The last few years there have been a spate of media articles on the beneficial health effects of prayer and meditation. We've even published a few in the WCR.
Perhaps the best-known evidence in this regard came from a 1986 study in San Francisco which found that coronary patients prayed for by prayer groups across the U.S. recovered far better from their illness than did those who were not prayed for. The mortality rate of the prayed-for group was lower and people in that group needed far fewer medical interventions such as antibiotics or breathing support.
Other studies have found that people who pray or meditate seem to undergo physiological changes which lead them through some as-yet-undiscovered process to better overall health and better healing when they are afflicted by a disease.
In short, it's healthy to pray and healthy to be prayed for.
None of this was of much help to Jesus, however. He prayed as much, if not more, than anyone. Jesus' prayer didn't make his life longer; it made it shorter. He was crucified as a direct result of his being faithful to his life of prayer.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "His words and works are the visible manifestation of his prayer in secret" (no. 2602). Jesus prayed often, especially before decisive moments of his mission or in the mission of his apostles. Luke's Gospel points to a cycle in Jesus' life of withdrawal from the world, prayer and then a new flurry of activity.
What is happening here? Prayer, for Jesus, "is a humble and trusting commitment of his human will to the loving will of the Father," says the catechism (no. 2600). Jesus prays not to get, but to learn how to give. His activity flows out of his prayer because it is through prayer that he discovers how he is to act.
This does not mean Jesus got brain waves — insightful new ideas — when he prayed. It means he learned how to submit. His submission, however, was not to a demanding ogre of a God, but to a tender, loving God.
Jesus' ultimate act of submission, of course, was his acceptance of death on Calvary. Even this act of submission was prepared in prayer. The Gospels contain accounts of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane where Luke says that Jesus sweat blood. "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done," he prayed (Luke 22:42).
This is a remarkable prayer for one facing indescribable suffering. But it shows us the path for our own prayer -- we too must seek to be totally conformed to the will of God. This is so difficult because we have rebellious hearts, hearts that may be willing to go a distance with God, but not the whole distance.
Yet, throughout the New Testament, a remarkable promise appears repeatedly. If we strive to follow in Jesus' path, God will live in our hearts. At the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them" (John 14:23). St. Paul notes that one's identity with the will of God can be so complete that it is no longer me who acts but Christ living in me (Galatians 2:20).
We have nothing to fear in following the Father's will. Yes, there will be persecution, but the persecuted ones are told "your reward is great in heaven" (Matthew 5:10-12). And in conforming to the Father's will, we are not slaves, but children. As children, we will not be cast aside, but are heirs to the Father's household (Romans 8:14-17). What he has is ours too.
This is a wonderful promise which will be fulfilled if we persevere in our prayer that "your will be done." Take the advice of St. Paul: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Modern science has given evidence that prayer can make us happier and healthier and that it is a way for us to help others. These are good effects. But for Jesus and, one hopes, for us, they are not the primary purpose of prayer. Prayer is not a self-improvement program; it is part of the process of living in unity with God.
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