Millions of Americans will gather today to pray for the United States and its leaders, remembering the victims of tornadoes that swept across the South, the national economy and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the National Day of Prayer will also prompt reflections on prayer itself.
“I don’t think God’s so much interested in you getting the right parking place,” says the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. “I think all prayers are answered, but it’s not always the way we want.”
A growing body of research has addressed the issue — whether patients with heart disease are more likely to survive if others pray for them, for example — but the results have been mixed.
That hasn’t stopped people from praying.
Almost 60 percent of Americans say they pray at least once a day, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and Rice University sociologist Michael Emerson notes that those who believe in the healing power of prayer generally embrace studies that confirm their belief, while rejecting those that find no impact.
“Prayer brings a sense of control in an uncertain world,” he said. “Whether it works or not, at the level of the supernatural, it works in giving humans a sense of control over their environment.”
The National Day of Prayer aims to harness the collective power of prayer at services across the country, including an interfaith service that Levenson and Rabbi David Lyon, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, will preside over at St. Martin’s.
“While each of us might pray a little differently, we still pray to the same god,” Lyon said. “If it is only a day of Christian prayer, in a nation that is primarily Christian, we might be misled to conclude we are a Christian nation alone. Everyone’s prayers are heard by God and should make a difference for us.”
But most services, here and elsewhere, will take place in Christian churches, reflecting both the National Day of Prayer’s beginnings in 1775 as a Christian observance and the fact that more than 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian.
All religions use prayer, although not all do so in the same way. Christian, Jewish and Muslim tradition all offer prayers for political leaders.
“We typically pray that they would receive the wisdom and skills and gifts they need that would lead to world peace, to justice for all people,” Levenson said.
The common good
“In Islam, people may pray for “justice, prosperity, for the nation and its leaders,” said Ahmed Rehab, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Getting people from different faiths to pray together for the common good, the good of our nation, is positive.”
Interfaith services generally stress what religions have in common, even if some stand or kneel to pray, while others sit or lie flat.
Regardless of the posture, prayer “engages our mind, it engages our heart, it engages our emotions and our bodies,” said Father Donald Nesti, director of the Center for Faith and Culture at the University of St. Thomas. “It really is a very integrating act.”
But Emerson said that prayer can vary widely among and even within groups.
In their upcoming book Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How the Legacy of Racial Discrimination Has Shaped Religious Thoughts and Practices, he and coauthor Jason Shelton report that African-Americans pray more often than other believers, and that they have a stronger belief in the power of prayer.
That’s true even accounting for socioeconomic differences, Emerson said.
“They pray more, they believe it will work more, and they are more likely to say, I have seen a miracle,” he said.
Trust science to investigate those so-called miracles.
The findings vary, and Dr. Lois Ramondetta, chief of gynecologic oncology at Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital, suggests that asking whether prayer can change a clinical outcome may miss the point.
“It raises an awful lot of questions to study that,” said Ramondetta, who is also an associate professor at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. “Does that mean we can control what a higher power decides by having more people ask for you? I think the prayer studies are flawed from the beginning.”
She is in the midst of a research project considering the impact of spirituality and how it changes over time in women with ovarian cancer.
So far, she said, “what has stood out as having the most effect on people’s quality of life is their sense of hope, which may come with spirituality. … You can give medicines forever and never address the things that give meaning to a patient’s life.”
For patients with cancer, prayers may change over time, Ramondetta said.
“In the beginning, it might be for a cure,” she said. “But at some point, it’s important to … pray for no pain and, ultimately, peace of mind.”
At the least, Lyon said, belief in the power of prayer can bring comfort to some people.
“Scientific evidence cannot corroborate those claims,” he acknowledged. “On the other hand, there’s a great Jewish question: ‘Can it help?’ And the answer is, ‘It couldn’t hurt.’ ”
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