Recently, I picked up a little book by the Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hanh entitled, “The Energy of Prayer.” The introduction to the book is written by Larry Dossey, a physician who has written a number of books and taught and lectured widely on the relationship between prayer and spirituality and medicine. Here are some excerpts from his introduction:
Scores of studies show that individuals who follow some sort of religious or spiritual path in their life, it appears not to matter which one they choose, live longer on average than those who do not choose a spiritual path, and on average they have a lower incidence of all major diseases.
Philosopher Manly P. Hall once said, “There is a type of person in whose mind God is always getting mixed up with vitamins.” In other words, just as people take vitamins to improve their physical health, people pray in order to live longer and be healthier. If this is all we make of prayer, it becomes little more than the latest tool in our black bag of medical tricks. Prayer is more majestic than that. It is a bridge to the Absolute. If we get a long, healthy life in the bargain, that is a blessing. If we do not, and there are many God-realized saints and mystics who died young of terrible diseases, we shall have to settle for immortality, for immortality is one of prayer’s implications.
Currently, more than 200 controlled experiments in humans, plants, animals, and even microbes suggest that the compassionate, loving prayers and intentions of one individual can affect another individual or object at great distances. These studies paint a picture of human consciousness that is nonlocal, a fancy word for “infinite”. Our individual mind appears to be connected with all other minds, no matter how far apart. Individual minds appear to be unbounded — and if unbounded and unlimited, they eventually come together to form a single mind, which our ancestors referred to as the Universal Mind. Therefore, the most significant contribution that prayer makes to our welfare is not the curing of any particular disease, but the realization that we are infinite, eternal, and one. Infinitude, eternality, and oneness are terms we have traditionally attached to the Divine. We thus share qualities with the Absolute, however we name it: the Divine within.
I find all this terribly fascinating. Just today, we received a note from an old friend who was our neighbor when I was in seminary. We had a great friendship with this friend and his partner, that helped to sustain all of us through the ups and downs of seminary. Our friend’s partner died of AIDS several years ago, and we lost touch with our friend after that. This year, we looked him up and sent him a Christmas card and letter. And today, we got his note in response. He said that we might not believe it, but the day before he got our card, he was thinking about the time we shared together in Cambridge, and was wondering what we were up to. It made me wonder if perhaps our individual minds had somehow touched each other, on opposite sides of the country, through what Dossey calls the Universal Mind, but what I like to think of more as a sacred energy that holds the universe together, the energy of God.
This is a bit deep and mysterious, perhaps. But one thing I take away from what Dossey says in the excerpts quoted above is that our spiritual path has much more to do with our spiritual practice than with the beliefs upon which that practice is based. He notes that the benefits that come from committing to a spiritual path, as found in the studies he mentions, do not seem to depend on which path is chosen. What matters is our commitment to that path, and the practices that form that commitment.
This is a different wisdom than the one that dominates much of our culture, I think. We Westerners (especially we religious Westerners) tend to be very belief oriented, and as a result, we have tended to define salvation in terms of believing the right things. That leads us to the logical conclusion that there must be only one set of beliefs that can be right, and therefore only one path that can lead us to our spiritual goal. The wisdom that Dossey, and Thich Naht Hanh, point us toward suggests that our practice counts much more. It would seem to be more important to have a regular practice of prayer than to have a fully worked out theology. Theology seeks to dispel mystery by explaining it. Prayer embraces mystery, including all the grey-ness and contradiction of human beings and life among human beings, and finds in that mystery an energy that is able to sustain and heal. The story of St. Thomas Aquinas always brings this lesson home to me. As you may know, Aquinas is considered probably the greatest Western theologian of the 13th century, and his considerable theological writings (the crowning glory of which is the Summa Theologica) have had a profound effect on Roman Catholic theology down to our own day. Later in his life, Aquinas had a mystical experience, and afterwards, he said that “all I have written seems like straw to me.” It is said that the experience caused Aquinas to doubt the efficacy of logic and reason as a way to understanding God. I should never want to throw out reason from the spiritual life, but Aquinas’s experience does serve as a reminder that reason has its limits. Prayer is a way of reaching beyond those limits, and of touching the mystery of the Divine that we are able to experience if not entirely explain.
So I invite you to think about your spiritual practice, and ask yourself if you are following a spiritual path that includes a regular practice of prayer that harnesses the sacred energy of God.