For people of faith who face health challenges, turning to God in prayer is not unusual. But over the past few decades, medical professionals have focused attention on whether prayer has effects that go beyond spiritual solace to impact physical health.
The Rev. John K. Graham is president and CEO of the Institute for Spirituality and Health at Texas Medical Center in Houston. An Episcopal priest and experienced physician, he is one of a growing number of medical professionals who study the effects of spirituality, including prayer, on health and coping with health challenges such as cancer and chronic illness.
“In ‘The Handbook of Religion and Health,’ Dr. Harold Koenig (a longtime investigator in the area of mind-body medicine) lists more than 3,000 articles in the medical literature that show a positive correlation between spirituality and health,” said Rev. Graham. “It affects every parameter that you can measure: blood pressure, cholesterol level, every chemical measure including stress/cortisol in the body.”
People express their spirituality in a variety of ways, but prayer is the most common practice.
Rev. Graham explained, “Prayer is the foundational spiritual practice for almost everyone, even those who say they are not religious. If (the nonreligious) have a child who is ill or they are going into the operating room, they still pray. Sometimes that’s called the ‘foxhole prayer,’ but I wouldn’t diminish it. If you’re at your desperate end of things, you’ll turn to someone greater than yourself.”
The effect of prayer can enable the patient to accept a diagnosis, reduce stress and focus energy toward healing — all important in coping with a health crisis.
“You can’t force God to cure someone,” said Rev. Graham. “The human condition is not perfect this side of heaven. We have to deal with situations like genetic abnormalities. Some of us are more susceptible to cancer or autoimmune disease. We can die of a car wreck tomorrow.
“Prayer is even more beneficial than just being healed. Your soul, your spirit are touched. You get reconciliation with God. We have a God who loves us, that’s what prayer is all about. Getting that connection with God.”
That connection can have tangible, physical effects, noted Rev. Graham. “We know that your body is designed to heal a cut, for example. Science has proven that what you think and what you believe will have an effect on your health. Neurotransmitters go out through your whole body and interact to affect your cells in a positive way.
“For example, if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, praying will have a positive effect on your immune system. Prayer puts your body in the right position so that it can do its own work.”
Intercessory, praiseful, liturgical or even angry prayer can have a benefit, according to Rev. Graham.
“I would rather someone get mad with God if they are diagnosed. It shows they have a relationship with God. It seeks resolution beyond the anger, to a place of acceptance, like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed, ‘Let this cup pass from me, but if not, thy will be done.’
“This puts us in balance, body-soul-spirit. It puts our mind at rest. Then we’re like an open vessel, reaching up to God and accepting what God has in store for us.”
Rev. Graham would like to see more research document the impact of prayer on people and their healing. For now, he said, “even if you pray alone, you respond to God’s love pouring down all the time. God’s going to hear you.”
Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service. Her website is www.maureenpratt.com.