Book Reviews, Studies Healthcare, Insur, Soc Sec Prayer & Meditation Science, Philo

Does Prayer “Work”? “Scientific & Pastoral Perspectives…”

Here’s a review of another book on prayer as promised a couple of days ago.

[Here’s a more recent review of a book on prayer – P T Forsyth’s Soul of Prayer]

My second acquisition at Pastors’ Seminar was: Scientific and Pastoral Perspectives on Intercessory Prayer: An Exchange Between Larry Dossey, M.D. and Health Care Chaplains. (1998, Harrington Park Press) It does seem to me to have more bite than the book I reviewed two days ago.

Larry Dossey has for some years been promoting the idea of the effectiveness of intercessory prayer in medical situations, and continues to publicize research that supports that conclusion. (“It works.”) In this book he provides a 30-page summary of research he’s studied and his conclusions and questions – with some emphasis on theories of prayer-efficacy developed from physics. Then 8 health-care chaplains give their reactions.

One or two of the eight are kinda cranky or unhelpful. In some cases their basic theological stance is uncongenial to me. A couple are bothered by an uncritical fear of “testing God” – but what about “try Me and see!”? There were other criticisms of Dosseys’ emphasis, not persuasive to me. But in general the chaplains deal sensitively with the real pressures and ambiguities of difficult human situations and share their experiences and insights with gentle thoughtfulness. It’s real.

The chaplains are involved in both medical and psychiatric institutions. They range from American mainstream religion to evangelical charismatic to Buddhist. They have seen beautiful things happen in response to intercessory prayer, but none of them stoops to provide a schema or simple technique to guarantee positive results in specific cases.

No doubt some will find this book threatening to their faith, because of the emphasis on scientific research, or because of the diversity of faith perspectives. But I much appreciated it. It’s effect was to increase my sense of God’s love for people, His involvement in our real world, and to stimulate freedom and hopefulness in my praying for specific people and situations. That’s good, eh? Well, I like it.

Here are a few excerpts to give some of the flavor:

… feelings that are central to prayer such as love, empathy, compassion, and a sense of connectedness, oneness, and unity with the object they are attempting to influence.

… love seems to function as a form of intercession – literally, a go-between …

We cannot fully know the heart of another person. This fact should make us hesitant to pass judgment on the sincerity of the prayers of others, whether they take place inside or outside the lab.

… has suggested that consciousness is fundamental in the universe, perhaps on a par with matter and energy. It is not derived from anything else, and cannot be reduced to anything more basic.

Even when future explanations are in place, “God does it” will remain a perfectly reasonable alternative, because any new theory is certain to raise more questions than it answers.

People test prayer in their individual lives, and one’s life is the most important laboratory of all.

Modern medicine has become one of the most spiritually malnourished professions in our society.

… false spirituality is almost always the disguised attempt to control someone or something … God, oneself, situations, or other people through the use of (apparently) Christian prayer, terminology and practices. It is a “spirituality” of the ego, rather than of the Holy Spirit.

I do take my prayer with hospital patients seriously! I have never used a canned healing prayer. However, before I begin my prayer work with a patient I assess his or her spiritual need and background. Every prayer is tailored to the individual patient, according to his or her spiritual belief. My pastoral role is to support the patient’s own spirituality. I am their spiritual companion and fellow pray-er.

As a healthcare chaplain I come into contact with patents and their families who are so paralyzed by pain, fear or anger that their universe has shrunken to a small fist of suffering. I have found that prayer in any form (liturgy, spontaneous prayer, chanting, singing, meditation, visualization) creates a space where constricted energy can be released and open avenues for emotional, spiritual and even physical healing.

Remembering that nothing is outside of God, we are able to ask important questions of parapsychology and quantum theories of non-local phenomena without feeling threatened or being on the fringes of faith. Our goal is to work as a team to explore the … mind of God. At the heart of the universe is the heart of God and that is the ultimate connection for the chaplain, the scientist, and the patient.


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  • This sounds like a very interesting book. Don’t test Me, but try Me and see. In other words, don’t be an idiot, but watch and see what I can do!

    True…love is intercession. If you are connected with the man upstairs, then when you love people, intercession happens.

    Feelings seem to go along with love quite a bit, but not always, and not always how we expect them to.

    Modern medicine is spiritually malnourished. There are nursing organizations trying to work spiritual care into the very fabric of nursing care at all levels. Did you know physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession? Maybe the spiritual emptiness has something to do with this.