Does prayer work? And how? Local prayer leaders and pastors who spoke with Xpress are in general agreement that the answer is “yes” — but it often depends on your definition of a successful outcome.
“I believe God still performs miracles, [but] he’s not a vending machine,” says Michael Lombardo, who serves as director of pastoral care and service chaplain at Hendersonville’s Park Ridge Health, a faith-based hospital. “If I pray a prayer a certain way, he doesn’t have to answer my prayer no matter what. … [God] knows what’s best, so I often pray for his will to be done in the midst of asking for things I’d like to see happen. I see only part of the picture; he sees the whole picture.”
Nevertheless, there are many stories of prayers being answered. “I’ve seen miraculous things happen over time with prayer,” says Jeanne Robertson, a healing prayer minister and board member of the Mountain Chapter of the Order of St. Luke in Asheville. Robertson tells a story of a woman who asked for prayers to help her heal after eye surgery, when her doctor said to expect black eyes and facial swelling. After the surgery, “we prayed for her. … She never had black eyes, and her face didn’t swell. We consider that an answer to prayer,” she says with a joyful laugh.
The scientific research on the efficacy of prayer in medical situations is inconclusive, with some studies finding outcomes worsened and others finding improvement. For example, a 2006 nationwide study of 1,800 people who underwent heart bypass surgery showed that the patients who were prayed for had higher rates of postoperative complications, such as abnormal heart rhythms. In this study, the patients knew they were being prayed for, suggesting that knowledge of being prayed for can have a negative impact on health outcomes. Conversely, in a similar 1999 study conducted by the Mid America Heart Institute, involving 1,000 heart patients who were unaware of the prayers, there were 11 percent fewer heart attacks, strokes and life-threatening complications in those being prayed for.
Lombardo says prayer “can help to calm and reassure a patient or client that is praying. When we offer to come and pray with them, it is often reassuring to them that others are praying for them,” he says.
Opening eyes to solutions
Prayer “reminds [people] that there is something greater in this life and in their lives than themselves,” says Cynthia Biddle, prayer chaplain program director at Unity of the Blue Ridge. “People get stuck in everyday life and everyday problems. When you pray, you open yourself to guidance. You can get beyond what is going on, and you know you are part of a greater whole.”
Biddle says she has personal experience of people suddenly giving her money after she sat in prayer for greater prosperity. She has also seen prayer benefit people with relationship problems. “When you sit in prayer and send love to that person in prayer, things seem to resolve themselves, and you’ll be able to talk and come to an understanding,” she says.
The Rev. Bonnie Willow, an interfaith peace minister and director of the School of Peace in Asheville, says one reason prayer is helpful “is because it allows us to feel that something bigger than the problem can bring in a solution. Once you feel that that’s possible, then you open yourself to receive that solution and open your eyes to perceive more options than you can see before.”
In addition to teaching an interfaith peace ministry course, Willow offers energy healing sessions that are prayer-based. “Energy healing and ministry to me are the same thing,” she says. “My ministry is to become the brightest light of divine love, divine peace and divine health. One way I do that is through hands-on energy healing, where I bring that bright light through prayer. I pray the whole time. I bring the energy of prayer through me to the client. When I direct their attention, via prayer, to a certain situation that’s out of balance in their life, the prayer walks them through a visualization of the situation being rectified and rebalanced,” she continues.
“The prayer becomes a sort of guided meditation that gives the client an understanding of where greater healing is possible.”
“Little indications that God is there”
Robertson believes that Jesus is the true healer. At the Order of St. Luke, prayer ministers petition him for help, she notes. “We believe that Jesus is the one that really does the healing, that we [the healing prayer ministers] are like an electrical cord that connects us and the person to Jesus, and then we let him do the healing,” says Robertson. “We’re not psychiatrists or doctors or anything like that; we’re just people that feel we have a calling to pray for people for healing.”
Robertson admits that the answers to prayers are not always clear. “So many times we don’t know what the answer is [to a prayer], and sometimes what we think might be the answer is not the answer at all. Eventually, I think every prayer is answered, but it may not be answered in the way that we want,” she says.
When prayers aren’t answered, “that is a real conundrum. There is no simple answer for that,” says Suzanne De Pree, convener at the Mountain Chapter of the Order of St. Luke. She worries that when prayers are not answered, people think God doesn’t love them. “That is not the case. I think we can say unequivocally that has nothing to do with God’s love for that person. … Why sometimes it doesn’t happen, there are many factors that go into that. You really have to talk with someone about it on an individual basis and pray about it. If you do that, you can come to a peace about it,” she says.
Robertson tells of a time when she was praying for someone and saw in her mind the “holy spirit in the form of a dove alighting” on the shoulder of the person she was praying for. The person later said she felt the holy spirit in the form of a dove land on her shoulder when she was being prayed for.
“She mirrored back the words I had said to myself exactly,” says Robertson. “Funny things happen like that, which, to me, are little indications that God is there, God is present, and he is answering our prayers.”
Jeanne Robertson and Suzanne De Pree