Medicine Meets Faith: Rivals Seek Reconciliation To Aid Healing

A Physician's young son taught his dad a lesson he will never forget.

When little Louis became ill during the night, Dale Matthews twice administered over-the-counter medications and tucked the boy back in bed. But Louis awakened for the third time and appeared at his father's bedside, obviously still in need of relief. As Dr. Matthews tells it, "He said, 'Daddy, these medicines don't work. Can't we just pray now?' "

"Awed by [Louis's] faith and embarrassed by the lack of my own," Matthews says he prayed with his son and put him back in bed. Louis promptly fell asleep and awoke in the morning - well.

To Matthews, who teaches medicine at Georgetown University in Washington, the incident points to a reconciliation under way in the US between two divergent disciplines: faith and medicine.

Indeed, health-care providers joined with clergy this week in Boston for a three-day course at Harvard Medical School entitled Spirituality and Healing in Medicine. The course explored how spiritual beliefs affect the healing process and examined religions' "diverse experiences of spirituality and healing."

Attendance here underscored a growing interest by health-care professionals in studying the connection between healing and spirituality. The 1,000 attendees eclipsed the number at last year's course by 200, and Harvard officials say interest is so high that the course will now be offered twice annually.

"I didn't know last year whether the first conference was a success because of its novelty," says Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and the president of Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute. "But ... hundreds have signed up, so we're going to repeat it in March in Los Angeles. We'll hold another one next year here in December and in March 1998 at the Houston Medical Center." The institute has been studying the benefits of mind-body interactions for 25 years.

New surveys, including one released during the meeting, indicate that more people, including physicians, are recognizing the role that faith plays in their lives - and in healing.

George Gallup Jr., co-chairman of the Gallup Organization, reported that 9 in 10 people believe God loves them. Some 85 percent of Americans believe in miracles, and 84 percent believe God is involved in their lives. Further, almost 1 in 2 Americans is involved in a small group for nurture or worship, he reported.

"The empirical evidence is mounting," Mr. Gallup says. "You will hear much about it and its implications for elevating societies around the world."

Research from the Mind/Body Institute has shown that when patients repeat a prayer, word, or sound, it has a positive effect on a number of diseases. Dr. Benson refers to the result of the repetitive practice as a "relaxation response" and the religious beliefs that elicit it as the "faith factor."

Benson is careful to say that the spiritual role in healing is but one component. He emphasizes a three-pronged approach: medicine, surgical procedures, and self-care or faith.

"I cannot envision a world without penicillin, without surgery," he says. "It would be as onerous to say you don't need drugs and surgery as to say they're the only approaches you need."

Still, doctors here showed a willingness to be open to their patients' religious beliefs, and many acknowledged the benefits of prayer in the healing process.

In fact, a survey of physicians at the American Academy of Family Physicians' annual meeting in October showed that 99 percent believe patients' religious beliefs can contribute in a positive way to the healing process. Moreover, 92 percent said they have had patients who sought the aid of a spiritual leader to help with their medical condition, the Yankelovich Partners reported here Dec. 17.

The course also examined various religious practices and their historic roles in healing. The spectrum ranged from Buddhism, which relies on words or thoughts rather than God, to Judaism, Catholicism, Hispanic-Pentecostal, and Islam, which rely on both prayer and medicine, to Christian Science, which relies only on prayer.

Virginia Harris, chair of the Board of Directors of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which publishes this newspaper, served for the past two years as a faculty member for the course. She chronicled Mary Baker Eddy's discovery and founding of Christian Science and traced the religion's roots in spiritual healing as recounted in the Bible.

Telling of a healing after an auto accident 20 years ago, Mrs. Harris said doctors felt there was little hope for her recovery. She regained complete health, she said, by relying wholly on prayer and her understanding of God. "Prayer as practiced in Christian Science includes at least these basic ingredients: understanding what God is; getting to know man's inherent spirituality; understanding the connectedness of God and man."

Rabbi Rachel Cowan, speaking about healing practices in Judaism, said prayer in healing dates back to the 7th century BC. Such practices have been dropped over the past 100 years but are "reasserting themselves."

The Rev. Joseph Driscoll, director of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, says America now has 14,000 professional spiritual-care persons who help people who are ill.

Larry Dossey, a physician and the author of several books on healing, discussed recent research on the healing effects of praying for others who are far away. Dr. Dossey said the implications of the controlled experiments were profound, pointing to a connectedness between all beings. Consciousness is omnipresent in the universe, he said, and is not confined in brain or body.

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