25 March 2020

Do healing prayers work?

There were a variety of habits and beliefs of early Christian kingdoms that today we would recognize as superstition. For example, people believed that God was continuously intervening in the world, so in the case of a serious dispute they would let the two people fight to the death, believing that God would intervene on the side of the righteous and help them win. This belief was so complete that the guilty party would often confess their crimes to avoid the divinely guided fight.

It’s easy to recognize in hindsight that some early beliefs were erroneous and not guided by the teachings of God, but what about today’s beliefs?

I remember being somewhat of an adult and realizing one day, “Ghosts aren’t real!” I’ve found this subject surprisingly polarizing when I mention it to people. Some are convinced that spirits can still materially influence the world after death, and of course others deny the existence of any such spirit and view a belief in ghosts as a superstition of the ignorant. I’ve found the same split among Baháʼís who sometimes believe that supernatural phenomena go hand in hand with belief in God. For the record, ghosts aren’t real, but that’s for another blog.

I also remember realizing one day, “Prayers don’t heal people!” Sort of. At least not the way I previously thought. This is a little more complicated than the ghost story but it’s still true, and it gets to the very heart of what it means to pray.

I started pondering the healing power of prayer because I noticed the practice of Baháʼís occasionally saying healing prayers at gatherings for people who were ill. Usually this would be at the beginning of a Feast gathering, and sometimes there would be an opportunity for people to announce the names of people being prayed for or a list of ailments to be healed. This appeared to me to be a remnant of Christian faith healing being carried over to the Baháʼí community.

There is a summary of Baháʼí Writings on healing in Baha'u'llah and the New Era pp. 107-116, two chapters in Some Answered Questions #72 and #73, and other references such as Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbasp. 654. To summarize, the two broad categories of healing are using medicine, and not using medicine. Without medicine there are some very slight and weak ways to heal, simply because good health is also contagious through microbes and the good energy of a healthy person can improve the psyche of a patient. Lastly, there are two “immaterial” or “spiritual” ways to heal the sick. ʻAbduʼl-Bahá said,

One is when a healthy person focuses his whole attention upon a sick person, and the latter in turn fully expects to be healed through the spiritual power of the former and is wholly convinced thereof, to such an extent that a strong connection is created between their hearts. Should the healthy individual then bend every effort to heal the sick one, and should the latter have full faith that health will be attained, an excitement may be produced in his nerves from these soul-to-soul influences and bring about the cure. So, for example, when a sick person is suddenly given the good news that his most ardent wish and desire has been realized, a nervous excitement may result that will entirely dispel the ailment. In the same way, when a terrifying event suddenly comes to pass, such an excitement may be produced in the nerves of a healthy person that he immediately falls ill. The cause of the illness is not a material thing, for that person has not ingested or come into contact with anything: The nervous excitement alone has brought about the illness. Likewise, the sudden realization of a most cherished desire may impart such joy as to excite the nerves and restore health.

How do healing crystals fit in to all this?
He goes on to say that this method will not heal a “grave illness” or physical injury. Clearly, ʻAbduʼl-Bahá is describing a placebo effect when someone realizes they are being prayed for. It is the heart-to-heart connection that induces happiness and joy, and joy is conducive to health. Also, calling it a placebo does not diminish its effect. Placebos work. Placebos heal people. We test drugs against placebos because placebos are good at healing, even when the person knows they’re getting a placebo. So don’t walk away from this thinking that you shouldn’t pray for others, just let them know that you’re praying for them.

What about miracles? Can prayers heal someone who doesn’t know they’re being prayed for? Scientists have gone through the ridiculous motions of controlled trials of patients being prayed for without their knowledge compared to those without such prayers, and there is no difference. BUT! ʻAbduʼl-Bahá talked about a second kind of spiritual healing, and he said,

This depends neither upon physical contact, nor upon sight, nor even upon presence: It is not dependent upon any condition. Whether the disease be mild or severe, whether there be contact between the bodies or not, whether a connection be established between patient and physician or not, whether the patient be present or not, this healing takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So we should be making lists of people with cancer and broken bones and pray for them at Feast, right? There are two reasons why I think we should still avoid that. First, the type of healing that is a true miracle is "a gift belonging to the Holy Manifestations and those who are in the highest station", according to ʻAbduʼl-Bahá. In other words, miracle healing can happen, it is possible, but very few people EVER will be involved with such a thing.

Second, devoting a lot of mental energy to physical healing really distracts from what is important. Physical suffering leads to spiritual growth and we’re supposed to pray for spirituality. We’re supposed to pray for material hardships. Material healing is not actually important unless it contributes to spiritual progress. ʻAbduʼl-Bahá said,

But if the health and welfare of man be spent in sensual desires, in a life on the animal plane, and in devilish pursuits—then disease were better than such health; nay, death itself were preferable to such a life.

And in another place,
Unless the spirit be healed, the cure of the body is worth nothing.
If we shouldn’t pray for miracles, then what is the point of praying? Why do we have healing prayers?

Baháʼís almost exclusively read prayers written by the Bab, Baháʼuʼlláh, and ʻAbduʼl-Bahá, and the prayers provide a guide on how we should be thinking. If we align our thoughts and attitudes towards gratitude, submission, and our own lowliness, such thoughts advance our spirituality and happiness. When we pray to God, the prayers are not going outside of ourselves to some foreign entity. There is some reality of God that is independent and outside of our possible understanding, but what can be known of God is inside us. When you pray, you are bringing out what is inside you for your own benefit. You are praying to God to bring out godly attributes in yourself, and in a sense those attributes are God, at least all we can know of God. The prayers are aligning your mind with the truth of the power that is available to you.

Most prayers, including healing prayers, ask for spiritual growth, and those that mention healing are not explicitly asking for material healing. I think if you combine studying the prayers with the description of healing in the Baháʼí Writings, you can see that the references to healing have a focus on spiritual healing, not material healing. Here are examples from three different prayers,
...purge me with the waters of Thy bounty from every affliction and disorder, and from all weakness and feebleness.
Nearness to Thee is my hope, and love for Thee is my companion. Thy mercy to me is my healing and my succor in both this world and the world to come.
Send down, then, upon him Thy healing, and make him whole, and endue him with a constancy vouchsafed by Thee, and a tranquillity bestowed by Thy highness.
So the prayers for healing are still just as meaningful as the other prayers. They produce spiritual health and healing, which is conducive to improvements in physical health. A common interpretation is that they are a means of requesting a miraculous material recovery from a serious disease or injury. My personal reflection is that they do not, generally, provide an avenue for obtaining material miracles.

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