Does prayer work?

What happens when we pray for a sick person to recover, and they don’t?

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By Dan Connors


Every Saturday it was the same. We’d pile into the car, my mom and dad, my brother and sister and I, and off we’d go to visit my grandmother. I was 9, and the visits, for me, were always a mixture of joy and sadness. Joy in seeing her, joy in consuming the bag of jelly doughnuts she always had someone buy for me, joy in sitting by her bed and telling her of my dreams for a .22-caliber rifle and a hatchet. But sadness too, for she was so sick she could not get out of bed, and she got weaker and was in progressively more pain as the months went by.

 

Her attitude, at least in my presence, was always positive. Until the cancer, she’d been the housekeeper in the rectory of her parish, and now she had priests all over the diocese (and the bishop) praying for her. A couple of priests even prayed for her in Rome. “With all these priests praying for me,” she said one day, “I’m bound to get better.”

 

Alas, all the prayers did not stop the cancer’s progress. Like all human beings, Mary Connors died.

 

“I’ll keep you in my prayers.” It’s one of the most common things you’ll hear Christians say. At home every evening, my wife, Deb, our son, Michael, and I pray for a long list of people who are sick. Down the hall from my office there’s a company bulletin board of prayer intentions. It’s covered with index cards listing people who are sick and suffering. I pause before it every day to pray for the people listed there.

 

For over a year, the center card on the board was for Michael Connors, Deb Connors, and Dan Connors. It was placed there when Michael was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and I am very grateful to all the people who prayed for him, and for us. I am grateful to all the Catholic Digest readers who wrote in to say they were praying for Michael, and to those who send me emails to this day saying they are still praying and asking how he is doing (he’s doing great! Thank you!!).

 

Throughout Michael’s illness, my wife and I “stormed heaven” with our prayers. We were grateful every time my mom called to tell us of someone else who was praying for Michael. We took great solace and hope in the “cloud of witnesses” interceding for us.

 

But a nagging question remains — what did all that prayer actually do?

 

Please understand: I’m in no way belittling all the prayers offered on our behalf, or the prayers I offer for others. But the reality is, people who are being prayed for die every day. The prayers for my grandmother were as fervent as the prayers for Michael. What happens when you pray and the healing doesn’t happen?

 

This question of prayer has been rattling around in my head since I read a science blog a couple of weeks ago about a cardiac surgeon who offers to pray with all his patients just before the anesthesia is applied. The blogger, also a surgeon, noted that this might not always be a wise policy, because, first, the patient might be of a different faith, or no faith, and this might not be something you want to spring on them just before they go into surgery; second, a few patients might wonder why the guy about to cut their heart open feels in need of divine help; and, third, the evidence shows that prayer doesn’t help the outcome.

 

It was the third that really caught my attention. Has the efficacy of prayer really been tested scientifically?

 

As a matter of fact it has, at least to the extent that science can test these things. Several studies have been done. In most of them, people with the same general illness (including leukemia, heart disease, blood problems, psychiatric disturbances) were placed in groups. Everyone received the appropriate medical care, but some people were prayed for, and some were not. A Cochrane Review (The Cochrane Collaboration is a well-respected organization that gathers data from all known studies on a subject, examines validity of the studies, and offers general conclusions on the evidence as a guide to medical practitioners) summarized the evidence this way:

 

“Overall, there was no significant difference in recovery from illness or death between those prayed for and those not prayed for. …Due to various limitations in the trials included in this review … it is only possible to state that intercessory prayer is neither significantly beneficial nor harmful for those who are sick.”

 

This Cochrane Review should give us pause. The number of people we pray for who do not get better should give us pause as well. What are we really doing when we pray in this way? And what good is our prayer if it isn’t influencing God to heal?

 

First, let’s acknowledge that our faith tells us that miracles do seem to happen. But real healing miracles are rare. In most cases God does not intervene to change the course of nature.

 

Second, intercessory prayer is a strong part of our tradition, but it’s easy to get off the track here. When we’re scared, human beings tend to bargain with God, hoping to get God to do what we want. We’re also often tempted to think that if we get one more prayer chain, one more Rosary, the right saint pulling for us, God will see things our way. Sometimes we’re left to wonder why God answered someone else’s prayers but not ours. And, saddest of all, sometimes when healings do not occur, people blame themselves, thinking that God would have answered if only they were better persons or their faith had been stronger or their prayer more pure. All these sad and mistaken thoughts actually seem to lead us further from God rather than closer to Him.

