This article appears in the August 2005 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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Prayer and Pills - Two Sides of the Same Coin?
Healing in a Christian General Practice

Robert Hardie

By praying over, with, or for patients in an NHS GP setting, are we out of order, according to general medical thinking, and so do we risk investigation by the GMC, because praying with patients rings alarm bells of serious concern about a colleague's performance, (mental) health or conduct (1); or is the place of prayer so important others could be considered negligent by not employing it? I set out to put the case for the latter.

We will start with some background information on the Natural or Secular Power of Healing.

The touch of a healthy loving person who is intent to help another contains a natural power of life which allows the other to absorb this life or energy in such a way that the sick body can build up its own life-building forces (2).

In 1975, Professor Dolores Krieger described experiments teaching nurses at the New York State University School of Nursing to lay hands on patients with the intent of healing. In all 3 of her studies there was a significant rise in Haemoglobin in the patients that had had hands laid on them (3).

In 1959 Uhlenhuth et al (4) attempted to clarify conflicting reports of the effectiveness of meprobamate, (an early pre-benzodiazepine tranquilliser). In a double blind trial, a physician with a sceptical "experimental" attitude towards the drug was compared with one who had an enthusiastic and "therapeutic" attitude towards it. Meprobamate proved significantly more powerful than placebo, but only for the physician who believed in it! Meprobamate had no effect upon the sceptical physician's patients. The nineteenth century French physician Armand Trousseau once said, "One should use a new drug as often as possible, while it still has the power to heal", ie when enthusiasm for it still abounds. So, believing that treatment will work does seem to make it work better.

Another study in the US in 1980 showed that more fatal myocardial infarctions occurred on Mondays than any other day of the week (5).

In a 25 year follow up of 225 physicians in 1983, there was a six times increase in risk of dying from a heart attack in doctors with aggressive and hostile personalities(6). Similarly in a 30 year study of medical students turned doctors in 1976 showed an increased incidence of fatal cancers of all types among doctors who could not externalise their feelings and kept them bottled up inside (7).

During the first year after the death of a spouse the mortality of the surviving partner was up to 12 times that of married people the same age (8). During this period, both B and T populations of lymphocytes failed to function normally (9). Finally, when men with high cholesterol levels were taught to sit quietly in a chair twice a day, their cholesterols fell by one third(10). How much has this country spent on the array of lipid lowerers?

So, something else seems to be going on. We could expect this "something else", or natural ability, or "power", to heal to be greater in a religious context than in a secular one.

Intercessory prayer for 400 patients, divided into 2 groups in the coronary care unit of San Francisco General Hospital, showed that the "prayed over" group had less than half the amount of Congestive Carciac Failure, none (compared to 12 in the control group) needed ventilating, less than a quarter developed pneumonia, less than a quarter needed CPR and there were no deaths (compared to 3 in the non-prayed over group)(11).

When artificially created full thickness skin wounds on arms were prayed over, a difference in wound size was noted; by the sixteenth day 13 of the 23 subjects were completely healed, compared with none of the unprayed-over group(12). Other research demonstrated electromagnetic energy fields with signals several hundred times higher than normal when prayer was undertaken(13). Could the infrared and microwave electromagnetic radiation from the hands be doing the healing work? In 1985 at Harvard Medical School, all students watching a film about the work of Mother Theresa showed an increase in IgA in their saliva whether or not they approved of her work! A film on Attila the Hun had the opposite effect! (14).

However, how much should we be trying to relieve pain and suffering if we're trying to help people in a holistic or spiritual way? Is the purpose of prayer to terminate sickness, or is the purpose of sickness to initiate prayer?

Traditionally, especially in Catholic circles, carrying the cross of pain and suffering has been encouraged. Healing might take over our opportunity to imitate Jesus and, as St. Paul says, help "complete" the Lord's sufferings in the redemption of the world. Our Lady of Fatima gave advice about suffering and penance for the salvation of sinners, St. Rose of Lima insisted that there is no Heaven without the Ladder of the Cross, and St. Francis of Assisi said how happy and blessed are those who love God, hate their bodies with their vices, and produce worthy fruits of penance.

