How we talk to God
People pray for everything from the divine to the selfish and profane
Money, please. The survey also sheds some light on deeper questions about the nature of prayer in today's world. What do we understand about the way people pray and how they focus their prayers? Are there issues involved in praying for personal gain--a better job, perhaps, or a secure income--that may be encouraged in one religion and considered unseemly in another? Is this a trivialization of prayer, or does it in fact reveal an important element of one's relationship with God? "In their classical forms, all great religions have considered it perfectly fine to pray for goods," says Carol Zalesky, professor of religion at Smith College and coauthor of the forthcoming book The Language of Paradise: The Nature, Practice and Meaning of Prayer. "You can't just say that Islam is a religion of adoration and Judaism is a religion of law. Probably every fully developed religion has the full range of prayers, of the typologies of prayer. The differences are in emphasis."
Geri Stratman of Omaha, who has been a practicing Roman Catholic for all of her 74 years, describes herself as not wearing "my religion on my sleeve." In October 1996, she was diagnosed with a cancer called Hodgkin's lymphoma. "Cancer is a scary word; I don't care what kind it is," she says. "When I found out that I had cancer, I was like the Cowardly Lion: I prayed for courage."
She was not the only one. With one brother (a priest), four sisters (one a nun), and her own five children, Stratman already had a large number of people praying for her. But she also went to the St. Peregrine Ministry, organized by the Servants of Mary Sisters. Since its inception 13 years ago, the ministry has focused on healing prayer for the sick, especially those with cancer. Each month, the religious order receives 75 to 100 names of people who need prayers. Sister Jean Morrow, the prioress provincial of the order in Omaha, says, "It's not that people really expect a miracle in the form of a physical cure. For the most part, they are looking for the strength that comes in knowing others care and are supporting them in prayer." Stratman felt that support. Did it make a difference? "I sat in a group of six people, and we all had various forms of cancer. I am the only one who is alive. I never asked, 'Why me?' I sometimes asked, 'Why not me?' Why did I survive when they were just as faith filled and said as many prayers as I did?"
There is no answer to that existential question. And yet, somehow quantifying and analyzing the effects of prayer on health has become a burgeoning field of scientific--some critics would say pseudoscientific--inquiry. Researchers have attempted to see if the efficacy of prayer can be evaluated in the same way as any other treatment, running studies in which some people who were ill were given a dose of prayer with their medicine and others with the same illness received standard treatment. The studies are too numerous to mention, but one of the first that established the typical pattern took place in the coronary care unit at San Francisco General Hospital in 1988. Researchers found that patients who had been prayed for by others tended to recover with fewer complications than those who received standard treatment without prayer. Their need for antibiotics was one fifth that of other recovering patients, and they were one third as likely to develop pulmonary swelling.