When scientists examined the relationship between prayer and healing in a meta-review earlier this year, the conclusions were quite surprising. The German report – published online in February in the journal Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine – found that although most patients with chronic diseases pray for relief from their physical and mental suffering, the intention of their prayers is not only for healing.
The researchers say that prayer can allow patients positively to transform the experience of their illness. This ties in with work that links the use of mindfulness to treating back pain, and other long-term conditions. Mindfulness requires that we pay attention in a particular way to a problem, with deliberation, in the present moment, and without judgment.
If we have an aching knee, and we pray for relief, are we being spiritual through prayer or mindful through consciousness? Does the answer lie without or within us? And what if we extrapolate that further: can we suggest that prayer may be a medium through which we can transform the experience of living?
Whatever our source of spirituality or religion, many are more used to the simple concept of saying a prayer than practising well-developed mindfulness.
In prayer, we may recite the words of others, or whisper a dream from our own hearts. Sometimes a prayer can be a cry of desperation but equally it can be a form of meditation in itself. A moment in time or a glimpse in space, of a world outside ourselves where to believe is to begin the journey to strength.
Some pray to an omniscient helper who can always answer our needs. In his new book, When I Pray, What Does God Do?, David Wilkinson (a Christian theologian as well as, perhaps unusually, an astrophysicist) explains this is God as “repairman constantly coming to look after faulty equipment”. That doesn’t sound a reasonable transaction: none of us wants to find ourselves in a position where we are beholden, even to our spiritual leader.
It is more interesting perhaps then to think of the prayer of need to be a conversation with ourselves: an internal dialogue, helping us to reorganise our priorities.
The Dalai Lama says: “Peace does not come through prayer, we human beings must create peace.” The prayer is merely the first step of the journey, the springboard rather than some ethereal hope.
For myself, I find it important to say a prayer every time I make a charitable contribution. I pray that my time and resources – however limited – will stretch as far as possible, and benefit as many people as possible. In doing so, I seek to add spiritual weight to my contribution.
Acknowledging that my charitable work needs spiritual support is also a way of remaining in touch with my own sense of humility. That is when prayer helps us to find our place in relation to that higher power which we reach towards for guidance and truth.