The Quest for Wholeness

The Intricacies of Prayer in Healing

Chapter 6

I frequently think of the author of the Fourth Gospel with sympathy as he leaves us with the reflection, "There is so much else that Jesus did. If it were all to be recorded in detail, I suppose the whole world could not hold the books that would be written" (John 21:25). The subject of prayer has been considered in so many manuals devoted to the spiritual life, to say nothing of weightier theological tomes, that any fresh addition to the literature seems brash as well as otiose. Nevertheless, prayer is so intimately involved in health that any contemporary contribution can at the very least be of historical and sociological value. The Renewal Movement has centred decisively on prayer; indeed, God is told in no uncertain terms what the group requires of him. Even the caveat, "if it is your will", has been severely criticized in some quarters, since it implies that God may not want a healing to take place, a monstrous lack of faith in those who claim that a God of love always intends the healing of his sick creatures.

In any discussion of prayer, two considerations stand out prominently: first, prayer is a personal response to the divine presence and therefore all accounts are enclosed in an individual perspective; in fact, there are as many ways of effective praying as there are people who pray. As befits the logic of mysticism, the language emphasizes "both and/neither nor" rather than the emphatic "either or" of Aristotelian logic. No individual, no matter how perverse his private life, is outside the divine care provided he presents himself in humble faith to receive that love. Second, since Christians affirm that God is love, a love made clear in the sacrifice of Christ for the reconciliation of the world to the Father, it is the divine intention that healing should always occur. The word "always" may, however, embrace an indefinite timespan, since the free will of the creature can interpose itself and lead to a protracted period of delay. In his eternal mode God is all-powerful, but in the cosmic sphere he has granted freedom of choice to his rational creatures, so that they have been created minor gods in their own right - but always under the divine aegis. Were it not for this final clause, humankind would have long since destroyed itself together with the little world it inhabits. Prayer is the bond of fellowship as well as the means of communication between the human and the divine.

The agent of prayer is God, not man. His insistent presence in our lives evokes a corresponding response on our part, for he quickens our awareness both of our own inadequacies and the needs of those around us. Prayer is a built-in psychological response to the events of our lives, much as breathing is to our body's need for oxygen and the discharge of carbon dioxide from the blood. While breathing can never be voluntarily halted for more than a short period of time before the tension becomes intolerable, it is possible to banish the need for prayer from our awareness indefinitely as a result of worldly preoccupations, intellectual doubt and emotional turmoil. But in due course the desire will be so strong as to be irresistible, and we will be forced into stillness in order to listen to what we are being told in the depths of the soul. No matter what philosophical stance we may adopt, no matter how emotionally recalcitrant we may be, there is a breaking-point in our resistance to God. Quite often it is unmitigated suffering that breaks down our self-erected defences, and then at last God can enter our lives as a conscious presence. It is an extension of this principle that encourages me to hope that all evil can eventually come back, healed and transfigured, into the divine presence. But the will of the creature is inviolate.

Since, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:7-8, God knows our needs before we ask him, it stands to reason that we should be quiet in his presence, and listen. This action is called contemplation. It is a state of absolute awareness of the present moment, devoid of all discursive content other than the awareness itself. Do we, in fact, ever know this state of rapt awareness in the course of our active life in the world, or is it a new experience that we have to await with bated breath? It is, indeed, a common experience of everyday life, and it does not depend on any prior system of belief. We know it in any situation of sharp suspense, just before the outcome is to be revealed. It may be something rather menacing like the word of the doctor about to pronounce the possible diagnosis of a malady fraught with foreboding, such as cancer or a progressive disease of the brain. It may be more benign, as when we are awaiting the arrival of a messenger bearing news about the outcome of the choice of a selection committee - as the word comes, whether by letter or in the company of a number of applicants all sitting tensely together in a sideroom, we are once again in a state of pure, undistorted awareness. Decidedly more pleasant is the suspense we know in a concert hall or at the opera just as the performance is about to start: conductor, orchestra and soloist (or cast, as the case may be) are all poised for a dramatic entry and the silence is audible in its intensity. Once we know the experience of that tense silence, we can recall and reproduce it at will, soon without any emotional colouring.

