A few weeks ago it was announced that a much-beloved figure in the Jewish community was gravely ill, and was in a medically induced coma, unable to breathe without assistance. Instantly, prayer circles sprang up all over the world and on the Internet. In a few days, she was dead.
So what does it that say about the power of prayer in healing?
I actually run a healing prayer circle myself. It’s part of a “comfort group” I founded in my faith community after my mother died and there was no organized structure for me to receive comfort in my grief or to pull together a minyan for kaddish. Most synagogues have a bikur cholim group that visits the sick and helps the homebound. My group has devolved into a virtual prayer circle in which people request healing prayers for their friends and relatives who are critically ill.
I say devolved because I don’t pray, and this kind of effort strikes me as magical thinking. Hocus pocus. I don’t know what they expect the outcome to be. Our rabbi asserts that we have no right to implore the universe for a particular outcome. Sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is “No.” Or sometimes, bad things just happen. See Ecclesiastes.
For a completely different perspective, I visited members of the 36th Church of Christ, Scientist, in Studio City. Their Wednesday night meetings include readings from the Bible, as well as from church founder Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures. This is followed by testimonies by those present of their experiences of healing through prayer.
Watch the video before reading any further to share my experience at the church meeting and listen to some conversations I had with members. Then come back and compare your impressions to mine.
I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming, gracious assembly. My first question to to church spokesperson Scott Fitz-Randolph was, of course, “What is Christian Science?” But no matter how many ways he told me about the Scientists’ continual striving to understand the relationship between God and Man, I just couldn’t grasp it.
That consciousness is essential, however, to the success of Christian Science healing. Illness is thought to be caused by a mistake in thinking. (How does that explain why animals get sick? was my first thought. And babies, and plants?)
“It is a scientific fact that God and Man are inseparable. We are the image and likeness of God. And when we run into a physical problem, we recognize that the most effective way we can deal with that problem is in our thought. Not by examining the body. Not by treating the body as if it were separate, as if it were in charge. We recognize that our own thinking is where the problem lies. And the only way to solve it is to understand God and understand our relationship to God,” Fitz-Randolph explained.
He also often cited the healings by Jesus described in the New Testament as models for those achieved by Christian Scientists.
“That’s one of the reasons Jesus was able to attract such big crowds ... basically because he was healing people. In the midst of all of this discussion he was having, he was healing people and he was teaching his disciples that they should heal as well,” said Fitz-Randolph.
Much is made of the exclusive reliance of “Mrs. Eddy,” as she is known to adherents, solely on the Bible for the development of her philosophy. Perhaps this is in reaction to criticism from some quarters that Christian Science is not genuinely Christian.
I, on the other hand, find her research method less than academically rigorous. A study that only examines one source, no matter how many versions of that same material, is bound to be limited, especially if that resource is not a scientific text but a collection of allegorical myths and legends.
The germ theory of disease was already fully established when Eddy was writing. Freud’s theories about “hysterical” or psychosomatic illness may not have been widely accepted, but Eddy herself acknowledged that she was a student of Phineas Quimby, a magnetic healer, mesmerist, hypnotist who promoted a mind-over-matter technique that is considered a precursor to the “New Thought” movement.
The testimonies I heard during my evening at the church, whether read from Science and Health, or declaimed by members, struck me as anecdotal. I was immediately reminded of actor Dirk Benedict’s claim that he cured himself of prostate cancer by converting to a macrobiotic diet and physical training. Neither the cancer nor the cure was ever verified by a licensed medical professional. I’ve heard similar claims made about noni juice and goji berries but no one ever seems to have the scans that show "before" and "after".
On the other hand, I do believe the mind has powers we have yet to fully measure. After reading documentary filmmaker and anthropologist Doushan Gersi’s Faces in the Smoke, I can say that I believe in zombification. Again, I invoke my rabbi who is fond of reminding us, “I’ll see it when I believe it” and not the other way around.
I asked Fitz-Randolph why, if the prayer cure is so effective, is it not being studied by the medical profession? And, I wonder, why aren’t Scientists walking up and down the halls of hospitals healing the sick? Are Scientists subjecting themselves to controlled experiments? Have epidemiologic studies been done?
The few studies I could find actually show that Christian Scientists have a higher morbidity and mortality rate than the general population. Furthermore, their exemption from vaccination requirements makes them susceptible to preventable diseases, of which some student populations have suffered fatal outbreaks. Some of those cases are aggregated here. The sect enjoys other federal and state exemptions and privileges that you can find out more about by doing a little research.
I’m not here to impugn or refute anyone’s religious beliefs, though I have to keep fighting the urge. It has taken me longer to write this column than any of the previous ones.
Though I emphatically disagree with their worldview, I have all respect for people who feel the power of God’s healing inside them. Several of the church members who spoke at the meeting said they feel fearless in life, with no trepidation about illness and injury.
Look, I was hoping for a cure myself. I would have gone along with them in a minute if I’d gotten some relief. I mentioned my crippling conditions to anyone who would listen and kept pain checking myself while I was there. I’m still holding out for a distance cure.