Should we then encourage sickness to help holiness? If we really want the answer, we must go to the Gospels. St. Francis recommended, "Go from Life to the Gospel and from the Gospel to Life". The Lord Jesus preached that suffering was an evil to be overcome when it appeared to overwhelm and destroy the inner life of a man (or woman). On the other hand suffering is to be endured if possible and even rejoiced in when it comes from outside, from persecution by evil men or from fatigue of apostolic labours. The Lord Himself carried the cross of persecution, but the suffering that He did not tolerate was the suffering of sickness, the suffering that can tear a man apart from within. He tells His followers that they will be hauled before magistrates and judges, and that they are to rejoice when all manner of evil is spoken about them. He is never seen counselling a sick man to rejoice, or telling him to be patient because disease is helpful or redemptive!

It would then seem that suffering in itself is evil, only to be endured for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, not for its own sake. This puts suffering into a place subservient to the Kingdom. Things are good if they lead to God's greater Glory (even suffering) but evil if they detract from it.

For years I had wanted to pray with patients, but had always felt too embarrassed or fearful. In the mid 1980s I had studied the subject and was particularly impressed by Fr Francis MacNutt's book "The Power to Heal", but it took until 1999 to properly take the plunge. This was really due to a receptionist/health care worker aptly called Joy who had been working with us for three years, and who had been schooled in evangelical circles down in the Bath City Church. I shall take examples of different types of healing that we encountered.

One morning, I saw a 35 year old lorry driver with severe otitis externa. He had had months of all the right treatment. I sent him back to the front desk to see Joy and ask for some prayer. She rang immediately to say that she didn't pray alone and that I should join her. So I did, feeling awkward and embarrassed. He rang a week later to say his ear was better. I call this "Complete Healing".

Icilda, an Afro-Caribbean, had dreadful recurrent phlebitis and cellulitis in her lower leg. She also had received all the correct antibiotics. We prayed over her, but this time nothing happened! We prayed again a week later. A week after, she came in and said "Jesus has healed me". I call this "Delayed Complete Healing". Repeated prayer was needed.

Jean is a piano-playing retired Church of England canon's wife. She had a prick wound from a thorn in her garden, and developed dreadful cellulitis of her right hand. After the in-patient intravenous antibiotics, she was left with a demarcation line through the terminal interphalangeal joint of her right index finger. We prayed as before; and the next day she came in and showed us the demarcation line which had moved to the end of her nail. She is left with a funny but functional finger with which she can still play the piano. I call this "Partial Healing".

Loretta, also Afro-Caribbean, had had haemodialysis for 16 years for diabetic renal failure, and had repeatedly refused a transplant as she felt she would be receiving not just the kidney but also the soul of the donor. She kept saying "It's a miracle I'm alive", which I think it was considering her associated problems of severe cerebro-vascular disease and cortical atrophy shown on her CT scan, a successfully resuscitated cardiac arrest, repeated problems from her dialysis, a fractured pelvis from osteoporosis, and complete heart block. The heart block was the only problem that we prayed specifically for. Her ECG had reverted to normal by the time she arrived at hospital (we had ECG proof), her atenolol was blamed. She had a problem with drugs as well as transplants and had not been taking it! She eventually succumbed to her heart block when she refused a pacing wire last year. I call this "Non-specific or General Healing" because apart from her admission in heart block, we had never specifically prayed for a particular problem, but on every occasion she came to the Surgery we really praised the Lord by reading a psalm. It was extraordinary how she had survived so long.

My last category is "Surprise Healing", when something completely unconnected happens. A lady in her 50s had a mesothelioma that amazingly went into remission after no end of serum injections from a private clinic in the Bahamas. We had not been asked to pray for her. Her husband, came and asked for prayer for the chronic pain in his neck. He denied anxiety which surprised us. He returned after prayer to say the pain was no better but that he felt really well, better than he had done for years. Sarah, a friend of this couple, had also asked us to pray for her. She had had a lifetime of serious psychiatric problems punctuated by a far from successful late marriage to a dear man who only wanted to shut himself away and read books. Only a few weeks after we had prayed for her (on several occasions) she was found dead in her bathroom. No definite cause of death was found. Why did Sarah die after being prayed over? Was our prayer in any way connected to her death? I do not know. Perhaps our prayer wasn't strong enough to deal with her difficult problems, or could the prayer have started to uncover something that needed far greater prayer?