The essence of contemplation is the awareness of being aware of nothing: in this silence the One Who Is is indeed alone with us. Just as he is at our side in the menacing suspense of bad news, just as he is with us in our moment of joyful expectancy, so he is eternally present with us when we transcend the plane of images and enter the silence of self-dedication to the highest we know in the depths of our being. But we must stay aware, otherwise we will either drop off to sleep or else be assailed by emotional material stemming either from our own unconscious or from the vaster psychic realms that are in continuity with our own psyche. If such extraneous material does intrude, it should be gently but decisively swept away. If it is of importance, we can note it in a flash and give it all to the One Who Is, to whom we give the name God. In the famous words of The Cloud of Unknowing, "By love may he be gotten and holden, but by thought never", In fact, it is God's love that reaches out to us and then we are enabled to reciprocate in kind. There is no violation of persons, only a union into a greater whole in which God is master and servant at the same time, functions that we too are taught to imitate.

In this state of being our thought and emotional processes are radically cleansed, so that we can grasp something of the divine will and obey its instruction rather than simply stating our own need. In that chastening silence God shows us the nature of our real need: not so much a reversal of present discomfort as a change in our own perspective of reality, not so much the acquisition of things as the ability to use what we already have with reverence, indeed with loving awareness, so that (to enter into the thought of Martin Buber) an "It" becomes something of a "Thou". In this state of awareness the demanding ego fades into the larger contours of the true-self, and healing is seen more clearly as a restoration of the personality into something of the divine image in which it was originally created. The selfish preoccupation that is the basis of sinful action can be clearly defined, and as it is confessed, so its totality is brought into full consciousness. When we speak to God after having listened in the silence of contemplation, we converse with our whole being and not merely the superficial ego that effects little communication with the deeper levels of soul consciousness. Is God in any way ignorant of our inner state? Surely he cannot be, but our actions will remain a dark secret until the mystery of our individual response shows itself. Even the divine presence cannot impose itself upon the free will that is the glory of a rational creature. Experience alone teaches us that our higher good is attained when we work in harmony with God and our fellow-creatures, but much experiment in living may be necessary before that wisdom is made available to us. In prayer we can assume, take on, a wisdom that transforms our very style of living. The process is long and demanding, in fact it has no ending. But it makes our lives more and more meaningful as it increases our usefulness to God and to his creatures.

And so our petitions, fully articulated in word or thought, are our responses to God's summons to a nobler life. Our confessions follow God's revelation of our shortcomings that prevent us from doing our work properly - what we articulate we now register positively in the depths of the soul. Our intercessions serve to direct the power of the Holy Spirit to those for whom we pray. We do not need to ask so much as to love, for God knows the disposition and needs of the afflicted far better than do we. The greatest prayers in the Bible have been a simple opening of the soul to God's providence in divine ignorance yet radiant trust: Isaiah's call to ministry (Isaiah 6:8), the Annunciation (Luke 1:38), and Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). There is finally the prayer of praise: the soul's spontaneous outpouring of joy in the presence of God for the privilege of knowing that presence and being chosen to work with it in closest union. The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is the most perfect expression of such praise in the Bible; it has its precursor in the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), which is less personal and more distant in tone. God is indeed "the ground of our beseeching" (the foundation of our praying), as Dame Julian of Norwich puts it, but our response is equally important in the transaction. It is a measure of God's courtesy that he treats us as equals, and not simply as servants called on to do his will.

All this is important when we broach the intricacies of healing prayer. What are we really hoping to achieve in such activity? It can hardly be to enlist God's help in a difficult situation, since he is aware of it long before our attention is drawn to the problem. Jesus reminds us, in Matthew 6:7-8, that God knows our need and that lengthy prayers do not add to the power of God's providence. Indeed, much praying has a morbidly obsessional quality that merely betrays the person's lack of deeper faith. It has its counterpart in the nagging spouse or customer who doubts whether his or her requests have been noted. Nothing sours a relationship so quickly as nagging, because it implies a lack of trust that is a prerequisite of any working collaboration. If we cannot trust God to know the intimate concerns of our hearts, the trust will not be increased by anxious repetitions. In fact, it is we who fail God in our inconstancy; he is always there, but so often we are elsewhere in our thoughts. As we read in Isaiah 30:15, our safety lies in peace and our strength in stillness and in staying quiet. But just like the Israelites of old, we prefer to influence events rather than put our trust in God. This trust does not look for a miraculous solution of our problems - if this were to occur as a common event we could not grow as people, but would continue in a childish dependence on God to meet all our needs without playing our part. It is better to see prayer as a means of opening ourselves up more perfectly to the power of the Holy Spirit, who both sets in motion our own healing and works through us to our fellow-creatures, both through our intercessions and in the daily work of our calling. He strengthens us and helps us to integrate our split personalities so that we begin to function as whole people.

