Prayer and Healing Research

Anne Douglas was Chairperson of the Christian Fellowship of Healing [Scotland] for three years. Formerly a solicitor who specialized in mental health law she then took a part-time degree in complementary therapies. She currently works as a part-time administrator, practices reflexology treatments and works for a few hours each week for a charity that offers complementary therapies to cancer patients in the Fife area. She is interested in the ways prayer is being researched by medical and social scientists.

What is the Point of Prayer and Healing Research?


Since the 1980s there has been a growing interest amongst psychologists and medical science academics about prayer. Many of these studies have findings which are informative to those involved in the healing and prayer ministry. This research has tended to focus on prayer as a coping mechanism, on the relationship between psychological ‘types’ and preferred styles of prayer, and on whether there are health benefits linked to prayer. The latter include much-publicised clinical trials in the United States which sought to ‘test’ the efficacy of distant intercessory prayer, usually for those in cardiac or intensive care units.

Yet there can often be indifference, and sometimes hostility, towards research into what is seen as sacred territory. Certainly the attempt to ‘test’ the efficacy of intercessory prayer by methods usually reserved for the testing of drugs has been riddled with crude assumptions about the nature of prayer and of God (although He doesn’t usually get much of a mention) and these studies have met with considerable criticism from both scientists and theologians. However, it does seem to me that there is a growing body of research being carried out into various subjects that may have much relevance to those in the prayer and healing ministry.

I have also been struck by those who now refer to research in this area. For example, Jim McManus [1], a Redemptorist priest who has been involved in the healing ministry for over thirty years (and who spoke on healing and self esteem in 2007 at the Christian Fellowship of Healing), in the introduction to his new edition of ‘Healing in the Spirit’ cites the work of a number of key researchers [2] in the health and religion field explaining their findings that religious practices are linked to improved physical and mental health. He also highlights the fact that not only is research being carried out into an area long shunned by medical practitioners and scientists, there are also courses now being taught in medical schools in the United States which focus on the role of religious practices in health and well-being. Having acknowledged the great change that appears to be happening in the medical scientific world, Jim McManus rightly raises the question for Christians, “Are we now ready to respond to this change and enter into a new partnership between the Church and the medical world for the promotion of the true welfare of the sick?” [3] If the answer to this is ‘yes’, then it is essential to have some familiarity with the research in this area and to see its relevance to the work that we do.

It appears that the big, broad-brush studies which set out to establish efficacy between certain religious practices and particular health outcomes are now being replaced by more refined studies, which I find I can relate more easily to the work of CFH (Christian Fellowship of Healing). There are two levels to this:

• Firstly, there are various small-scale qualitative studies now emerging which generally focus on the experience, beliefs and feelings of those involved in prayer or other spiritual practice. Such studies, often concerned with the “subjective, intrinsic, interior... domains of human spiritual life” [4] are still in their infancy. I refer to one of these studies below, the experience of compassionate love amongst Trappist monks, and I see some of the findings and reflections in this paper as a potential source of new questions for CFH.

• Secondly, there are studies being undertaken which will yield factually helpful information for us – for example, the work of Professor Ladd (see below) and how it fits in with our work on prayer and movement.

The language of love

The type of research that I often find of greatest interest tends to be very modest, small-scale studies which are primarily empirical or investigative in nature. Their interest for me is that they may contribute to the process of looking afresh at healing or prayer, particularly because they approach the subject from a novel perspective and therefore can help us formulate new questions.

A good example of this is a small study of Trappist monks [5] which focuses on their understanding and experience with making choices involving compassionate love. The author, Lynn Underwood, conducted in-depth interviews with thirteen monks, aged between thirty-five and seventy-five. She asked them to focus on their daily experience of making such choices. Included were questions such as; ‘describe the internal process by which you make choices when confronted with a daily event calling for decision between self and other and calling for words or actions.’

At CFH the core of our work takes place in small groups that meet weekly, and five of the eight groups are open to anyone. Welcoming the newcomer is therefore central to the work of our groups which we see as offering healing through companionship, prayer, Bible reflection and meditation. However, finding language that describes the subtle processes that take place within our groups and that can give rise to healing can be difficult.

Interestingly, Underwood found that the monks did not use explicitly religious or theological language in most of their answers. Central features mentioned in interview included humility, trust, respect, unselfishness, receptivity, openness and detachment. Part of the interview also asked about practices that might encourage and sustain the expression of compassionate love. The sorts of things highlighted by the monks included developing a strong identity and awareness of who one is which doesn’t depend on other people, and spending time in quietness and solitude. Prayer was given as a key element to support compassionate love and spiritual reading was considered important to ground oneself in writings of wisdom. Added to these were community and relationships and particularly living in a community which supports the value of love. The author’s own comments in carrying out and reflecting on these interviews are very helpful. She notes how a comparable interview with students did not give rise to the complexity and insight that the monks articulated. Underwood also brings to the fore her own experience of the monks over a twelve year period. She comments on their listening with care and attentiveness to the details of her life and their remembering of these details on subsequent visits; ‘it was as if my concerns became his concerns’. She also highlights the way in which the monks conduct themselves in the detail of life, for example, how they answer the phone.

