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Prayer And Its Therapeutic Value

( Originally Published 1908 )



ONE of our most natural human instincts is prayer. The moral life of man began with prayer, and if the Son of Man find faith upon the earth, it will end in prayer. Prehistoric man used amulets and charms which were simply prayers for protection against the hostile forces with which he felt himself surrounded, and historic man from the first moment of his appearance is engaged in the act of praying. The papyri which are being unearthed from Egyptian graves, the tablets of ancient Babylon, contain much that is superstitious and credulous, but they also contain the speech of men in presence of their Divinity. The first recorded utterance of our own great Aryan people is the magnificent expression of prayer contained in the Vedic hymns. And what is true of the Vedas is also true of the sacred books of all ancient peoples. All the higher religions that exist to-day witness to the belief in prayer. Within a Mohammedan mosque there stood once two ministers of the Christian religion, the one a Roman Catholic, the other a Protestant. Said the Roman Catholic to the Protestant, as they listened to the impressive prayers from the Koran, "Men who pray like this cannot be far from the Kingdom of God." And for modern civilized man at times, at least, prayer is natural. However much we may forget God among the superficial distractions of our mundane lives, and however difficult we may find it to hold real communion with Him, in those hours when we really live, when the heart speaks, when the frozen depths are broken up, we turn to God as naturally as the flower turns to the sun, as a child turns to its mother. A great joy comes to us, and unconsciously our heart goes out to God in thanksgiving for that joy. I Grief comes, loneliness and separation, and the God who seemed so far off suddenly comes very near, reveals Himself as our only treasure, our only home. ( Sudden death comes, and even irreligious men depart commending their souls blindly, perhaps half profanely, into the hands of the God to whom they feel they are going. These are the expressions of what Tertullian in his famous phrase calls "the soul naturally Christian." The instinctiveness of prayer, the fact that all men from the beginning almost to the present time have prayed and that the great majority of men still pray, is the most powerful argument for prayer, because it is hard to believe that an instinct so universal subserves no purpose in the divine economy of life.

A complete rationale of prayer is impossible. How can one analyze the act wherein the finite mingles with the Infinite? "In prayer," says Jowett, "as in all religion, there is something that it is impossible to describe and that seems to be untrue the moment it is expressed in words." Nevertheless, as far as possible, we ought to try to understand the meaning of prayer and to relate it to the other elements in our experience. From the dawn of man's spiritual life, God has spoken to man. However man first became aware of a Spirit behind or within this universe, he has been aware of it, and he has felt that in this Infinite Spirit he lives and that on this Spirit his life and salvation depend. Not only has man been conscious of his dependence on a higher Power, but also he has sought to bring himself more and more into harmonious relations with this Power, and his desire goes forth in prayer. In a sense prayer is man's language with God. It is obvious that such a spiritual exercise must have a beneficial reflex effect upon the mind of him who prays. "The man who offers up his petitions with passionate earnestness, with unswerving faith and with a vivid realization of the presence of an Unseen Being, has risen to a condition of mind which is itself eminently favorable both to his own happiness and to the expansion of his moral qualities."' The presupposition of prayer is the reality of God. To recognize His reality means to recognize our absolute dependence on Him. To perceive the reality of God and yet never commune with Him involves a profound cleft in the inner life which must end in death; whereas prayer, the expression of our normal relation to God, is a sign of life.

But to the great majority of Christians prayer means something more than this. It is not merely communion with God; it is the offering of certain petitions, the making of certain requests with the expectation that our prayers, as we say, will be answered and our petitions granted. Now this conception of prayer comes into conflict with the modern idea of nature. We must remember that the early Christian, like his contemporaries, regarded every phenomenon of nature as an independent act of Divine Power; whereas we regard the world as an ordered system of inviolable laws. A true Christian instinct prevents us from praying that God should arrest the law of gravitation or raise the dead or affect the movement of the tides. But outside of these few conspicuous, fixed, and eternal expressions of the will of God, there is a large domain in which things seem to happen more fortuitously and more irregularly, such as the condition of the atmosphere, the growth of the crops, the approach of sickness and death and other dreaded events. Hence many per-sons who would never dream of annulling the law of gravitation by prayer have found it natural to pray for rain or fair weather as they deemed one or the other desirable, for the victory of their armies or for the fruitfulness of their fields. But modern science has entered these realms one after another, and has shown that even such apparently uncertain things as storms, drought, and the like are equally the result of universal law, which in reality is just as changeless as the law of gravitation. So multitudes of men, believing that prayer can have no effect on the ordering of their lives, have ceased to pray. Like James Thomson, they are ready to say:

"The world rolls on forever like a mill,
It grinds out death and life and good and ill.
It has no purpose, heart, nor word, nor will."