As we saw earlier on, our very attempts to assist God can actually interfere with his healing activity. It depends on what we do: if we are quiet and obedient, God can work well through us, but if the ego takes charge, it insidiously blocks the Holy Spirit whose action is increasingly frustrated. If we stay quiet, in trusting awareness, we can be effective ministers of healing, but as soon as the ego that looks for results gets in the way, God allows it to take charge until the baleful effects of its interference are made clear. Likewise it can be actually harmful to try to exert a telepathic influence for what we believe is good in the course of prayer. Even if the psychic influence were effective, it might simply be directing the person along paths of endeavour whose destination was not in accordance with what was required of him and therefore contrary to God's intention. What appears to be right in our own eyes may be wrong for other people. The path of acknowledged ignorance can be nearer the truth than impressive displays of psychic virtuosity or charismatic power, both of which tend to "take over" both the agent and the object of attention.

How then should we pray for a sick person, indeed for anyone in need? By contemplating God in the silence of the present moment and remembering with solicitude the person in need. It is unnecessary to visualize the individual - quite often there is only a name given without a face to match, but this does not matter, since it is soul contact that is effected in intercessory prayer. We may be confident that the divine love plays its proper part; we assist by a loving concern that, as it were, beams the rays of God's Spirit to the place where help is required. Since our intention is that God's will be done, and we believe that God wills healing for all his creatures according to his wisdom, we do not need to refresh the memory of the Deity with details and instructions about individuals. We may indeed feel constrained to offer our articulate requests to God either mentally or in spoken words; this is unexceptionable enough so long as we understand that we alone are gaining emotional release by unburdening ourselves of our deep concern to God. In itself this dialogue does not increase the potency of the prayer, but the relief of emotional tension may help us subsequently to pray with a more concentrated, less distracted ardour. Prayer attains its peak in wordless communication with God and our neighbour. There may be great emotional exaltation, but as the zenith is attained, so all feeling is subsumed in a peace beyond understanding in which we, God, and the person prayed for are one in essence in the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer has no finite limits; when we remember a person with loving concern in the course of a busy day's work, we are praying for him. The less aware we are of ourselves, the closer we are to the one for whom we intercede. In such self-forgetfulness God has taken his place as the director of the soul, the Father to whom all creation pours out paeans of unceasing praise.

Whenever we perform an action in mindful awareness of the divine presence we are in fact in a state of prayer. This is the ideal prayer life, to be constantly about God's business in joyful abandon. This is the full constancy of prayer that St Paul enjoins on his followers (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It is the song of a soul set free from the thraldom of material things, flying high in the heavens and yet still in control of worldly affairs.

In some intercessory groups the various members take it in turns to pray for a sick person, so that he is "soaked" with prayer throughout the day. All this is admirable provided we do not use prayer as a way of trying to bludgeon God into doing what we desire. Such a prayer can be well-nigh obsessional in its intensity, allowing God little time for repose from the work with which the group is concerned! Prayer in itself is in danger of becoming warped once it loses its joyful spontaneity and becomes a mere instrument of calculated human desire, no matter how laudable that desire may be, at least on the surface. What often passes for prayer is in fact psychic coercion; it is possible for a person of indifferent spirituality but with a highly charged emotional nature to tap into a psychic reservoir and draw out the material substance he desires. Such a way of appeasing inner needs is too closely related to psychically evil forces for our comfort. The person himself tends to arrogance and self-assurance, but soon less pleasant episodes warn him of the dangerous company he is keeping. As we have already noted, the Antichrist figure starts by satisfying the needs of the masses so that they soon enlist themselves as ready vassals to their glittering master.

