In 1985, Sherri Krause was in an intensive care unit with a temperature of 106 and severe kidney and respiratory problems.
Krause, a Jewish educator from Mission Viejo, said she was given a 10% chance of surviving. Then, she said, a blue-white light seemed to enter and suffuse her body from the toes up, and she felt as if in a cocoon surrounded by the prayers of her friends.
Soon, her vital signs stabilized and she made a full recovery.
I spoke to Krause and other people of faith in connection with the National Day of Prayer, which occurs the first Thursday of May and was marked by numerous events throughout Southern California this week. There were remarkable parallels in the reasons people of diverse backgrounds pray and the importance they attach to it.
Rabbi Stephen Einstein of Temple B'Nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley said he considers prayer "a way of getting in touch with God and what's ultimate in my life." Although he does not pray in the traditional Jewish way, (at dawn, noon and evening), he prays frequently--while driving, for example. He prays for other people, thinks the energy of prayer can make a difference and is convinced he himself is changed by it.
Deborah Barrett, a Roman Catholic nun and Zen teacher who directs the Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa, said prayer keeps her in touch with her deepest yearnings.
"Being honest [through prayer] about where we are brings healing," she said. Prayer means "being present to the wonder of life, even if it is painful."
Although she prays at least an hour a day, "even being quiet for 10 minutes habitually is important," she said. "You must take the time."
For Kay Lindahl, founder of the Laguna Niguel-based Alliance for Spiritual Community, "centering prayer," a contemplative approach she practices 20 minutes daily, has made her more aware of God's presence. Lindahl, an Episcopalian, was introduced to centering prayer by a Trappist monk. It inspired her, she said, to found the alliance, with its commitment to interfaith spirituality, and to co-found the successful Religious Diversity Faire held for the last three years at UC Irvine.
She says praying for others is efficacious but is not sure why. What she does understand is that praying for people who irritate her changes her relationship with them.
"I start treating them with more respect," she said. "It alters me."
In Islam, according to Muzammil Siddiqui, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County and president of the Islamic Society of North America, there are two types of prayer: formal prayer five times daily (lasting about 10 minutes each) and free prayer. When asking for something in free prayer, he stressed, one should, for example, pray for peace and then act in ways that foster it. Quoting the prophet Muhammad, he said, "Nothing changes the divine decree except prayer."
Ananda Guruge, director of religious studies at Hsi Lai Buddhist University in Rosemead, noted that Buddhists do not pray to a god; rather, their concept of prayer is one of benediction and aspiration for others. In the "Discourse on Loving Kindness," for example, one prays: "May those in suffering be free of suffering."
Wanting something to happen and concentrating on it constitute a "truth wish," Guruge said, which, by the power of truth itself, can bring about change. Buddhists, he said, repeat the "Discourse" every morning and evening, often many times.
Another type of Buddhist prayer, Guruge said, is a meditation or concentration on goodness, which is meant to purify a person from the causes of evil: greed, anger and confusion or delusion.
A few studies have attempted to show scientifically that prayer can help, even if people don't know they are being prayed for. In one controversial study, 393 coronary patients were divided into a "treatment" group who were prayed for without their or their doctors' knowledge and a control group who received no prayers. The treatment group reportedly showed more improvement.
Richard Gorsuch, a professor in the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, is skeptical of the "mechanical" nature of this approach: "You spin the prayer wheel and God reacts." The study, he said, would need to be replicated many times to establish validity, and methodological problems may exist in such studies.
Sherri Krause said her outlook on life has changed since she came close to death 13 years ago. Even if she had not survived, she said, she thinks she would have been "ushered out on angels' wings" because of those who prayed for her.
Prayer may change the course of human affairs, but if so, it happens in ways we will never fully comprehend. What is comprehensible, however, is prayer's importance for the one praying.
Benjamin J. Hubbard is a professor and chairman of the Department of Comparative Religion at Cal State Fullerton. He recently co-wrote "America's Religions: An Educator's Guide to Beliefs and Practices." He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org