Praying for the Sick

Harnessing the real power of prayer.


Safely home at last from a long and sometimes touch-and-go recovery from heart-valve replacement surgery, my brother-in-law Charlie sent a lengthy e-mail to his family and friends. He thanked them for their prayers and support. He had, he said, reached the point when he said to God, “Well, if you want me, I’m ready.” When he was better, he told his doctor that medical science alone couldn’t claim the credit for his recovery. There were a lot of good pray-ers involved as well.

A 10-year-long survey of some 1800 people who had bypass surgery was completed in March of last year. It reached a different conclusion about the efficacy of prayer for the sick. It found no measurable effect that people recovered better with the help of prayer. “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer” read The New York Times headline.

There were two major differences between the study and Charlie’s case. The pray-ers recruited were groups of strangers who didn’t even know the patients’ full names. And they asked for specific results: a quick recovery with no complications.

Bookaholic that I am, I submit a lot of orders to But the years have taught me that prayer bears no resemblance whatsoever to that simple task. There’s this strange thing we call God’s will to factor in.

Does that mean I didn’t send a lot of prayers heavenward for Charlie? Hardly! It certainly does mean that I prayed, as I’m sure all the people who love him did, for the whole dear person. And I take as a sure sign that our prayers were answered the fact that he was able to face even the possibility of his own death, unwelcome though that thought surely was to him ? not to mention to my sister!

Love is the factor that was missing in the survey. Strangers may pray for results; family and friends pray from their hearts—from love. And love doesn’t ask for specific outcomes in an illness or any other crisis, however desirable those outcomes may seem. Instead, love spends its energy desperately wanting someone dear simply to survive, to go one being the delightful person he or she has always been. In faith, we believe that is possible even after death.

The doctor who designed and led the survey, cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson, director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston, admitted in a news conference that the findings were not the last word on the effects of intercessory prayer. Indeed, they were not! In the Christian view, the last word is always the same as the first: love. Love is the power that shaped the universe; love is the power that sustains it and everyone in it. And yes, we believe in the power of prayer, because prayer for another is an act of love. And the command to love as he has loved is the last command Jesus gave his disciples as he sat at table with them just before his death.

You pray for as well as with the people you visit. That is an essential part of your ministry. So is commending their needs to the whole community whom you represent. That need for communication takes on special urgency when your charges are ill ? and, unfortunately, advancing age brings a host of physical ailments to us.

It’s nice to put a notice in the bulletin that so-and-so is in the hospital or is recovering from something; please remember her or him in your prayers. It’s far better to enlist the prayers and attention of the folks who remember them warmly. Whenever possible, make personal calls to old friends and neighbors, to the folks who are active in the same groups they belonged to in their busier days or those who attend the same service a senior also went to. Encourage them to make whatever contact seems appropriate: a card or note, a phone call, a visit.

And carry the community’s support with you when you visit people. Let them know that particular persons send their love and prayers. Name the people who have asked about them. In other words, let them feel the care and prayer that supports them in their need. Let them know that God’s love continues to surround them in every circumstance of life; that love finds it clearest expression in the concern of Christ’s living body, the Church ? especially in the care it shows for the whole person.

That body’s prayers will surely be heard. And maybe, like Charlie, the afflicted folks will recover fully. Or maybe they will simply find peace in accepting whatever may lie ahead. Either way, it’s an ending worth celebrating.

The late Carol Luebering wrote this column for the May 2007 issue of Celebration. A prolific writer and author of 15 books, she was a longtime contributor to both Celebration and a monthly newsletter, The Caring Community, also published by the National Catholic Reporter. She died Nov 24, 2010. Visit the Celebration Website at