Sir Oliver Lodge reduces the outstanding controversy between science and faith to the question of the efficacy of prayer. "Is prayer to hypothetical and supersensuous beings as senseless and useless as it is unscientific? Or does prayer pierce through the husk and apparently sensuous covering of the universe and reach something living, loving, and helpful beyond ?"1 Admitting fully the inflexibility of natural law, it is a very inadequate reason for ceasing to pray and is really based upon a low conception of religion. The lowest form of religion, which is fetichism, is distinguished by this peculiarity: it believes that by prayer or magic or other necromantic charm it can control the will of the Divinity, and when the god proves himself obdurate, when the rain does not fall or the cow is not cured or the enemy is not conquered, then the god is insulted and his image trailed in the dust. A higher form of religion recognizes the fact that all these things are controlled by a mysterious fate, and does not blame its God for not being able to avert the inevitable. The highest religion, however, sees in every-thing that happens the expression of the will of God, and while accepting the whole discipline of life as the education of a loving Father, aims at bending man's will to God's and not God's will to the ofttimes blind and misguided desires of man. It does not conceive that there is any a priori necessity attaching to natural law, or that it has any independent and coercive power; for an analysis of the idea of law will show that it has no meaning except as the expression of will. The universe then is governed by the Divine Will. It conceives rather that history and experience show that this Will energizes according to certain regular modes or methods, which we have agreed to call the laws of nature. But what if there should be a law of prayer amid the mysteries of the universe? Even if you are convinced that no prayer of yours can quiet the storm or augment your fortune, or check the dreaded development of the disease which is taking your loved one from your sight are there no storms within your own soul which prayer can quell ?'are there no spiritual treasures more precious than all earthly possessions — peace and reconciliation and pardon, that earnest prayer and communion with God can give you ? 'Even if you have prayed for the preservation of the life of your loved one, and that prayer has not been answered in the sense in which it was offered, is it nothing that by prayer you have reached the joyful conviction that your loved one is safe in God and that in God you will find him again ? Tennyson is reported to have said, "The reason why men find it hard to regard prayer in the same light in which it was formerly regarded is that we seem to know more about the unchangeableness of law; but I believe that God reveals himself in each individual soul. Prayer is, to take a mundane simile, like opening a sluice between the great ocean and our little channels when the great sea gathers itself together and flows in at full tide."' God is leading us by the very revelation of the laws of nature to a deeper, truer sense of our relation to Him, and so to a deeper and truer conception of the meaning of prayer. We begin our relations with God as children begin their relations with their parents. Our prayers are for the most part mere requests for what we regard as earthly blessings. We importune God for this and that as children importune their parents for everything they want; but a wise father, if it is in his power, gives his child what his wisdom teaches is good for it — the long discipline of education, not the gratification of desires which would corrupt the child's will and place a barrier in the way to its long journey towards perfection. As the child grows older, it appreciates this and its relations to its parents become deeper and holier. It looks to them for love, for strength, for wisdom, for guidance and consolation. Seeing that they have guided it well in innumerable instances in the past, the child has faith in them for the present even if they withhold many things that it desires. This is a parable of the growth of our spiritual relations with God. If we are growing spiritually, our prayers will become more and more spiritual, though this by no means implies that we will ever reach the point where we may not seek an earthly good from God. There is a noble reverence for God and for the conditions of human life in the resolution of Jonathan Edwards: "Resolved, Never to count that a prayer, nor to let that pass as a prayer, nor that as a petition of a prayer, which is so made that I cannot hope that God will answer it."

