Ernie Pyle, the legendary World War II journalist, went into battle many times with American troops in both the Pacific and European theaters. One of the most famous quotes from his columns is, "There are no atheists in foxholes."
He understood from firsthand knowledge that when around live fire everybody, no matter how brave, is terrified that they could be maimed or killed at any moment (indeed, Pyle was killed by sniper fire on a Pacific island in 1945). Such terror isn't a sign of weakness but a basic human survival instinct. Pyle was saying that when confronted with the trauma and horror of the battlefield, praying is a natural survival mechanism for soldiers. Already there have been stories about how many of the American troops in the Middle East weren't necessarily religious at home but are praying more and attending services at bases in Kuwait.
I believe more people pray than most of us realize. They do so for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes our prayers are answered and when they are we are both thankful and grateful. We are never sure how it works or precisely how to measure the psychological and physiological effects it has, but more and more studies are being done giving us some evidence that it does work.
A recent article in Parade magazine on the topic reminded me of a remarkable story a physician told me about a patient of his. The doctor had diagnosed this man with advanced lung cancer. Nothing could be done, so the man was sent home to die.
A year later my physician friend said he got a call from the emergency room at his hospital. The same patient had come in with a bad cold and was coughing quite a bit. An X-ray was done of the man's lungs and they were found to be completely clear of cancer. The physician was astounded by all this and followed up on his former patient. What he found was that when the patient had been discharged after his cancer diagnosis, the parishioners in his church started praying for him at his bedside and elsewhere. This went on for months. Eventually the patient started to improve and didn't seek medical care until he got that bad cold. The physician told me he had to attribute the patient's recovery to prayer. The doctor had become a believer in the power of prayer, even though all the proof was circumstantial.
The Parade article is about new research on prayer and health. In the piece, Dale Matthews, a physician at Georgetown University and author of the book The Faith Factor, estimates that 75% of studies of spirituality have confirmed its health benefits. "If prayer were available in pill form, no pharmacy could stock enough of it," Matthews says.
Harold Koenig, director of Duke University's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, says prayer "boosts morale, lowers agitation, loneliness and life dissatisfaction and enhances the ability to cope in men, women, the elderly, the young, the healthy and the sick."
A six-year Duke study of 4,000 people of various faiths, all more than 64 years old, found that the relative risk of dying was 46% lower for those who frequently attended religious services. Another study involving the same group found they had significantly lower blood pressure than the less religious. A third study showed that those who attended religious services had healthier immune systems than those who did not.
A Dartmouth Medical Center study determined that one of the best predictors of survival among 232 heart surgery patients was the degree to which they drew comfort and strength from religious faith and prayer. At the University of Miami, a research study of AIDS patients showed that the long-term survivors were more likely to be involved in religious practices and volunteer work. Another study conducted in several medical centers purports to show that prayer and faith have shown to speed recovery from depression, alcoholism, hip surgery, drug addiction and a variety of other health problems. Andy Newberg, a physician at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why God Won't Go Away, has documented changes in blood flow in particular regions of the brain during prayer and meditation. He suggests, "This could be the link between religion and health benefits such as lower blood pressure, slower heart rates, decreased anxiety and an enhanced sense of well-being."
Although someone's personal prayer may help their own health outcomes, the concept of a positive effect on a person's health from the prayers of others is controversial. The Parade article cited studies in San Francisco and Kansas City, Mo., that found that complication rates were lower among patients in coronary-care units who were prayed for by strangers. A similar study at the Mayo Clinic found no significant benefits to intercessory prayer. But a review of 23 intercessory prayer studies involving 2,774 patients published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found a positive effect in 57% of the cases.
Count John Chibnall, who teaches in the psychiatry department at St. Louis University, among the skeptics. "The premise behind distant healing isn't scientific. Studies cannot be designed in a scientific way," he says.
Sophy Burnham, author of The Path to Prayer, concedes that science may never prove that prayer can heal others. However, she adds, "That doesn't mean that people shouldn't take advantage of this wonderful tool that's right at their fingertips."
More research needs to be done, but from what I have read and heard over the years there seems to be a pretty strong case that prayer is beneficial to our health. Until we know for sure, there is no harm in trying it out for ourselves.
Pray for our troops
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Lauer is the author of two books, Reach for the Stars and Soar with the Eagles. For more information, go to www.chucklauer.com