Physicians and scientists, hard pressed at times to offer sound medical explanations for the sudden and dramatic recovery of some patients, including ones declared terminal, cede ground (haltingly, perhaps) to proponents of prayer and healing, who claim God's hand was evident in the process. The debate about the possibility vs. probability, and general validity of this phenomenon continues.
A new study from Harvard, for example, in cooperation with the Mind/Body Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, Boston, on the effects of intercessory prayer, showed that cardiac bypass patients, who expected people to pray for them, actually did worse than those who believed prayers weren't offered for them.
Despite the study's results, studies before it and those to come, the question persists: Does God heal physical ailments through the power of prayer?
Some philosophers contend God doesn't intervene directly in the lives of people, while other observers of the daily scene, especially those with ties to religion, and religious and spiritual groups claim divine intervention in medical matters can and does happen.
Consider these thought-provoking words by Shakespeare's Hamlet – not conclusive in either regard, of course, but intriguing.
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
And these words: "The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that receives." (From The Merchant of Venice)
"Healing through prayer is highly regarded on a spiritual and religious level by people who have deep faith," said Adeline "Addy" Schultz, a Thomas Jefferson University Hospital speech therapist, Outpatient Rehabilitation Medicine, Philadelphia, who is in Jefferson's pastoral care training program also.
"Prayer gives people who are ill hope and is a tremendously calming activity for them because anxiety only makes things worse. I think these things, plus others – such as mindfulness meditation, stress reduction, even acupuncture – can help to promote healing because I believe mind and body are connected, are one," Schultz added.
"A real kind of peace comes over people who pray for healing and believe in praying. Lots of times, people will pray that God's will be done, so prayer helps them to cope also with their medical condition, and become more accepting of their situation."
Schultz, in her pastoral care experience, which includes praying with and for people of all religious denominations at the hospital, admitted readily she has never seen what might be called a miracle, but said that doesn't mean they don't occur. "I believe prayer by someone and for that person is a factor in healing, that there is some explanation that includes prayer, but I don't think it's a miracle when someone is healed through prayer," she confided.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Andrew Newberg, M.D., assistant professor of radiology, psychiatry and religious studies, and author of the book Why God Won't Go Away and the new Why We Believe What We Believe, to be published in September, said "prayer makes people more optimistic."
"It's well known in the medical profession, and most doctors will tell you, that people who have a good mental outlook are going to do better than those who don't, which brings into play the power of human consciousness to affect things. But the effects of intercessory prayer are much more complicated," Newberg stated.
And what about those times when a patient either doesn't improve or get well, he asked. The perception is that prayer did the patient harm, he added, but there may be a number of other hard-to-control factors involved.
"The paradigm in science is that we understand how the world works, so there isn't always room for other concepts, including divine ones. On the other hand," he added, "some feel there is room for that to happen, for the divine to enter. The big problem is God as something science can study."
Even when there is a spontaneous remission or healing, he said, the first thing for which science will look is an immune system connection, a physiological reason. "It's hard to know if the cause was prayer or a change in the immune system. The overall perspective is an investigational one on a case-by-case basis," said Newberg, director of Penn's School of Medicine's Center for Spirituality and the Mind, and of the initiative, "Mind, Religion and Ethics in Dialogue," a project to explore the critical relationship between mind and spirituality.
Rabbi Susan Falk, hospice rabbi for the Joan Grossman Center for Chaplaincy and Healing, Fort Washington, part of the Jewish Family and Children's Service, said she "works with people who are terminal, if not imminently dying. Through my practice, I provide a pastoral and comforting presence for both people for whom Judaism has been an important factor in their lives, through synagogue and services, and, in a symbolic sense, for those patients who aren't connected to Judaism in those same ways."
In both instances, Falk said, she sees the effects of a pastoral presence in the room; patients are left with hope, with something that has great meaning for them – even if it's feeling better just for the moment. She said she concludes her visit often with prayers for the patient and family.
As for the efficacy of prayer on healing, she regards that as possible but not probable, since there are simply too many variables, not only in studies about remote prayer in healing but in life as a whole. Still the power of mind over body in society is untapped, she commented. "Sometimes these things happen, but I don't why," she said.
"I believe in God, I believe in a divine presence, I believe in the power of intervention – but believe also that healing through prayer depends a great deal on a person's perceptions about God, on how that person defines God, on someone's relationship with God, and on what someone means by intervention.
"Our measure of success in this matter shouldn't be judged on people being cured and on eliminating all disease, because that kind of thinking goes against the generations of wisdom that tell us death is part of life.
"People oversimplify mysterious and complex concepts. They think in black and white terms too often," she concluded.