So far we have almost tacitly assumed that the effect of prayer on the soul of the suppliant is its only real result. This is, however, far from being our view. The prayers of Mohammed, dating from the days when he communed with God in solitude, have changed life for hundreds of millions of our fellow men. Huxley was in the habit of saying that a thought could no more pro-duce a change in our bodies than a steam whistle could run a locomotive. But in view of the wonderful cures effected in certain diseases by strong faith, hope, or suggestion, no experienced physician would endorse this dogmatic statement to-day. Man's will, we now know, has power to co-operate with God's will and to effect results which would not be effected were either factor canceled. The fundamental dogma of modern psychology is the unity of mind and body. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the significance of this fact for our present discussion. It is admitted that, as all the higher religions testify, prayer has a regenerating and uplifting effect on character; but in affecting character it must also affect the nervous system. It does not seem irrational to believe that prayer opens the inner consciousness to the absorption of spiritual energy, by which, as philosophy assures us, the universe is sustained. And this attitude of receptivity toward the highest things in turn affects character and life, and the calmed and purified spirit acts on the nervous organization, restoring its tone and rhythm. Of course the more earnest the prayer, the longer it is continued, the more constantly our soul goes out to God in one direction, the more that prayer is likely to prevail. This is especially true in praying for the sick, especially if the will of the sick man can be aroused to pray for himself. Professor James says, "As regards prayers for the sick, if any medical fact can be considered to stand firm, it is that in certain environments prayer may contribute to recovery and should be encouraged as a therapeutic measure." Under the influence of prayer wonderful recoveries have taken place; whereas it is well known that when men become demoralized and lose faith and hope and the will to live, they frequently die from the slightest causes. Many examples of this latter fact occurred in hospitals during the American Civil War and in times of epidemic. Perhaps the most remarkable example of the power of prayer in sickness is that of Luther and Melanchthon. Prayer, as is well known, rescued Melanchthon from the jaws of death. The cause of Melanchthon's sickness was remorse for the action which he and Luther had taken in giving a modified con-sent to the bigamist marriage of Philip of Hesse. At Wei-mar he became so ill that his life was despaired of and Luther was sent for. A contemporary writer describes the scene. "When Luther arrived he found Melanchthon apparently dying; his eyes were sunk, his sense gone, his speech stopped, his hearing closed, his face fallen in and hollow, and as Luther said, `Facies erat Hippocratica.' He knew nobody, ate and drank nothing. When Luther saw him thus disfigured, he was frightened above measure and said to his companions, ` God forfend, how has the Devil defaced this Organon!' He then turned forthwith to the window and prayed fervently to God. . . . Hereupon he grasped Philip by the hand : `Be of good courage, Philip, thou shalt not die; give no place to the spirit of sorrow, and be not thine own murderer, but trust in the Lord, who can slay and make alive again, can wound and bind up, can smite and heal again.' For Luther well knew the burden of his heart and con-science. . . . Then Philip by degrees became more cheerful and let Luther order him something to eat and Luther brought it himself to him, but Philip refused it. Then Luther forced him with these threats, saying, `Hark, Philip, thou must eat, or I excommunicate thee.' With these words he was overcome so that he ate a very little and thus by degrees he gained strength again."

Once more — we dare not pray to God to work a miracle, that is, to violate one of those general laws by which He rules the physical world, but on the other hand we must remember that it is difficult at times to decide what does or does not violate the natural order of the world. Wherever we see that the Divine Will has dearly expressed itself, piety suggests that we should- not pray that it may be changed. But in a vast majority of dis-eases, the Divine Will is not unalterably expressed. Men do not die with a regularity and certainty observable, for example, in the phenomena of chemical affinity. If the law of death operated like a law of dynamics, it would fall outside the region where prayer is possible, because to effect it would no longer be the wish of the truly pious man. As a matter of fact, however, it does not so operate. In any given case, death may or may not happen. Why, then, should the desire for the recovery of a sick person be forbidden its expression in prayer to Him who is the Lord of Life and Death? The material world is affected by the spiritual world. Thought and will and emotion are constantly producing changes in things belonging to the region of natural science. Therefore, we ought not to be straitened in our prayers through any nervous fear of infringing upon the laws of nature. Christ lays down the law of prayer: "Whatsoever things ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them." This, of course, does not mean that prayer is a species of magic whereby we can gain whatever we may wish, but it does mean that the prayer of faith is a reality and that it can accomplish what seems impossible. Prayer, in- the idea of Christ, puts in motion a power which operates with something of the certainty with which a natural energy acts. We can-not set aside as a delusion the experience of high-minded men in all ages who testify that by prayer they have been enabled to rise above physical weakness, to conquer temptation, to face the terrors of shipwreck and earthquake, and to meet with dignity death itself.

