Among the scores of articles written this week about the pope’s visit, one that particularly caught my eye was an article about some of the disciplines the pope has in his life. The article says he hasn’t watched television since 1990, he takes regular naps each day, goes to bed early, and each day he wakes at 4:00 a.m. and spends the first two hours of his day in prayer and meditation.
We may think that’s nice and that sounds like a great thing for a pope to do, but prayer is a spiritual discipline accessible to all of us and the benefits of prayer extend farther than most of us realize.
In fact, prayer may be one of the very best practices to benefit our health and well-being. Science backs this up.
The relationship between prayer and health has been the subject of scores of double-blind studies over the past four decades. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in the field of mind/ body medicine discovered what he calls “the relaxation response,” which occurs during periods of prayer and meditation. At such times, the body’s metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and our breath becomes calmer and more regular.
This physiological state is correlated with slower brain waves, and feelings of control, tranquil alertness and peace of mind. This is significant because Benson estimates that over half of all doctor visits in the U.S. today are prompted by illnesses like depression, high blood pressure, ulcers and migraine headaches, that are caused at least in part by elevated levels of stress and anxiety.
A study of Tibetan Buddhists in meditation and Franciscan nuns in prayer showed prayer and meditation increase levels of dopamine, which is associated with states of well-being and joy.
So, while perhaps our first impulse when we think about the Pope getting up at 4:00 a.m. each morning to pray is to think about his selflessness to pray for others and the concerns of the world, but another way to look at this practice is that for him it is one of radical self care.
A Vatican spokesperson confirms this when he said, “Morning prayer is where he meditates and really connects to God. His deep relationship to God is what allows him the freedom he has, what sustains him through the day, Before anyone comes in, before the (Vatican) secretary of state tells of him of any crisis, he connects with the Lord.”
So if prayer is good for our health, gives us a greater sense of well-being and joy, and helps us deal with the stresses of our day with increased ease, why wouldn’t we do it?
Well, perhaps prayer is one of those things that we feel we should do and even want to do but we aren’t quite sure how to go about it in ways that feel natural or meaningful or even necessarily spiritual. We know how to pray the Lord’s prayer and we hear the prayers being said in church, and participate in the prayer chain but maybe we never thought much about praying on our own or as prayer being anything other than a last resort when we really need something. It reminds me of a quote by Oswald Chambers when he wrote: “We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all.”
God wants prayer to be our steering wheel and not just a spare tire – at least scripture surely seems to lift up the importance of prayer to us over and over. In our reading from James today it reads, “Are you hurting? Pray. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.”
1 Thessalonians 5:17 Pray without ceasing
Philippians 4:6-7 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
These are beautiful Bible verses – and I think we all want to be people of prayer and have that peace that passes all understanding.
So it’s important to remember that prayer takes many shapes and there are a multitude of ways we can incorporate it into our lives, receive its’ benefits, and bless the world with our prayers.
One way is to get up early and pray just like his holiness. Lots of books have been written about the benefits of getting up early to take care of the most important things first. In the book Miracle Morning, it reads, “It’s been said that the first hour is the rudder of the day. If I am lazy or haphazard in my actions during the first hour after I wake up, I tend to have a fairly lazy and unfocused day. But if I strive to make that first hour optimally productive, the rest of the day tends to follow suit.”
My mornings have rarely been a good example of how to start the day. I love to sleep, I generally sleep as long as possible and then wake up, drink coffee, check e-mail and then bark at the kids to get ready.
Just in the last few weeks I’ve been trying this idea of getting up early and starting the day more intentionally. I haven’t gotten up as early as the pope but early for me and the practice has been very satisfying.
But if you can’t imagine the early morning thing, there are so many other places and ways to fit prayer into life.
One of my favorite has been during exercise – to walk and pray. At my church in Texas, the cemetery was huge and it was right out the front doors of the church, just like here and I would walk the perimeter of it and pray. There was a trail worn into the ground from how many times I had walked and prayed there and that became a very precious place and practice for me – especially as more and more people I loved were buried there and I would stop and visit their graves. Or if I was stuck on a sermon and I didn’t know what to write, usually if I walked a few times around the cemetery and prayed about it, my mind would start working again.
Some people pray in the car – many of us spend a lot of time alone in the car. Why not pray? It may be important to note here that what prayer is – is a conversation with God. We can do that with our eyes closed and our hands folded, but we can do it also with our eyes wide open and while we are doing anything.
I like how Frederick Buechner puts it, he writes, We all pray whether we think of it as praying or not. The odd silence we fall into when something very beautiful is happening, or something very good or very bad. The “Ah-h-h-h!” that sometimes floats up out of us as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the skyrocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds we use for sighing with over our own lives. These are all prayers in their way.”
So the most important thing to remember is to find a place and a way to pray –not how we do it. We pray and we keep at it. Be persistent in prayer.
And be open to the surprising ways that prayer will work in our lives. Miracles do happen every day, but prayer is not a magic charm. We can pray and pray and pray for rain but that doesn’t mean we won’t still go through months of drought. We can pray and pray and pray for healing to come but that doesn’t mean the healing will come when we want it to, or even on this side of the grave. We can pray and pray and pray for an answer but sometimes all we feel for seemingly far too long is deafening silence and confusion.
And when this happens – which it does – this confusing business of prayer can leave even the most faithful feeling disillusioned with the practice and wondering what good it does, wondering if it is really much different than hoping or wishing.
This is when we remember as John Heuss said, “Prayer is neither black magic nor is it a form of demand note. Prayer is a relationship.”
Keep praying. Keep praying because the world needs it. Keep praying because God wants to hear from you. Keep praying because you need it. Keep praying not because we will ever understand all its benefits but because of how the spirit can work in the beautiful mystery of prayer.
I felt that mystery this week when my son, Jesse, was having ear surgery. It was just a small surgery and he was fine – but as we sat in the recovery room afterward, a pastor friend stopped by to say hello, and before she left, she prayed for him, for us. It was so wonderful – I forget too often how precious it is to hear someone pray for me. To know that someone is lifting up my concerns, my hopes, my cares, my worries to God – it’s the most beautiful thing.
Keep praying for each other and for me, sisters and brothers. And know that each day, I pray for you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.