Several years ago Joy had been praying on her own for the psychiatrically ill son of one of our practice nurses. She later felt as though she had picked up an evil spirit. We have little experience of exorcism, but prayed St Anthony's Brief with her(15). She said that she felt better and that the spirit had left. This is the brief prayer that St Anthony of Padua used and is found inscribed at the base of the obelisk in the middle of St. Peter's Square in Rome. Perhaps in some situations we have to admit that there are forces at work against which we need to pray for protection.

Fr. Francis MacNutt categorises healings in a similar way into complete and partial healing. He says about 75% of those prayed for are healed, 25% completely, 50% partially and 25% not healed. He also describes "Levels of Healing" and "Levels of Divine Activity" (16) Moving up Levels of Healing we have cessation of pain, then removal of side effects of treatment, return of physical function (even if X rays suggest no change - and maybe this is why only 62 miracles have been reported in Lourdes in 100 years), and true bodily healing. Different Levels of Divine Activity cause the healing. These can be Natural or Supernatural. Natural activity is the activity of purely natural forces released in prayer which can further be sub-divided into the power of suggestion (auto-suggestion often causes the trouble in the first place), Christian love (which has a power of its own), laying on of hands, spiritual or emotional healing (often arthritis and dermatitis get better when pent up emotions are dealt with after forgiving someone), natural processes speeded up by prayer (e.g. a common cold resolving faster), and natural forces acting in an out of the ordinary way such as cancer resolution (not a true miracle as it can occur naturally). Supernatural activity deals with forces due to evil spirits, and the true miracle. The true miracle is a creative act of God totally beyond explanation. It is rare. Interestingly, St. Paul makes a distinction between miracles and healing. "To one .. the gift of utterance, to another faith.. to another the gift of healing.. to another the working of miracles." (17).

I can now see that were failing to repeat our prayer for patients. Jesus prayed twice for the blind man at Bethsaida (18). If the Lord needed to repeat the process so must we, even more so because we are wounded healers. Touch has a power of its own. It allows the time element in and can be seen as little bits of power working little by little. The repetitive nature seems important. The longer the hands are on, the more healing will happen.

If there is 10% healing with one prayer then one can expect 50% healing on average with 40 minutes touching prayer. This can be a few minutes a day or a week, or interrupted by coffee breaks or anything else (19). Obviously it is important to get others (parents and friends) to keep up the praying e.g. hands on touching, and it would seem that often this is sadly missing after healing services in churches. Often areas least affected start to heal first, presumably because less power is needed, and this can give rise to surprises, like the man with neck pain who said he felt generally better. Presumably his lack of general well being was "easier" to heal than his neck pain.

So it appears that a lot of our lack of results is due to our lack of persistence. Whether we touch, lay on hands, pray written prayers formally, pray unwritten spontaneous prayers less formally, sing, speak in tongues, anoint with oil or Lourdes water (or Holy Water) or all these, it is probably more important to be persistent and soak those who are ill with prayer. The Lord's own advice concerning prayer suggests this too (20).

So where do we stand in the final analysis? Are we in danger of professional misconduct or investigation at the least; or are we able to present a firm and reasoned case that without prayer General Practice is failing in its proper duty to provide holistic care for the patient? An important step on the way to this is the general open acknowledgement of the Presence of God in our work, and the upholding of the Church's teaching and not allowing ourselves to be bullied or coerced into behaving in the increasingly accepted "professional" way that secular government and society demands. This is becoming increasingly hard to do, and knuckling under is, I fear, the norm for many Catholic doctors, anxious about their income or reputation.

