I felt like a dark cloud, but I didn’t want to rain on the parade.
She had just gotten through an operation. She’d just left the hospital with a clean bill of health, the congregation were crying ‘Amen’. They had worried about her, they had prayed for her, and now she was safe, back in Church, back amongst friends.
It was a beautiful thing.
There was applause. Broad smiles. I was smiling too, but on the outside. Inside I had a twisting in my gut I couldn’t explain. A feeling I can only describe it as a tension of conflict – the feeling of between torn between two ideas, and the guilt of understanding that what I believed wasn’t necessarily a very nice thing.
The woman was addressing the Church. She was thanking God; thanking the congregation for their prayers, paying tribute to the power of prayer. Prayer had gotten her through this difficult time, God had answered her prayers.
But just a few days before I had read a study that showed prayer actually had a negative effect on patients going into surgery; that it was more likely to do harm than good, particularly if the patient was aware people were praying for them. Of course, there have been studies that claimed the opposite, and studies that showed prayer had no effect at all, but at that moment, when everyone was in the process of having their beliefs powerfully affirmed, I was questioning myself.
I wondered if the prayer had any effect at all. I wondered if it made things worse? I wondered if there was something perverse in thanking God instead of the Doctors who had spent hours in surgery giving this woman a second chance at life.
Most of all I just felt guilty for questioning these people and their genuine happiness. For raining on the parade.
But the strange thing is, despite questioning, deep down I think I understand the power of prayer. It’s a function that transcends belief, or lack of belief. When all hope is lost, in our lowest moments of despair, it is our instinct to pray, to appeal to something unknown. Even if it makes us hypocrites, people will pray.
I know I have. And I think everyone has, at least once.
My wife is always encouraging me to pray – apparently it helps you let go of things you can’t control, it’s meditative, it stimulates a positive non-selfish part of the brain. The cynical among you will probably wonder about her motivations, but she said something interesting to me once, she said: you don’t have to believe in God to pray; you just have to believe in prayer.
And even if I don’t believe in God, maybe I could find it in myself to believe in prayer.