November 20, 2004
When Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix recently created a "prayer wall" in its lobby where anyone could post written prayers, the Rev. Kelli Shepard, director of spiritual care, said they expected the messages to God could stay up three months before coming down to make room for new ones.
"We have found out it is so popular that people write so many prayers," she says, "that we are taking them down every two weeks so we can put up more."
While hospital chaplains, prayer chapels and a constant flow of clergy and lay people are a standard part of the scene of the modern medical center, the extent to which prayer is integrated into medical treatment is in its infancy.
In light of findings from a body of controlled studies suggesting that patients heal and faster when prayed for, Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology presented a panel discussion Monday at Banner Good Samaritan on the "Power of Prayer: How Does Prayer Work?"
A United Methodist pastor, a Muslim internal medicine physician, a rabbi serving the elderly, a university educator who is Wiccan and a psychologist addressed the realm of prayer, each speaking from his or her own religious tradition and experiences. Some pointed to a range of studies involving two groups of patients, one the beneficiary of massive prayer, while the other not given such extraordinary supplication.
For example, at the University of Arizona, Dr. Allan Hamilton is using a $1.3 million grant to study Johrei, a practice that began in Japan in which practitioners transmit energy through prayer to a cardiac bypass patient for 27 minutes at a time to heal the spirit and, in turn, the body.
"Prayer is an exercise of the soul," says Dr. Zudhi Jasser, an internist and nuclear cardiologist and a Muslim. He says the human soul needs exercise, and prayer provides it — at least five times a day for the practicing Muslim, whose faith does not require an intermediary to God. Jasser expects it will be a long time before the medical profession formally embraces and makes prayer part of its standard of operation, although it is common for doctors to pray with patients.
Yet doctors and nurses remain ambivalent about prayer as part of procedures, partly because of the diversity of faith traditions they and their patients may represent, said the Rev. Larry Gerber, pastor of the Sun Lakes United Methodist Church. The key, he said, is to "not put any one religion in front of the other" in such settings. "Make it as open and ecumenical as possible."
When he shows up in a patient’s room with medical staff present, Gerber will ask if he can have a moment of prayer with the patient. The staff will usually say yes, and they will begin to leave. Gerber says, "Don’t leave unless you don’t really want to be part of the prayer." Gerber quickly seeks to know what faiths may be represented in the room and may offer, as a result, a non-Christian prayer.
"It is not to belittle Christianity but to enfold everybody," he says. "More and more nurses and doctors do say, ‘Thank you for allowing us to be here and to be lifted up.’ "
But Rabbi Martin Scharf, chaplain of the Kivel Campus of Care in Phoenix, says he hasn’t seen much willingness among doctors to make room for prayer as part of treatment. While serving a Jewish temple in Amarillo, Texas, Scharf was the clergymen assigned to a physician and a group of medical school students for small-group meetings focusing on a holistic approach to patient treatment.
"What was interesting was that most of the second-year students could care less," he says. "It was a course they had to take. They only cared about going out and making their rounds." They looked at the prayer component as a "waste of time."
"Prayer is something that I can’t explain — it is something I do in communication with my God," Gerber says. If someone would hear him pray, they’d hear a "one-sided conversation," yet, he says, "the actions of the prayers would indicate that something has happened or something is happening because of that communication."
Gerber recalls being called to a Las Vegas hospital to pray for, and baptize, a dying crack baby at the request of his mother who was in jail. "It was 2 in the morning, and they said there is a crack baby that is not going to make it through the night. I walked into the room with six nurses who were hovering around this little baby with more wires and monitors than there was flesh," Gerber says. "The baby was pathetic. With all the wires on his head, I finally found a place to put two fingers on the baby’s head to put on some oil and some water and ask God’s blessings upon this child."
Gerber says he implored that God would do his will, determining whether the baby lived or died, and he prayed for the mother in jail. "I prayed that, ‘God, if it is your will, make something miraculous happen.’ I left with tears in my eyes and dejected, knowing there was no hope. The baby could not live. There was no hope." The baby, however, survived and was a 2-year-old toddler at last report, Gerber says. "And the mother had become clean and came out of jail and was working."
"It is very mystical," Gerber says. "Prayer is essential, prayer is effective, prayer is unselfish and prayer makes peace with one’s soul. . . . Prayer allows me to remember to focus on the fact that I am the caregiver and God is the cure giver."
For Norma Turner, a Wiccan, prayer involves "connecting with the energy flow of those things that are already happening." She says Wicca has made her conscious of "this larger energy that we are all part of" and gives her strength, especially when she is under stress. When a friend had pancreatic cancer, "I dealt with it in my way," going to the altar at her home where her prayers tied her into the earth energy, and she felt part of community.
"Wicca says, ‘Look at the big picture. Look at what is happening. Don’t just look at what you want. Learn to go with the flow,’ " she says, adding that medicine faces some of the same challenges of public education, where religious diversity is so wide that no one can agree on whose prayers and what faith traditions should be followed. If prayer around a patient became one of the regular steps a Methodist surgeon would perform before ordering the anesthesia on a Muslim patient, would it suffice?
What’s a hospital to do without a Buddhist heart surgeon, a born-again Baptist foot specialist or a Muslim cardiologist at the right moment? Or would each resort to offering generic, bland prayers that might woefully fail to satisfy people’s religious traditions?
"It would take a lot of development to make sure that it is done correctly and not done coercively," Jasser says.
Meanwhile, faith and medicine will closely follow more blind studies of prayer and healing. Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy would already know the results. "The term ‘mind and body’ literally means ‘God and man,’ for man is the expression of mind and the manifestation of mind is the embodiment of mind," she wrote. "Therefore, man is God’s body and there is but one God."