Cardinal Javier Lozana Barragan, President of the Pontifical Council- for Health Pastoral Care, said in his keynote speech at the FEAMC Conference in Bratislava last year: Health is "a dynamism towards total harmony, but not the harmony itself' (21). Only by sharing our faith and our prayers can we start to help our patients understand what health is about, that it is a journey and not an end in itself, that it is part of a normal process of health, in time passing to ill-health culminating in death, but that this death is only the maturity of health when we have fulfilled the mission that we originally received from God. Prayer then is not just to do with treatment, but at the centre of our understanding of what health is in Society, without which the conflict between care and care limitation will never be settled.

Cardinal Barragan said that Christians in the field of Medicine and Health Care in Europe should be making the true meaning of health understood. He asked if we Christians truly evangelise through the world of sickness and health, and whether our Catholic health institutions offer a Christian concept of illness and health. "Is there a Christian concept of illness and health in them, and are these centres witnesses to the resurrection of Christ?"

So, we have no option. Evangelisation for us Catholic Christians is mandatory; the soft option of just being nice to people (important as that may be) is not enough in itself. Only when we are doing this, evangelising in our daily practice, and bringing the light and healing of Christ into the lives of our patients, and taking them along the path of pilgrimage with us, can we show how focussed our care of sick is. Then they will know that Jesus truly loves them, and then we will be able to demonstrate plainly to all; so that statistics will be seen to be obsolete. How limited and sad the secular style of General Practice Medicine has become.


  1. GMC "Good Medical Practice. Protecting patients, guiding doctors" 2001
  2. The Power to Heal. Francis MacNutt OP, Ave Maria Press 1983
  3. Am Journal of Nursing. May 1975. Dolores Krieger
  4. Am Journal of Psychiatry 115. 1959 "The Symptomatic Relief of Anxiety with Meprobamate, Phenobarbital and Placebo". Uhlenhuth, Cantor, Neustadt and Payson.
  5. Journal of Am Med Society 244:12 1980. "Chronobiology of Cardiac Sudden Death in Men". Rabkin, Mathewson and Tate.
  6. Psychosomatic Medicine 45:4 1982 "Hostility, Coronary Heart Disease Incidence and Total Mortality". Barefoot, Dahlstrom and Williams.
  7. Annals of Internal Medicine 85. 1976. "Precursors of Premature Disease and Death: The Predictive Potential of Habits and Family Attitudes". Caroline Thomas.
  8. BMJ. 4. 1967 "Mortality of Bereavement" W D Rees and SG Lutkins.
  9. Lancet. 1:806. 1977 "Depressed Lymphocyte Function after Bereavement" Bartrop, Luckhurst, Lazarus, Kiloh and Penny.
  10. JAMA 95: 1978 "Effects of Meditation on Blood Cholesterol and Blood Pressure". M. Cooper and M Aygen.
  11. Southern Medical Journal 81:7 1988 "Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population". Randolph Byrd.
  12. Unpublished study. Unorthodox Healing. "The effect of Non-contact Therapeutic Touch on the Healing Rate of Full Thickness Dermal Wounds". Daniel P Wirth.
  13. Paranormal Research (Proceeds of conference 1988) John T Zimmerman.
  14. Paper at meeting of Soc of Behavioural Medicine, New Orleans 1985 "Motivation and Immune Function in Health and Disease". David McClelland.
  15. St. Anthony's Brief, "Ecce Crucis Domine. Behold the Cross of the Lord. Fly you powers of darkness, the Lion of Judah, the Root of Jesse has conquered you. Alleluia".
  16. The Power to Heal, Francis MacNutt OP Ave Maria Press 1983
  17. 1 Corinthians Ch 12 vv 9, 10
  18. St. Mark's Gospel Ch 8 vv 22-26 and Challenges for the Christians in Europe in Medicine and Healthcare. Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan. Catholic Medical Quarterly Nov 2004.
  19. The Power to Heal. Francis MacNutt
  20. St. Luke's Gospel Ch 18 vv 1-8
  21. CMQ Nov 2004. "Challenges for the Christians in Europe in Medicine and Healthcare". Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan.

Dr. Robert Hardie is a General Practitioner in Dorset.

Abbreviated from a talk delivered at the Annual Symposium of the Guild, May 2005