The prayer of faith uttered or unexpressed has an immense influence over the functions of organic life. It is significant that a great English newspaper in an article on sleep recommended sufferers from insomnia to betake themselves to prayer. The advice was eminently sound, for in true prayer the mind is in a passive, receptive attitude. It is open to the inflow of the divine forces that bless and heal. Now the great hindrances to sleep are worry, anxiety, remorse, shame, sometimes the fear of not sleeping. Prayer calms and soothes the soul, lifts it into a higher region than the earthly and thus conduces to the state in which sleep becomes possible. Suppose now that our whole waking life were to be lived as Christ's was lived, in an atmosphere of prayer, that is, in a sense of oneness with the Infinite Life, the Soul of our souls, so that we should become channels through which the thought and love of God might have unhindered course. Must not the body so closely connected with the soul feel a new uplift and virtue? This is especially true of all nervous disorders, because mind has special relations to the brain and nervous system.

Our view of prayer will be influenced by our conception of the relation in which we stand to God. If we think of Him as some far-off Being, with whom we are only externally connected, the idea of prayer is, to take a homely illustration, like calling up a distant person on a telephone, making known our wishes and then waiting for a return of material goods. This is, of course, hopelessly crude and materialistic. But if we grasp the thought that we are organically related to God, that we exist in Him spiritually somewhat as thoughts exist in the mind, we can see that a strong desire in our soul communicates itself to Him and engages his attention just as a thought in our soul engages ours. The stronger the thought, the more frequently it returns, the more it is likely to be acted upon unless its realization should be injurious. Now, every impulse of the soul affects the whole consciousness, and so, apart from any outward act, has its results within. Therefore it is comforting to think that no strong prayer of ours can be in vain, that it rises in the consciousness of God, and if it is good becomes one of his determining motives. When in prayer we gather up all the forces of the soul in a pure and good desire toward God, we feel the effect of the prayer in character and in life. No man, therefore, has ever truly prayed in vain. The oftener and more fervently we pray, the more our prayer accomplishes, though we do not expect God to violate His own gracious will at our bidding. He resists many prayers as we resist many thoughts, and having prayed, let us accept what He deems best to send.

For let us ask what does the truly pious man desire when he prays? Doubtless he desires some definite and particular boon either for himself or for another, and for the moment it is this wish that occupies the center of his consciousness. But this is not all. As Hermann says: "A prayer which contains nothing but a strong wish for an earthly blessing and the notion that there is a power which may be moved by urgent request to the fulfilment of the wish, is not genuine prayer. The notion of God here is simply the prolongation of the wish. The man never gets beyond himself. His prayer is not really addressed to God, but an attempt to make out of himself what he is not and cannot be." 1 There is another element in the prayer of the truly pious man that forms, so to say, the background of his thought — a desire which at first is not explicit but is nevertheless present and is after all the deepest element in his prayer. He wishes above all things that the Divine Will should be done, because he believes that this Will is perfectly good. His desire for some particular blessing is temporary, while on the contrary, longing for the accomplishment of the Divine Will is permanent. When the first turbulent emotion has spent itself, the soul falls back upon the eternal will of God and finds blessedness in resignation to this Will. Christ never showed the nobility of His soul more than in His prayer in Gethsemane. He offers his agonizing desire to the Father: "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me," and then He recognizes that whether it passes or not, the Father's Will is good — "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt." 1

So far we have spoken only of prayer in regard to our own personal needs and feelings. A few words must now be said about prayer for the well-being and happiness of others. Whether intercessory prayer can be vindicated by reason or no, it answers at least to the purest and noblest instincts of the heart:

"Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day,
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?"

We know little of the law by which mind acts on mind and of the way in which the mind of man can affect the mind of God, but in view of the fact that telepathy is regarded by many sane and sober men as, if not actually proved, at least exceedingly probable, he would be a rash man who would deny that our emotions and desires ex-pressed in prayer can reach and help the souls of others.

