As word spread that the Holy Father was rushed to the hospital for breathing complications related to his month-long bout with the flu, many believers rushed to prayer. Their request is for divine intervention and healing on his behalf. This practice – praying for healing when news of illness strikes – may be more common and more effective than you think.

Just last week, I told you of my harried and hurried venture to the local naval hospital to pray for a friend about to undergo surgery for cancer. I ended my column with questions from a 2003 Newsweek poll that many doctors and scientists continue asking. Can religion slow cancer? Reduce depression? Speed recovery from surgery? Can belief in God possibly delay death?

Using prayer to effect health is among the most controversial subjects of research. In the Newsweek poll, “84 percent of Americans said praying for others can have a positive effect on their recovery. Fifty–three percent say they’ve personally relied on religious faith to help them get through a major illness or health problem. A full 72 percent of all those polled believe God can cure people given no chance of survival by medical science.”

Despite these numbers among the lay community, actual research results have been mixed. One explanation is that the effects of prayer are a supernatural event. That means most scientific studies on the connection between prayers and healing are attempts to qualify and quantify supernatural events with empirical measurements. This is not a good way to “prove” prayer can heal.

But that won’t stop the scientific community from trying to understand and take advantage of the connection between prayer and healing. According to the Newsweek article, “more than 70 of the United States’ 125 medical schools – from Harvard to Stanford – offer specific courses in spirituality or incorporate the theme into the curriculum.” And, in a distinctly New Age manner, traditionally stodgy surgeons are now allowing friends (like me) as well as clergy into the pre-operating room area to pray for patients.

What’s causing this change of heart in a profession that’s traditionally been all about the facts? A growing body of research including over 1,000 scientific studies that have examined the relationship between faith and healing – that’s what!

For example, one of the best-known studies was conducted by Randolph Byrd in the cardiac-care unit of San Francisco General Hospital. All subjects were given routine standard care, but prayer groups prayed for half of the patients. Patients who weren’t mentioned in prayers were nearly twice as likely to suffer health complications as those who received prayer.

Another study of 1,000 cardiac patients conducted at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., concluded “the group receiving prayers fared 11 percent better than the group that didn’t.”

Researchers at Columbia University and Cha Hospital of Korea reported that women undergoing in vitro fertilization had higher rates of pregnancy when groups of strangers anonymously prayed for them.

Other studies at several medical centers and leading universities indicate prayer and faith can speed recovery from depression, alcoholism, hip surgery, drug addiction, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, heart attacks and bypass surgery. Even the survival of AIDS patients was improved by those participating in religious practices.

Of course, such studies provoke skepticism from many scientists. They speculate religious factors such as relaxation, the release of emotion and a sense of connection simply influence mental and physical health by altering brain function, shifting hormone levels and boosting the immune system.

Another weakness in the acclaimed link between prayer and better health is rooted in the overall healthy lifestyle often followed by religious conservatives. Think about it – when was the last time you saw a Mormon, an Orthodox Jew or an evangelical Christian drink in excess or smoke?

My take on it is this: We know enough, based on solid research, to say that prayer, much like diet and exercise, has a connection with better health. That means prayer and healing are not just a subject of interest for wacko “believers” in need of psychiatric services as Bill Maher and other secular humanists think. Leading doctors and scientists are affirming what people of faith have known for 5,000 years. Prayer works.

How it works is unclear, and attempting to measure its supernatural effects with the empirical is a losing endeavor. It’s like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. But since, according to the Newsweek poll, 84 percent of Americans believe that prayer promotes healing, I’ll end with how one evangelical pastor from South Carolina suggests doing it.

When we face illness, he says, “we must go straight to the God of all comfort, seeking His face and imploring Him to reveal His Word and promises to us concerning the situation. We must not fear, but trustingly approach the God who heals, asking Him to generate faith in us through His Word. For, there is healing in the stripes and in the cross of Jesus Christ.

“[Always remember] that while we all desire healing, some never receive it. Even so, no matter what God reveals, He will probably not reveal it unless we pray or actively seek His face somehow. So, go to the Lord and beseech Him to give a promise, a word, a clear revelation of His kind intention and then, [believing Him for it] remind Him of it often.”

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