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By Charles Glassman M.D.
Does prayer help people recover from illness? Some studies say yes, some say no. But when prayer doesn’t seem to help, what happens to the faith of devout believers? When you’ve prayed and prayed and yet a loved one does not get better and perhaps dies, what then?
Over my twenty-two years of medical practice, I have been around death and dying a lot; around people who believe in prayer and around others who did not; around people who believe in God and an after-life and those who did not. It’s been my observation that people who call themselves religious and/or God-fearing die just the same as those who do not.
Why pray, then? I’ll get to that in a minute.
How often are the words uttered, “He died before his time.”? We heard that when the broadcast journalist Tim Russert died suddenly a few years ago, and the same lament was repeated recently at the death of Whitney Houston. Well, don’t get me wrong, but in my opinion, when we die, it is precisely the right time for us.
Of course, it is never the right time for those surviving, but for the deceased, it is their time. That doesn’t mean we have no control over the time of our demise; we can surely accelerate the right time to die by poor lifestyle choices. That may be what happened in the cases of Tim Russert and Whitney Houston, though in Russert’s case it might appear less obvious; but he died of a heart attack having multiple risk factors, the kind we can control with better lifestyle choices.
But leaving aside the issue of lifestyle, I believe we die at our right time. To me, this is comfort when someone close to me dies or with the death of young children due to illness or accident.
Would praying more make someone destined for death live longer? I believe the role of prayer comes when someone is in a position that may cause death before what seems like his or her time. That may explain why some prayer studies actually do show a benefit. We cannot possibly know when it is the right time for someone else to die, so I feel we should pray for anyone for whom we are inspired to pray.
My personal technique of prayer is a form of meditation, and vice versa. I recommend invoking prayer only when you have a deep caring for the person and a sincere, selfless wish for their continued life and health. Furthermore, rather than direct our prayers to another entity (God, for example), I find it more effective to engage our mind in active visualization. We have an innate (God-given, if you like) ability to contribute to healing. By praying for God to do the work, in my opinion, we question that gift and diminish its power.
So the next time someone dies on your “prayer watch,” don’t let it stop you. There is someone whose time has not come, who needs you, needs your caring. Picture that person in your mind and picture yourself with them. Try visualizing angels surrounding their bed. Put yourself in the recovery scene with the person and the angels and rejoice in their life and their health.
If the time is not right for them to die, they will survive and reaffirm your faith in the power of your mind. But if they do die, pray that they will discover upon death something impossible for us to comprehend fully in life—a spiritual plain not governed by reason and logic or bound by natural laws.