 

Third, we learn from the wisdom of the Church that the question of evil and suffering is a great mystery without easy answers and that while suffering and death are clearly not God’s will, they are, somehow — far beyond our ability to understand — part of God’s plan of salvation. The paschal mystery — the birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus — is the very heart of our faith. And it is in dying to ourselves through him, with him, and in him that we are raised to life.

 

The term “paschal mystery” can sound very dry. But the reality isn’t dry — it speaks of joy and sorrow, blood, sweat, pain, tremendous effort, courage, love, and life and death. It means many things, and one of them is that Jesus, who suffered and died like we all must, is very close to us in our sufferings. In a recent book called Letters from Jesus, Deacon Eddie Ensley and Father Angelo Arrando imagine Jesus speaking beautifully to us about this: “The only way your suffering and brokenness can be healed,” Jesus says, “is to join them with my brokenness and my suffering. …If you want to touch the world’s sorrow, you must face your own sorrow and join that sorrow to mine. …A great resurrection can come when we face the parts of ourselves that life has smashed. …When you touch my suffering, you touch my resurrection, and that which was most broken becomes that which is most transformed.”

 

Listen, as well, to a Southern Baptist minister named Al Staggs (quoted in Father Bill Bausch’s Once Upon a Gospel) who lost his wife to cancer, despite the people around them who told them to keep praying for a miracle. “Sometimes,” he said, “I just want to ask these people who become so excited about miraculous healing, ‘Has your vaunted prayer program yet kept anyone alive forever?’ Eventually we all die. So why save our success stories for just those precious few who have been allowed a few months or years longer than they would otherwise have had? There needs to be a major emphasis on God’s grace and sufficiency for every illness and every situation. The Christian community should talk just as loud and long about God’s Essence in the most hopeless situations as we do about the ‘miraculous healings.’ …The miracle of a believer’s faith … in the face of terminal illness, and the faith of a loving family, is just as important as any story of a miraculous cure of an illness. So let us hear the stories of the miraculous presence of God in the lives of these saints who are faithful to the end.”

 

When I reread Ensley and Staggs recently, it struck me that this is what intercessory prayer is really all about — this is how it works: it talks about, it celebrates, it brings to consciousness “the miraculous presence of God” in our most distressing, most painful, even our most hopeless situations.

 

Michael still remembers the look on my face when we received his diagnosis. There was no hiding the fear, the distress in my eyes for my beloved son. Nobody in the room at that moment talked about the paschal mystery; nobody had to. Whether we realized it or not, we were living it.

 

And that’s where prayer came in. My own first panicky prayers were pleas that this not be so. But it was so, and we had to deal with it. It was the loving concern and prayers of all the people around us that helped us recognize and touch God’s loving presence with us in those terrible months. People prayed for us. They sent messages to let us know that we were in their thoughts. And when they were able, they did more: they cooked us food and bought us gas to travel back and forth to the hospital. They bought Michael a Wii console with the exercise module so that he could try to stay fit in between bouts of chemo nausea and lumbar puncture headaches. Our parish held a fish fry to raise money for costs not covered by insurance, to which amazing crowds came. It was all prayer. Prayer in thought and prayer in action; it was the hand of God reaching out in love and reminding us that we are all together, that the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and that God is very, very close.

 

And it’s the same for my own prayer for others. Like any good paschal mystery experience, intercessory prayer lifts me out of my own self-centered concerns and helps me focus on the needs of others. It helps me to be a sign of God’s closeness to someone in need, and it spurs me on, when I am able, to extend my prayer by doing whatever I can to help. And in all of it, I have an opportunity to recognize, and even to be, in my own very limited way, the very presence of God. While we always hope for good outcomes, we celebrate, and we become the loving presence of God, no matter what happens.

 

This isn’t enough for people who pray for miracles. And there’s nothing here a Cochrane Review can measure. But manifesting the nearness of God’s presence seems to me to be miracle enough.

 

Does prayer work? You bet!

 

Dan

Editorial Director Dan Connors

Dan is currently Editorial Director at Bayard, Inc. He served as Editor-in-Chief of Catholic Digest from 2005 to 2011. He was previously editor-in-chief of Today's Parish. Prior to that, he was managing editor of Pastoral Music magazine (the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, NPM), and managing editor of Emmanuel magazine. He has worked with parish leaders for 26 years and has been an active parish volunteer. His wife, Deborah, is pastoral associate at St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in New London, Connecticut.