For decades, Dick Hattan, of Geneva, suffered survivor guilt as a result of his tour in the Vietnam War. After members of his church prayed for his psychological healing, he said, he was able to move on.
"I've seen prayers help heal physical illnesses too," said Hattan, who is part of a healing ministry at St. Charles Episcopal Church in St. Charles.
His church and many others in the area –– from St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Mundelein to United Methodist Church in Crete –– are adding prayer lists, prayer circles and healing ministries despite studies that debunk the healing power of prayers. Google "Chicago," "church" and "prayer list" and you get 140,000 hits. and that doesn't include the suburbs or that vast universe called Facebook.
Believers pray for the improvement of their own health ("petition prayer") or for others on a prayer list ("distant" or "intercession prayer"). They do not necessarily know the recipients of the prayers. Hattan's group, for example, prayed for a son of his friend in California who had cancer. After their prayers, he said, the cancer receded.
"We have no special gift," said Hattan, whose group studied for a year before offering their prayers to fellow members. "We're just conduits for God. I'm sure we have some detractors who think it's voodoo, but most people at our church say they appreciate it."
Meanwhile, scientists have studied the efficacy of healing prayers. Eight medical institutions, including Duke University Medical Center, concluded in a 1999-2002 study that distant prayer "did not have a significant effect upon the primary clinical outcome" of 748 patients undergoing heart surgery, said a Duke representative. The study was double-blind; the patients did not know if anyone was praying for them and those praying did not know the prayer recipients.
A 2006 study by six medical centers, including Harvard Medical School, with 1,802 coronary-bypass patients, showed that patients who received prayers and knew people were praying for them fared worse than their blinded counterparts.
"The thing about the Harvard study is they were told people were praying for them, which caused some of them distress," said Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a geriatrics physician. "That was like being told the priest would be coming by."
Do prayers really work or are skeptics correct when they say today's miracles are tomorrow's science?
"The medical community measures and quantifies," replied Hattan. "You can't measure spirituality. And there are too many people out there who will tell you that prayer works."
If you expand your definition of prayer to include the various forms of spiritual and secular meditation, the case is closed, said Philip and Carol Zaleski in their book, "Prayer: A History." Multiple studies have shown that these practices "elicit positive changes in respiration, circulation and heart rate, and neural and hormonal activity," they wrote.
For Gregory Bettenhausen, of Wilmette, it's a matter of trust. "I trust that if I believe the creator of the world knows all things past, present and future, that he will hear my specific prayer," he said. Bettenhausen prays for people on the weekly list distributed by his church, the Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 53 percent of women and 36.4 percent of men have prayed for health in the last year.
Praying for health increased by 36 percent from 1999 to 2007, according to the American Psychological Association. People who did were more often women and African-American. Both those with the lowest incomes and those with the highest education levels were more likely to pray for health. Ditto for those who had experienced changes in health, for better or worse, within the last year.
Healing prayers are old as the hills, from the Navajos' 24-ceremonial system, to Jesus' teachings, to the Gaelic "Carmina Gadelica." But the Internet and social media allow prayer lists to go beyond church bulletins and announcements.
Jim Christensen, of Crystal Lake, formed an online prayer group that has grown to include Catholics, Jews and Protestants in Arizona, California, Florida and Illinois. "I forward requests as I get them," he said.
"Please pray for my stepdad, who is undergoing tests for cancer," read one request that Christensen fielded recently. "Our nephew is recovering from surgery and moving to a rehab center," said a member who thanked the group for their prayers.
The requests extend to four-legged family members too. "One person just emailed to say his dog is recovering from a fall out of a two-story window, and thanks for everyone's prayers after the accident," said Christensen.
To the detractors, Christensen said, "If you live in the U.S., it's your right to believe or not, but I've seen prayers work. People tell me the prayers gave them strength. We don't always get what we ask for, but I do believe God is listening."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times