By Robert Ross 

Prayer The Topic May Push Buttons
 The Act May Save Lives 


“I’m thinking of writing my Reflexions column on prayer” I said to my wife one evening. Her eyes rolled in response. “I know it’s a button pusher, and I’ll have to tread lightly, but I think it will work” I said, hoping to gain some acceptance of my idea. Again, I glanced in her direction, only to see her eyes roll once more. This is going  to be a hard sell, I thought to myself. 

What is it about prayer, the word, the topic, the concept, that can turn a civil dinner party into a raging debate?  It appears that this simple act —  prayer — is not so simple. 

A Day Without Prayer . . . 
Try going through a day without hearing or reading the word ‘prayer.’ It’s virtually impossible. Open the newspaper — read about the fight over prayer in public schools.  Turn on the radio and listen to Madonna’s CD “Like a Prayer” or Jim Morrison’s album “An American Prayer.”  Flip on the T.V., and you’ll see a tele-evangelist offering up a prayer. On the sports channel you might hear the commentator exclaiming “that  team didn’t have a prayer.” Drive by a church — “prayer meeting tonight” is on the marquee. The word, the concept, the act, is tightly woven into the fabric of our culture. 

The Act 
Encarta Encyclopedia (see defines prayer in the following way: “In its narrowest sense, prayer is understood as spiritual communion for the sake of requesting something of a deity.  In its broadest sense, prayer is any ritual form designed to bring one into closer relation to whatever one believes to be the ultimate. In this sense, both the dance ceremonials of the Native American and the meditation of the Buddhist seeking self-perfection are forms of prayer.” 

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists — pick a religious belief and you will see that a form of prayer is at the cornerstone of that belief. 

So why does the topic tend to push buttons? Looking a little closer at Encarta’s definition, the reason prayer can foster such heated debate becomes obvious. Prayer, “is designed to bring one into closer relation to whatever one believes to be the ultimate.”  Whatever one believes to be the ultimate. Ask a hundred people for their definition of the ultimate, of God,  and you will get one hundred definitions.  Some of these definitions will seem similar and some will be quite dissimilar. 

We may, as a culture, agree with Encarta’s definition that prayer is communing, but that’s where the agreement ends. 

The Outcome
The methods and beliefs about prayer may be as different as there are religions, but the outcome of prayer indicates a pattern that is consistent. 

In his best-selling book “Healing Words”,  Dr. Larry Dossey suggests there may exist some sort of “subtle energies” between people, and prayer can direct these positive forces.  He cites numerous studies to back up his assertions. 

The most famous prayer study was conducted by Dr. Randolph Byrd, a cardiologist at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. He took 393 people who had been admitted to the hospital, each with a heart attack. All of the subjects received the same high-tech, state-of-the-art coronary care, but half were also prayed for by name, by prayer groups around the country.  No one knew who was being prayed for —       not the patients, the doctors nor the nurses. The prayed-for group had fewer deaths, faster recovery, fewer intubations, and used fewer potent medications. These findings have been duplicated in a well-blinded study published in the “Western Journal of Medicine.” 

In his book, Dr. Dossey talks about a group in Oregon, Spindrift, ( which has taken the idea of studying  prayer and healing to its next step.  Since the study of humans can always engender some skepticism among scientists, Spindrift does its research on the metabolism of extremely simple biological systems, such as sprouting seeds and yeast cultures.  One reason Spindrift works with sprouting seeds rather than people is that sprouting seeds are much simpler; they can be counted and measured in a scientific way.  And the studies can be replicated.  When studying people, the researcher must take into account their circumstances, backgrounds and beliefs, among other countless variables.  So the studies can lend themselves to skepticism by some. In study after study, Spindrift not only demonstrated that prayer works, but it has also determined which prayer strategies work best. 

Two prayer strategies were tested. The first was a directed prayer strategy, where the Ultimate/God/Supreme Being was not only provided with the diagnosis of the problem, but a desired outcome was requested. These are the types of prayers with which most of us in western culture are familiar. 

The second prayer strategy tested was called a non-directed prayer strategy, which is completely open ended, and does not attach a goal to the prayer. One of the assumptions of this non-directed prayer strategy is that at some level, in some way, things are just fine, perfect as they are. 

According to Spindrift’s web page, “Non goal-directed thought produces effects in a tested subject that tend to normalize the prayed-for subject in ways that the person praying could not know was in the best interest of the subject.  Apparently non goal-directed thought submits to a matrix of ideas and solutions not known by man’s will and ego.”

Over the past decade, Spindrift has shown repeatedly, that both methods of prayer work. But surprisingly, the non-directed prayer method is two to four times more powerful than the directed.

Dr. Dossey’s book is a fascinating read.  No matter what your religious beliefs are or are not, if you’re looking for ways to help someone in need, consider prayer, it seems to work. In fact, health and medical educators are taking the role of prayer and spirituality quite seriously. Courses on religion and healing are now being offered in many major academic medical centers, including Harvard Medical School. Their continuing education course is called “Spirituality and Healing in Medicine.” Now, if only my wife would take the subject a little more seriously, I mean really! 

Copyright 2001 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved 

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at: 

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