This morning, I woke up with a killer migraine. I took meds and went back to bed. As I was lying there waiting for the medication to kick in and/or to fall back asleep, I said a prayer to Archangel Raphael, the “healing angel.” In my woozy, headachy state I asked myself, “Do I really believe that an angel is going to relieve my migraine pain? Do I really believe in angels? Do I believe in God? If not, then why do I pray?”
Yes, that’s how I ruminate while I’m suffering in the wee hours of the morning.
The short answer is that I do believe in God. My perception of Him/Her/It may not be conventional, but I have felt the presence of the Divine several times in my life. It was palpable, tangible, overpowering, undeniable and unmistakable. I could no more convey that feeling than I can describe what it was like to see Machapuchare from a small hilltop in Pokhara, Nepal or how vast the vortex-filled night sky is in the desert near Sedona, Arizona. In each case, the overwhelming emotion was awe.
“But,” my pain addled brain continued, “What if you didn’t believe in God? Would you still pray?”
This is where my answers became interesting, at least to myself. Because I feel certain that I would continue to pray even if I didn’t believe in God. Why? Because prayer works.
While much of the evidence that prayer works is anecdotal, there is an ever-growing pool of scientific proof as well. According to Harold G. Koenig, M.D., Director of Duke University’s Spirituality, Theology and Health, analysis of over 1,500 reputable medical studies,
…indicates people who are more religious and pray more have better mental and physical health.
— N.A., “Science Proves the Healing Power of Prayer.” NEWSMAX, 31 March 2015. Web. 23 September 2017. http://www.newsmax.com/Health/Headline/prayer-health-faith-medicine/2015/03/31/id/635623/
And, also according to science, prayer benefits the subjects of prayer, even if they are unaware that they are being prayed for.
All that being said, I would most likely to continue praying because I have witnessed the power of prayer many times in my own life.
People who attend 12-step programs are often encouraged to pray for our enemies. We’re advised to pray that our enemies receive every blessing that we want for ourselves. I have done this numerous times and have often been astounded by the results. The most miraculous example occurred when I was working for a major financial institution. One of the VP’s in our department was a young Russian man who I’ll call Boris. Our mutual hatred was instantaneous. Unfortunately, I frequently had to assist Boris on projects. Whenever I visited his office, tsunamis of undisguised loathing roared back and forth between us across his desk.
My sponsor suggested that I pray for him, so I did…begrudgingly. At first, my prayers had a subliminal message. I prayed for Boris, his wife and his infant son to be happy and healthy and for their home to be filled with love. The subtext was, “That bastard, that son of a bitch…” and a bunch of expletives not suitable for a spiritual blog. After a few weeks, I realized that the subtext was gone. Somewhere along the line I had begun to genuinely want happiness, health and love for Boris and his family.
One day, we were attending a conference and I cracked a joke. I honestly don’t remember anything about it, except that the humor was really dark. Boris burst out laughing though nobody else at the table did.
From that moment on, we bonded through our appreciation of dark humor. As we traded jokes, our working relationship was transformed. Sitting in his office wasn’t torture anymore. He learned to trust the suggestions that I made regarding the documents that I produced for him. And when he left the company several months later, he pulled me aside and said, “If I had my own company, I would hire you.”
While the Holy See would probably disagree, I believe that the transformation of our relationship was a miracle and, as such, I believe that the Divine played a major role in it. Having said that, I absolutely believe that praying for Boris would have produced similar results even if there were no God.
First and foremost, I believe that making the decision to pray immediately puts us in touch with our Higher Self, that part of us that wants to do right, to do better, to be better. Some may argue that that Higher Self is an extension of God — or perhaps the God within — and that may be so. Regardless, I believe we all have a Higher Self and whether we engage it is a choice, as explained in the (possibly Cherokee) parable of the two wolves.
Praying for Boris and his family gradually transformed the way that I thought of him. In my heart and mind, he morphed from evil incarnate to a fellow human with the same desires for health, love and happiness that I had.
Arguably, metta meditation, which isn’t technically prayer, but is another means of accessing our Higher Self, would have produced similar results. According to the Metta Institute,
The practice of Metta meditation is a beautiful support to other awareness practices. One recites specific words and phrases evoking a “boundless warm-hearted feeling.” The strength of this feeling is not limited to or by family, religion, or social class. We begin with our self and gradually extend the wish for well-being happiness to all beings.
Like my prayer for Boris and his family, metta entails wishing good things for oneself, a loved one, a “neutral” person (such as your grocer), someone you dislike or consider to be difficult and, finally, all beings everywhere. Unlike prayer, metta doesn’t start by addressing or beseeching God or any other divine being and it doesn’t end with an “Amen.” It’s not a petition for a deity to take any action on your behalf. It is simply a sincere wish for the well being of yourself and others. It reminds practitioners that all beings want the same things, that we’re more alike than we are different, that we all deserve compassion because we all struggle. (A wonderful primer for metta, which is also known as lovingkindness meditation, is Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.
Even though my family wasn’t religious, I have prayed since I was a child. My need for prayer is inherent. In my early 20’s, devastated by the betrayal of a childhood friend, I announced to God that I no longer believed in Him, that I was “going atheist.” Yes, I “broke up” with God in a prayer. Needless to say, that didn’t last long.
I would love to hear your thoughts on prayer. Have you had experiences that you can only attribute to the power of prayer? Please share with me and my readers in the comments section below.