Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
Prayer makes up a significant part in every major religious tradition. Thus, if a cross-section of Chaplain Corner readers were asked, “What is prayer,” a variety of definitions would likely emerge. Many would possibly resemble the one I remember from my childhood catechism: “Prayer is the lifting of our minds and hearts to God.” Prayer can be active or passive, individual or communal. Many of the different forms of prayer may contain aspects of worship, petition and thanksgiving. Our Eastern Church Spiritual Father St. Mark the Ascetic tells us: "There are many different methods of prayer. . . . No method is harmful. . . .” (Philokalia I). St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977) reflects the common teaching of the Eastern Fathers that for prayer to be effective it has to be done with a pure heart.
Prayer can have physical, psychological and spiritual benefits. For example, the results of one study released by the National Institute of Healthi in 2011 reported a decrease in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms in the group that practiced meditation. In another example, a recent psychological study (Leshner, Cheng, Song, Choi & Frisby, 2006) found that Black-African-American women who had a belief that God was in control of their lives engaged in seeking out more helpful health information from their physicians. In this regard, we can consider that Jesus promised his disciples emotional well-being and how to achieve it: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Mt 6: 33–34) The spiritual benefits of prayer are innumerable. We can summarize the spiritual effects of prayer as a dialogue with God that results in, as the Koran (6: 151) describes it, "peace and blessings." Are these not a need that all of us feel?
However, to pray with a pure heart as St. Dorotheos of Gaza reminded requires that we maintain a continuing sense of the presence of God. St. Isaac of Syria (Brock) informs us wisely on this that, "It is in proportion to the honor that a person shows in his person to God during the time of prayer. . . . [that] the door of assistance will be opened for him, leading to the purifying of the impulses and illumination in prayer.”
Brock, S., trans. (1997). The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Fairacres Oxford, England: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation.
Leshner, G., Cheng, I., Song, H., Choi, Y., & Frisby, C. (2006). The role of spiritual health locus of control in breast cancer information processing between African American and Caucasian women. Integrative Medicine Insights, 2, 35-44.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.
Wheeler, E.P. (1977). (ed., trans.), Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.