Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Saturday 25 September |
Saint of the Day: Bl. Herman “the Cripple”
home iconSpirituality
line break icon

I might be just like the scientists who studied prayer, and concluded it doesn’t work  



19% Meditation

Anna O'Neil - published on 07/03/17

If I were a mouthy disciple listening to Jesus teach the Our Father for the first time, I might have snorted ...

It’s come to my attention that there have been some really well-funded scientific studies done on the power of prayer to heal. The New York Times reported that “Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.”

The study cost 2.4 million dollars, and was conducted on more than 1,800 patients, over the course of 10 years.

In fairness to the conductors of the study, they do acknowledge that reducing and quantifying the elements of prayer is not a particularly neat and easy thing to control, and that science can only have so much to say. They also stress that these are the prayers of strangers, not close friends, and possibly that could have an effect on their efficacy?

It’s all very silly. They divided heart patients into three groups–a control group that was not, supposedly, being prayed for by anyone, and two groups, one informed, and one not informed that they were being prayed for (by first initial and last name) by three separate religious congregations.

At first, I wanted to start listing the obvious flaws. What about the Church’s prayers for all the sick? What about the faith of those praying? What about the prayers that were answered in ways that weren’t apparent to us? But actually, what stuck in my mind after I thought about it for a few days was how sympathetic the conductors of the study actually are.

When I pray, I don’t just want to be heard, I want all my prayers answered in the exact way that I prescribe, and I always make sure to give God all the details he needs so that he’ll do it right, and not get too creative with the outcome. But worse than that, I don’t want to pray at all unless I think the prayer will work. I’m way more comfortable praying for small-scale things–my health, my husband’s job, my peace of mind–than I am praying for the big ones, like peace on earth, and end to pornography, addiction, abortion, war, and for the conversion of sinners. Those intentions are great, and what a world it would be if they came true, but I can’t get myself to believe that it could ever happen.

I’m exactly like the scientists who want to put prayer under a microscope. Does it work? If so, I’ll totally pray. It’s not like it costs anything. But don’t ask me to do it if it won’t work. I’m not going to waste my time.

I judge whether my prayers were good based on whether God answered them in an obvious way, and to my exact specifications. And sometimes he does that! But when he doesn’t, I feel like he wasn’t listening at all, which isn’t fair.

In the Our Father, our ultimate template for how to pray, we ask for our daily bread, the concrete, physical needs that we have, right along with our more important spiritual needs: for the forgiveness of our sins, for the coming of the Kingdom. But we also pray for something that seems impossibly big, utterly unattainable. We pray for God’s will to be done on Earth as completely as it is done by the inhabitants of heaven. If I were a mouthy disciple listening to Jesus teach the Our Father for the first time, I might have snorted, “Yeah, like that’s going to happen.”

The best thing about prayer, and what I badly need to remember, is that it’s very straightforward. We’re not making anything happen, we’re just asking God to do his thing. If he wants us to pray, and says we can pray for impossibly huge things as well as the tiniest worries, then that’s what we should do. It’s his job to figure out the details, and it’s up to him whether he wants to let us in on what he did or not.

So I shouldn’t be so smug about people who would spend millions trying to prove to everyone that prayer effects real change, because I’d love to have that proof. In the absence of proof, though, I have to have trust instead, and most of all, remember that I don’t have to know how prayer works and what it does to know that God is present, and that he is always listening.

Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Cecilia Pigg
7 Ways the saints can help you sleep better at night
J-P Mauro
Chicago architect models Vatican City from 67,000 LEGO bricks
Philip Kosloski
Why J.R.R. Tolkien loved to attend daily Mass
Philip Kosloski
An alternative Hail Mary to Our Lady of Sorrows
Bret Thoman, OFS
Exclusive photos: Meet Padre Pio and the place he lived
Philip Kosloski
How Our Lady saved Padre Pio from a violent demonic attack
Cerith Gardiner
9 Padre Pio quotes for when you’re feeling scared or uncertain
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.