According to the view we have taken, when we pray long and earnestly for the moral or physical welfare of another, our soul not only acts on that soul, but our prayer arising in the mind of God directs his will more powerfully and more constantly to the soul for which we pray. It may be said that the will of God is ever acting for the highest happiness of all his creatures. This is true, and yet He may so have ordered the world that our prayer can give a particular direction and energy to His will just as we are able to give a particular direction and concentration to the electrical energy that penetrates all space. Moreover, in praying for the spiritual welfare of another, our prayer cannot conflict with any law of nature. If the person for whom we pray knows that we are constantly praying for him, the effect will be greater, because his spirit will more easily be brought into harmony with the Spirit of God and our spirit. Material blessings wrung from God by prayer may be viewed with suspicion, but no heart can ridicule the souls won to Him by loving desire. If you have prayed long for another and your prayer seems to have accomplished nothing, do not despair, your prayer has certainly accomplished something, and though the resistance is great, it has already yielded and will at last yield altogether. After praying for many years for her erring son Augustine, Monica went at last to see Archbishop Ambrose and told him of her despair. Ambrose comforted her with these words: "Woman, go in peace. The child of such prayers cannot perish." In a little while Monica had the pleasure of giving one of its greatest saints to the Church.

We cannot close this chapter without adding a few words on some too familiar difficulties of prayer. How many sufferers, especially nervous sufferers, have said to us, I cannot pray, my faith is weak, if, indeed, I have faith at all. It seems impossible for me to command my thoughts, to pray, believing that God can or will answer me." Now it must be remembered that in neurasthenia and other psychic troubles the faculty by which we would commune with God is implicated in the nervous disturbance, is in a morbid state. The sufferer should bear in mind that he is not wholly responsible for this state and that, therefore, God will not demand from him the same amount of faith as he would expect from a normal mind. Therefore, our advice is to be patient with yourself. While using every possible means to regain normal self-control, bear patiently with a temporary eclipse of faith. Wait "until the day break and the shadows flee away." Meantime, the overcharged heart will find relief in brief ejaculatory and pregnant prayers which will win their way.

But still more important is the reflection that there is a form of prayer rich in blessing to the nervous and the miserable. This has been long known in the Church as contemplative, or meditative or passive prayer. It consists not in offering some definite request to God, but in sinking the soul in Him, in the union of the finite with the infinite. This practice is as old as religion itself, is found in all the higher contemplative religions as well as among the Quietists and Mystics. It has formed a prominent

"A breath that fleets beyond this iron world
And touches Him who made it."

part of the devotions of the earlier Friends. Passive prayer is possible only when the body is still, placed in such a posture that it is perfectly relaxed and so not able to distract or vex the mind. Then the soul is absorbed in the thought of God, His presence, His power, His peace, so that for the time being all other feelings are obliterated. As Falconi, a Spanish mystic of the seventeenth century, writes: "Establish yourself well in the presence of God; and as it is a faithful truth, that His Divine Majesty fills wholly with His nature, presence, and power, form an interior act of faith, and be strongly persuaded of this important truth. Surrender yourself into His paternal hands, abandon your soul, life, interior and exterior, to His most holy will in order that He may dispose of you according to His good pleasure and 'service, in time and eternity. That done, re-main in peace, repose, and silence; as a person who no more disposes of anything whatever. Do not think voluntarily of anything however good or sublime it may be; and endeavor only to remain in the pure faith of God in general and in the resignation that you have made to His holy will." This kind of prayer "practices the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity— faith, because it believes God present, hope, because it expects from Him an infinite number of blessings that He is desirous of granting to it, charity, considering that it loves God ardently, that it has wholly resigned itself into His hands." 1 This form of prayer is, as we have said, especially useful for the nervous sufferer; first, because it produces that perfect calm which is so good for agitated minds, and secondly, because it seems to establish some mystical but real connection between the soul and God's spiritual forces. Many remarkable cases of increase of strength, both mental and physical, have been known to follow prayer offered in this way, especially in persons whose minds were so weak that they could not profit by conversation or by any effort to concentrate the mind on anything else.

But even the normal soul often complains of the ineffectiveness of prayer through want of faith. There are many who, as Coleridge says, believe that they believe; but to believe really is to act as if the belief were true. Here comes in the significance of the will, which, as mod-ern psychology teaches, is of central importance in our moral life. What is wrong with these souls is not so much want of faith, as want of will. They believe the doctrines of the Christian faith, but they are unable to commit themselves to them. Now there is only one way in which we can learn to trust, and that is by trusting. Therefore, the duty of the man who feels inert and incapable of rising to the level of his belief is to arouse himself, to appeal to his will, to say to himself again and again until it has become, as it were, his subconscious possession, "Trust in God is rational and right, and therefore trust I will."



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