
cancer. It had spread throughout both lungs. I advised him what
therapy was available and what little I thought it would do. Rightly
enough he opted for treatment.
- And yet whenever I stopped by his hospital bedside
he was surrounded by visitors from his church, singing and praying.
Good thing, I thought when I heard them, because soon they'll be
singing and praying at his funeral.
- A year later, when I was working elsewhere, a
colleague at parkland called to ask if I wanted to see my old patient.
See him? I couldn't believe he was still alive. At the hospital I
studied his chest X rays. I was stunned. The man's lungs were
completely clear. there was no sign of cancer. "His therapy has
been remarkable," said the radiologist, looking over my shoulder.
- Therapy? I thought. There wasn't any-unless you
consider prayer. I told two of my medical school professors what had
happened. neither of them were willing to acknowledge the man's
miraculous healing. "That was natural course of the
disease," one said. the other professor shrugged. "We see
this," he said. I had long given up the faith of my childhood.
Now I believed in the power of modern medicine. prayer seemed an
arbitrary frill. So I put the incident out of my mind.
- The year passed and I became chief of staff at a
large urban hospital, I was aware that many of my patients used
prayer, but I put little trust in it. Then one day in the late '80s I
came across a study done by Randolph Byrd, a cardiologist at San
Francisco General Hospital. Half of a group of cardiac patients were
prayed for and half were not, those who were did better in a
significant number of ways.I could not ignore the evidence. The study
was designed according to rigid criteria. It was randomized, double-
blind experiment - neither the patients, nurses nor doctors knew which
group the patients were in. If the technique being studied had been a
new drug or a surgical procedure instead of prayer, it would have been
heralded as some sort of breakthrough.
- This study inspired me to look for others. To my
amazement I found an enormous body of evidence: more than 100
experiments exhibiting the criteria of good science. Many were
conducted under stringent laboratory conditions; about half showed
that prayer brings about significant changes in a variety of living
beings. Scientists, including physicians, can have blind spots. The
power of prayer seemed to be one of them.
- I have since given up practicing medicine to devote
myself to writing and research about prayer and how it affects our
health. here is some of what i have found:
1. The power of prayer does not diminish with distance. Prayer
is as effective from the other side of the world as it is from next
door or at the bedside. As research William G. Braud has pointed out,
"The operating characteristics of the remote influence are not a
function of spatial distance or time, and it is not influenced
importantly by physical barriers or shields."
- 2. Prayer can be
continuous. As a child I was puzzled by the advice "pray without
ceasing." I would fight sleep as I said my prayers in bed.
Eventually, sleep would overtake me and I felt as though i has failed.
only recently have I seen how prayers might continue in my
subconscious. In the fourteenth century, St. Peregrine, still a young
priest, was scheduled for amputation of his leg because of cancer. The
night before the surgery, he prayed fervently and dreamed he was
cured. on awakening, his dream had become reality. He lived to be 80,
dying in 1345 without any further evidence of cancer. An attitude of
prayerfulness can exist even during sleep. As Isaac the Syrian stated,
"When the spirit has come to reside in someone, that person
cannot stop praying; for the spirit prays without ceasing in
- 3. There is no one
right way to address God. I once attended a seminar given by a
well-know authority on prayer, and when a man in the audience boldly
asked, "Doctor, how should I pray?" the expert replied
"ask God." It seems that there is more than one
"best" way to pray. For instance, in the coronary care
experiment that so impressed me, both Protestants and Catholics were
simply told to pray, not how to pray. Or when Herbert Benson of
Harvard Medical School studied the health benefits of prayer and
meditation, he found there was no difference in the effectiveness of
Catholics using " Hail Mary, full of grace" or Jews using
the peace greeting "Shalom" or Protestants who said the
first line of the Lord's Prayer. The only contrast that could be made
was that those who meditated on simple phrases instead of prayers with
personal meaning to them eventually gave up.
- 4. Relinquishing
prayers work best. In our prayers it's tempting to dictate to the
almighty, but sometimes we simply do not know what to pray for.
Suppose we want to control our physiology in a way that promotes
healing of a particular health problem. Should we pray for an increase
or decrease of blood flow to a specific organ? For an increase or
decrease in a specific type of blood cell? Or what is the best in the
long run for everone involved? These questions can be bewildering.
Fortunately, research suggests that nonspecific prayer, the "Thy
will be done" approach, works as well or better than when we
specify the outcome.
- 5. Love added to
prayer increases it's power. One survey of ten thousand men with heart
disease found a fifty-percent reduction in frequency of chest pain
(angina) in married men who perceived their wives as supportive and
loving. As the faith healer Agnes Sanford wrote, "When we pray in
accordance with the will of God." empathy, compassion and love
seem to form a literal bond between living things. For example, a
young boy found a wounded pigeon in his backyard. He nursed the bird
back to health and gave it an identification tag. Thenext winter the
boy suddenly became ill, and was rushed to a hospital two hu ndred
miles away. While he was recovering from surgery, he heard tapping at
the window. The boy summoned a nurse and asked her to open it. In flew
the same bird. Pigeons are known for their homing ability, but this
bird was traveling to a place it had never been before. Love had drawn
- 6. Prayer is outside
of time. A man diagnosed as having colon cancer asked his minister to
pray for his recovery. He was not a religious man and never prayed for
himself. A very private person, he told no one else about his
diagnosis. When he returned to his physician later the same week,
follow-up studies showed complete disappearance of the cancer. When
the dates of the diagnosis, the initial prayer request, the minister's
prayer and the disappearance of the cancer were compared, it was
apparent that the cancer had disappeared before the minister had
actually prayed for the man. Can a prayer be answered before it is
made? It certainly seems possible. As the Almighty say's,
"And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will
answer" (Isaiah 65:24)
- 7. Prayer is a
reminder that we are not alone. A patient of mine was dying from lung
cancer. The day before his death, I sat at his bedside with his wife
and children. He knew he had little time left and he chose his words
carefully, speaking in a hoarse whisper. Although not normally a
praying person, he revealed to us that recently he had begun to pray
frequently. "What do you pray for?" I asked". "I
don't pray for anything," he responsed. "How would I know
what to ask for?" This was surprising. Surely this dying man
could think of some request. "If prayer is not for asking, what
is it for? " I pushed him. "It isn't 'for' anything,"
he said. "It mainly reminds me I am not alone."
- Prayer is like that, it is a reminder of our
unbounded nature, of that part of us that is infinite in space and
time. It is the universe's affirmation that we are not alone.