Prayer Under a Microscope

At Thanksgiving, a time to rethink research on prayer

When Abraham Lincoln asked the nation in 1863 to start observing a day of Thanksgiving each November, he also warned Americans they had been "too proud to pray to the God that made us."

Lincoln would have been pleased to know that praying has since become as common to Thanksgiving as stuffing to a turkey. An annual Thanksgiving prayer, even if spoken simply as grace before the holiday meal, helps bring out the kind of humility in each person that's so essential to realigning thinking to the changeless truths of divine law. It can consist of a basic audible prayer spoken in groups or the more potent silent prayer that's felt in the heart and that works against dishonesty or vanity.

Prayer, whether for oneself or others, remains essential to most Americans' lives year-round. It's even entered mainstream media with primetime TV shows like "7th Heaven" and "Touched by an Angel."

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A Monitor/TIPP poll in 2002 found some 60 percent of Americans say they pray once or more a day, and another 21 percent pray at least once a week. A vast majority of them expect prayer to have a positive impact on individual lives and on national and world events.

Probing for prayer's results

Indeed, prayer has become a popular topic for scientific research. The New York Times notes that at least 10 studies of so-called intercessory prayer - praying for others - have been launched since 2000, with $2.3 million spent by the federal government on prayer research.

Such attention on prayer reflects an attempt to bridge the historic gulf between scientific knowledge and religious understanding, as well as a deep concern about the state of healthcare in the United States - its effectiveness, its costs, and its direction.

Two important words of this newspaper's name reflect a desire by its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, to bridge that gulf. "The two largest words in the vocabulary of thought," she wrote, "are 'Christian' and 'Science.' " She spent the second half of her life working to establish the scientific application of prayer, following the model set by Christ Jesus. Her last major contribution to humanity was to start The Christian Science Monitor in 1908.

Much of today's lab-style research on prayer assumes that praying is primarily an act of imploring God for help in curing an ailment. For sure, prayer begins as a desire for something good. But with prayer seen largely as a plea, no wonder skeptics abound in the world of science about this research. The critics claim that the mental process of praying may simply have a physiologically beneficial influence on the body, much like the placebo effect.

Deeper prayer, however, goes beyond pleading to a quiet, humble listening. This kind of prayer, Mrs. Eddy has written, "makes new and scientific discoveries of God, of His goodness and power."

Today's prayer researchers are exploring the potential ways that prayer may cause tangible effects, or changes in the human experience. Rather than altering reality, however, praying uncovers and affirms what already exists in the spiritual realm, the truth of creation. It brings thinking into harmony with that universal realm, much as Newton's discovery of gravity has helped humans better understand and live with gravity.

Spiritual healing and its skeptics

As many people have discovered since the time of Moses and Jesus, prayer removes fear and brings out a spiritual wholeness that promotes health and progress in all aspects of life. Many other people, nonetheless, remain skeptical about prayer, with all the same skepticism that a research scientist brings to proving or disproving a new theory.

As a nation every Thanksgiving since 1863, millions of Americans have bowed their heads in a moment of prayerful humility for the goodness already received. Research scientists can study the potential effects of prayer, but in the end, people who count their blessings will discover that this results in its own indisputable proof by bringing more blessings.

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