One day last week I noticed that a Facebook friend had invited others to join him in praying the Lord’s Prayer every hour for that day. There were only a few responses to his invitation, but this is no surprise since Facebook is really not your typical venue for sharing a spiritual discipline or getting deep into the workings of any prayer discipline. Much more common are the frequent requests for prayer for one’s personal or family travails.
But on seeing his kind invitation to others to pray with him, I recalled how studies have shown that those who practice a spirituality or prayer life also accrue health benefits, physically and mentally, in addition to the spiritual benefit.
In fact, Dr. Larry Dorsey, a Texas internist, wrote a book, Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and The Practice of Medicine, detailing the scientific evidence of the effects of intercessory prayer in people’s lives. Some of the studies he cites are astounding as definite proof that prayer works, statistically ruling out the outcomes as a result of chance.
Persons who practice some kind of spirituality, especially with a view towards a Higher Power, as a group accrue health benefits in taking fewer medications, requiring fewer hospital days, fewer heart attacks and strokes. In fact, one study in California on intercessory prayer was so effective in improving outcomes in patients in the Coronary Care Unit that if a new drug had had the same results it would have been touted as a revolutionary breakthrough. But upon and after its publication it failed to get the attention of the medical establishment or media. Probably because it was just prayer -- that hocus pocus stuff.
My Facebook friend’s prayer discipline also directed my attention to an author’s shared experience in a book I’m currently reading entitled, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem, by Rod Dreher. Mr. Dreher, a professional writer, developed symptoms of Epstein Barr Virus that were activated and exacerbated by the tensions of certain family relationships. He shares in detail how he came to be led out of this “dark wood” with the help of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
Mr. Dreher’s journey eventually brought him to converting to the Eastern Orthodox faith and he shares that one day he and his priest were off aside chatting during the post-worship coffee hour and Dreher asked his priest for a “prayer rule.” A prayer rule is a prayer discipline to aid someone in their spiritual growth, aimed at drawing closer to God. After some reflection, and knowing something in detail about Mr. Dreher’s past, as shared in the book, the priest recommended for him the prayer rule that he recite the Jesus Prayer 500 times. Every day. The Jesus Prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” When Dreher asked the priest for how many days he should recite it, the priest replied “for the rest of your life.” In the book Dreher confides he at first thought it ridiculous and had to refrain from making a face.
As Dreher tells it, it takes about an hour for someone to recite the Jesus Prayer 500 times -- IF, and only if, you stay focused. This is a demanding discipline requiring you to clear your mind of all thoughts and images, letting nothing but the words pass through your mind like the coming and going of the tide. Dreher describes in his initial efforts these intrusional thoughts swarmed around his head like a cloud of stinging wasps, distracting him every few seconds. But the idea with the practice is to press on, achieving inner stillness and connection with God. In time the prayer discipline trains your mind to deflect these thoughts and to protect your inner stillness, especially as you go through your day.
The more frequent one practices this discipline or any strategy of quieting the mind the easier it is to refrain from reacting to people and unexpected, unwanted, and unhappy events. Over the years feedback from patients employing the technique of quieting the mind has validated for me what surveys and studies continue to show. I compare it to a young body builder, who begins with small weights and few repetitions, gradually over time increasing the weights, thereby increasing muscle mass and strength. The same can occur with the regular habit of a prayer discipline or quiet times -- start out with short times and build up to longer ones, all the time being regular with it. This is also very helpful for anyone suffering from any number of compulsions or addictions.
There are variations on the theme of quieting the mind. Whatever works best and feels comfortable for you is what you do. But, in my opinion, those quiet times that invoke God would seem to be the more enduring and lasting, as it naturally abides and conforms to the end for which we were made.
By the way, Mr. Dreher completely eliminated all symptoms of the Epstein Barr Syndrome and continues to this day to daily fulfill his personal obligation to his prayer rule.