Prayer, too, if misconceived, can communicate with very questionable sources in the intangible, astral realms. No wonder Jesus told Martha that the pure contemplation practised by her sister Mary was the better way of life. It does not strain after results or yield to temptations of impatience or boastfulness. It alone is the foundation of the communion of God and man which we call prayer. And so it comes about that prayer is simple enough to lie within the reach of the little child (which we all have to become if we are to enter the Kingdom of heaven) and yet so intricate as to be outside the range of many intellectually scintillating people. Indeed, until their brilliance and conceit have been laid aside, often only after misfortune has stripped them of all earthly assurance, they will remain blind to the greater reality that is God.

Most of the so-called techniques of prayer are in fact ways of stilling the stream of thoughts and their accompanying emotional charge: the repetition of a phrase or a single word (a mantra), the non-rational language of ecstatic utterance ("tongues"), the calm meditation on a passage of Scripture or a piece of music, or the simple awareness of a body rhythm (breathing). The articulated prayers of the various religious traditions of the world, of which the Lord's Prayer is the most universal Christian example, also help to still the mind of extraneous thoughts if they are said slowly and with meaning. More often they are recited mechanically, and the worshipper then feels he has said his prayers for the day quite adequately! If the act of worship brings us to God in humble adoration, the practice of prayer opens us to dialogue with him. The end of the meeting is our own progressive healing so that we can be about our Father's business selflessly and with profit to the world. He who knows the divine presence as a living relationship within himself and in the world around himself has attained the ultimate knowledge. Whatever work he may then undertake will be blessed in its very performance, and its results will likewise be blessed even, if much pain and suffering are to be encountered on the way. "In the world you will have trouble. But courage! The victory is mine; I have conquered the world" (John 16:33). This is the heart of the matter. Healing will be complete only when one has entered into the fullness of one's inheritance as a brother of Christ himself. All other healings are, at most, signs on the way to completeness, but they can just as easily, by becoming ends in their own right, prevent us from attaining the ultimate victory over the darkness within ourselves. And so the type of mentality that tries to prove God by positive answers to prayer or the results of a healing service in church, has hardly a nodding acquaintance with the Lord of all life. "You are not to put the Lord your God to the test" (Deuteronomy 6:16 and repeated by Christ in Matthew 4:7 and Luke 4:12), is the key text here, but how seldom do we heed it! When we work in calm trust, each minute has its own blessing to share. When we work in urgent anticipation, we are very likely to be sadly disappointed. The reason is, as already stated, that the selfish ego interposes itself between God and the greater good which he alone knows, and the power of the Holy Spirit is deflected from its proper end to be dissipated in fruitless emotional distractions.

Meditation is nowadays widely canvassed even among those who have no spiritual aspirations. On a purely medical level this is to be welcomed. Relaxation of the body counters the effects of stress so widespread in a competitive, materialistic society. Meditation enables the mind to relax also, at least to the extent of letting go of destructive thoughts and transcending disturbing emotional states. It can be the precursor of contemplation, and indeed in Hindu and Buddhist circles the concept of meditation is identical with the contemplation practised in Christian groups and whose nature we have already discussed. It is not necessarily the same as prayer, however, because it lacks the commitment to God and his service that is the basis of praying. Nevertheless, an agnostic meditator in the Hindu-Buddhist mode may well encounter God in the depths of his stillness, and then contemplative prayer may be initiated. We remember that the personal God of the three Semitic religions is not acknowledged and worshipped in the Buddhist way (or in some of the various Hindu systems either). But the experience is probably one - the difference lies in its interpretation, and here we are wise to respect other insights and in humility learn from them all. This is not an invitation to syncretism (the production of a hybrid faith with accretions from various sources) but, rather, a broadening of one's own particular beliefs through encounter with other traditions. In the end one's own fundamental point of view remains intact but considerably more enlightened than previously: one understands better what one really does believe, seeing both the strengths and the weaknesses of other traditions in the process of learning - and also the problems of one's own tradition.

