CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — VARIOUS forms of spirituality have long knocked on the door of mainstream medicine, asking for acknowledgment as effective treatment.
But that knocking is now getting more insistent as a number of medical practitioners, armed with research data and experience, find themselves more open to the influence of spiritual faith and alternative-healing methods.
Evidence of changing views was found here this week as some 800 scholars, doctors, clinicians, chaplains, and nurses from around the United States attended a course titled ''Spirituality and Healing in Medicine.'' It was conducted under the auspices of the Harvard Medical School.
Central to the proceedings of the seminar was an assumption that prayer and a patient's mental attitude can help in healing, and that the medical community should consider more than a patient's physical symptoms in treating disease.
''This approach is what a lot of us know but have not heard anyone say before,'' said attendee Gerald Rexin, a chaplain at Stoneham General Hospital in Stoneham, Mass. ''We are hearing that it is OK for physicians to bring prayer into the hospital.''
''It is certainly unimaginable that 20 years ago the Harvard Medical School would give even the time of day to something called 'Spirituality and Healing,''' says theologian Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School, a course faculty member.
Shifting views on prayer's role
Views on spirituality as well as the connection between mind and body differed dramatically among participants. Some were religious, others quite secular in their orientation. But the common ground was a willingness to entertain the idea that prayer helps patients, and that at a time of increasingly expensive health care, it is cheap and cost-effective to take it up.
The course's guiding force is Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind-Body Medical Institute at Deaconess Hospital in Boston. Dr. Benson has pioneered a technique called ''the relaxation response.'' The technique, which first emerged 20 years ago out of the popular transcendental meditation movement, shows that ''when a person engages in a repetitive prayer, word, sound, or phrase, and when intrusive thoughts are passively disregarded, a specific set of physiologic changes ensue.''
In leading the 800 participants through a relaxation-response breathing exercise on Dec. 3, Benson told the audience that it does not matter what words are used in a prayer. ''Whether it is the word Peace, Shalom, Our Father, or Hail Mary Full of Grace, the physiology is really the same,'' he stated. ''We can all have the same profound feeling.''
Benson states that 60 to 90 percent of cases taken by physicians are cognitive or psychological problems. They are usually the result of anxiety or stress, and medical treatment can be reduced or even eliminated by prayer. ''At a time of rising HMOs, if you could eliminate even 30 percent of doctor visits, you have real savings,'' he says.
Data were offered quantifying the effectiveness of prayer used in a medical context to treat illnesses like insomnia, heart trouble, and the side-effects of cancer and AIDs.
Evidence for the efficacy of various forms of prayer was straightforward. In 212 clinical studies conducted since the mid-1980s, 160 showed positive effects of religious commitment on health, while only 15 showed negative effects. In a study of mortality rates for certain heart conditions, 5 percent of church-goers died while 12 percent of nonchurch members did. A Texas study of drug-treatment centers found that 45 percent of patients in religious centers were successfully treated, while the rate in state centers was 5 percent.
The most impressive research, stated faculty members, was conducted with 393 cancer patients in the San Francisco General Hospital in 1988. Half the patients were prayed for by charismatic healers in different US cities; half were not. The patients did not know of the prayers. Yet those prayed for needed less treatment than the others.
''The medical community is starting to open because there is for the first time published data about these facts,'' says David Larson, an adjunct professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. ''Prayer and spirituality are a forgotten factor, a beneficial factor in recovery, and something that has been mishandled.''
In an unusual departure for a medical audience, a day was spent on presentations about the healing traditions of various faiths, including Islam, Roman Catholicism, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventist, and Hinduism. The audience gave a standing ovation to a Hispanic Pentecostalist who was declared mentally retarded at age 2 and was deformed in his teen years by a medically diagnosed condition that left him deaf and blind. Later, he was completely healed by prayer alone, and went on to receive a doctorate from New York's Union Seminary in systematic theology.
Virginia Harris, chairman of the Board of Directors of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, related several physical healings brought about by prayer in Christian Science. Mrs. Harris told the audience that the concept of ''Mind'' in Christian Science ''is synonymous with God.'' She quoted from ''Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,'' by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science: ''The procuring cause and foundation of all sickness is fear, ignorance, or sin. Disease is always induced by a false sense mentally entertained, not destroyed.''
Steven Kosslyn, a Harvard neurologist and professor of psychology, said after the discussion on healing that ''no one could sit through all those panels on healing and think this is nothing, that there is no relation between spirituality and healing.''
While often characterized by advocates as a new development, mind-body healing methods date back centuries. Interest became white-hot in late 19th century America, when practices like mind-cure, New Thought, and theosophy became popular, particularly in New England. Many of these groups were derived from the new and rapidly growing Christian Science movement. Their methods of ''mental healing'' were often wrongly confused with Christian Science healing, which relies on God alone, and not the human mind, in healing.
Nor is it the first time Harvard medical faculty have publicly linked a patient's mental state to health. Harvard cardiologist Bernard Lown, in the introduction to Norman Cousins' 1982 book, ''The Healing Heart,'' graphically describes a patient who fell ill and died hours after wrongly thinking her diagnosis meant ''terminal.''
''This interest is a periodic event in American culture,'' says Dr. Cox, author of ''The Secular City. ''The difference today is that the paradigm of science and technology as the only master system is under question.''