Cancer patients are frequently taught the basis of meditation when they visit centres that provide alternative means of treatment, especially when the disease is so advanced as to be difficult to eradicate by the conventional medical therapies at present available. A recommended theme of meditation (in the Western rather than the Eastern understanding of the word) is the visualization of the body's defence cells, the phagocytes, attacking and destroying the cancer cells. There are some who claim that this type of meditation does actually assist the body to overcome the disease; but it must be acknowledged that the meditation can be quite taxing, especially to a debilitated person, and if the results are unimpressive, there may be disappointment tinged with guilt that the procedure was not adequately pursued to its required intensity. And so any possible benefit can easily be annulled by fatigue and reversed by disillusion if no obvious results are forthcoming. In desperate situations any type of therapy that offers even a thread of hope is grasped with alacrity, but the claims of the various alternative modes of treatment, especially in as variable a condition as cancer, still await scientific confirmation. While most types of cancer proceed inexorably to a fatal conclusion if they are not completely eradicated, a few may remain stationary for considerable periods of time. Furthermore, there is also the rare but spectacular "spontaneous remission", in which the tumour suddenly, and for no apparent reason, disappears completely, sometimes never to appear again. It may be that some such remissions are consequent on spiritual healing wrought by prayer, but it would be impossible, in terms of our present knowledge, to provide a categorical explanation of this fascinating phenomenon.

An alternative type of meditation in situations of medically incurable disease is the simple contemplation already described. One can either be quite still before God, offering him one's soul and body for the healing that he knows is appropriate for one's condition, or else imagine the Holy Spirit being drawn into one's body with each inspiration. The air is an established symbol of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus tells Nicodemus in their wonderful nocturnal discourse (John 3:8): like the wind, the Spirit blows where it wills; we can hear it, but we do not know where it comes from or whither it is going. Acceptance can be the best form of defence, especially when we are confronted by well-nigh insuperable forces of destruction. The head-on attack of allopathic medicine may finally register a gallant defeat, after which the very forces of death could be converted to the light by a greater power of God that infused the soul and renewed the body with new life. This might conceivably be the spiritual background to the authenticated cases of spontaneous remission of cancer. Even if this were the case, one would expect to find demonstrable changes in the body's immune system occurring side by side with the disappearance of the tumour deposits. In healing there is always a close correlation of the various aspects of the personality - of body and soul - so that a change in one is reflected on a wider front irrespective of where the process began. Healing is indeed a fully incarnational phenomenon.

There are some healers, quite often of Hindu background, that project their presence psychically either directly onto the person they have been called on to heal or else in the surroundings of his home. The process may be related to what is called "astral travelling" (the movement of the essence or soul, of a person to distant realms in a sphere outside normal time and space). All this may be immediately reassuring, as the healer may himself live far away, perhaps in India, while his client has a European domicile. The psychic virtuoso (for that is what he is, and there need be no conspicuous spiritual component to his personality) may show himself directly as a "phantasm of the living", to quote the title of a famous classic of psychical research by Edmund Gurney, F. W. H. Myers and Frank Podmore, published in 1886. Sometimes there may instead be a simpler sensory manifestation, such as a strong scent of flowers, that heralds his presence. However, once the presence is registered, it often shows no intention of departing. It is as if the healer were claiming the total allegiance of the person who called for help. Escape can be fraught with great difficulties so that the ministry of deliverance (exorcism) may sometimes be necessary to sever the psychic link and send the healer back to where he lives on an earthly plane. All this again stresses the close involvement of strong psychic forces in much of the ministry of healing; these forces are not in themselves evil, but they require constant supervision lest they intrude upon areas where they should not have free access.

The wise practitioner bypasses their distracting clamour by contemplative prayer to God, who then enables him to harness pervasive, morally neutral psychic powers under the direction of the Holy Spirit in order to effect healing changes (and also the other gifts of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11). In other words, our allegiance should be to God alone and not to any intermediate power that may play its part in the total process of healing. This applies equally to human personalities and the "masters" revered by esotericists. There is never any need to belittle the belief systems of other groups of seekers - all of whom are probably grasping some small organ of truth - provided our own sight is fixed on the One from whom all good things proceed, remembering that for those who love him, all things work together for good.

Chapter 7
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