Whilst CFH obviously cannot emulate the intensity of monastic practice we do hope to be a community which supports the value of love. Reflecting on what the monks describe both in terms of their internal experiences and their views about what encourages compassionate love may help CFH to understand more clearly what nourishes its members and therefore what qualities we can bring to encounters with newcomers.

Moving Prayer

For several years now, our Chaplain Jenny has been offering day or evening workshops on Jesus’ Prayer in Aramaic. Last year, over four evenings, she facilitated a series entitled ‘Living More Fully’, teaching us to sing the words Jesus used in Aramaic when he taught ‘Our Father’ to his disciples. We were introduced to simple movements so that the essence of the words became a prayer in our bodies, not just our heads. This way of praying allows the words to be felt and experienced in our bones, muscles, circulation and nervous systems, which supports the natural balancing and immune systems of the body to work well and increase health and vitality.

A three year large-scale research project [6] which will finish in 2010, is researching issues directly relevant to this style of prayer. Professor Kevin Ladd will conduct three studies into the relationship between prayer and the physical body. In the first study, he will investigate how the body is positioned during various prayer acts. The second study seeks to discern any unique qualities associated with bodily movement (walking) during prayer. In a final study, relations between prayer and the body as a vehicle for sight and sound receive attention. As part of this work he is also interested in the benefit of prayer “tools” such as the labyrinth, and the role of physical experience during the act of prayer, for both the self and the observed others. It is likely that the findings of such research will not only provide evidence for the validity of the sort of work our Chaplain is offering in courses such as ‘Living More Fully’, but help give us more information as to why such ways of praying may be healing.

Transforming Our Struggles: Forgiveness

In the last few years there has been a surge of research into forgiveness (a good place to find out more about this is and some of this work appears very relevant to what CFH is doing. Jenny ran a series of courses called ‘Transforming Our Struggles’, on the themes of anger, fear and forgiveness (it is our intention to run these again). These courses were structured to give participants a basic understanding of the topic using current biology and recent psychology, and relating theology to both these disciplines. From a healing perspective, the purpose of the courses was to pray and meditate together, helping people find that which enables changes to their body, mind, emotion and spirit, and which provides a greater sense of potential and purpose to their lives.

Emerging research in the field of forgiveness is beginning to establish the dramatic alteration to biological and mental processes that forgiveness produces [7]. The findings from one study suggest that emotionally experiencing forgiveness will have a more direct effect on health and well-being than simply making a decision to forgive. [8]

So what then is the evidence about what may lead to forgiveness? A very recent paper [9] reviewed seven studies and found that people are more forgiving towards their transgressors if they see themselves as capable of committing similar offences. A person’s capability to forgive seems to be influenced by three factors: (a) seeing the other’s offence as less severe (b) empathic understanding and (c) perceiving oneself as similar to the transgressor. The authors reviewed report that forgiveness was more predictable where a person’s own offences were similar to the target offence in terms of both severity and type. The personal capability to forgive was more pronounced among men than women. Part of the challenge for CFH will be how we incorporate an understanding of such research into future courses or day events. However, it is very encouraging that the emerging research in this field seems supportive of CFH’s broad approach to healing, particularly its understanding of the importance of embodied experience, both as that which can block healing but also that which can bring healing, hence Jenny’s interest in and work with moving prayer. A study [10] which has yet to be completed, looks specifically at ‘embodied forgiveness’; how feeling scared, feeling like getting even, feeling sorry for someone else, and forgiveness relate to one’s health.


That research will continue to be published which has direct relevance to those involved in prayer and healing ministry is beyond question. Indeed there may now be a second phase underway of this type of research, where studies have become more refined, have learnt from some of the cruder assumptions of their predecessors and seem to be making an effort to be theologically sensitive. Whether those involved in the healing ministry become cognisant of this research remains to be seen. To ignore a body of knowledge which is directly relevant to our work seems myopic, not least because it may help us to ask new questions and therefore approach our work afresh.

A recent publication by NHS Scotland, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Interfaith Council entitled ‘Religion and Belief Matter – An Information Resource for Healthcare Staff'[11] helpfully utilises research linking religion and health. They acknowledge the troubled historical relationship between religion and science and offer this comment: “because religion and science both search for the ‘truth’, neither should fear the other. It is our hope that each of these disciplines, rather than competing or conflicting, will add to each other’s riches and depths.” Amen to that.


1 Jim McManus (2002) Healing in the Spirit
2 For example, Harold Koenig (1999) The Healing Power of Faith: Science Explores Medicine’s Last Great Frontier; Herbert Benson (1996) Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief
3 Page 14, Jim McManus (2002) Healing in the Spirit
4 Jeff Levin (2001) ‘God, Love, and Health – Findings from a Clinical Study Review of Religious Research, Vol 42:3, ?277 - 293
5 Lynn Underwood (2005) ‘Interviews with Trappist Monks as a Contribution to Research Methodology in the Investigation of Compassionate Love’ Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 35:3, 285-302
6 Kevin Ladd ‘Inward, Outward, Upward Prayer: Programmatic Research Development’ ?|52
7 Pietro Pietrini (2005) “Study of the Brain Functional Correlates of Forgiveness in Humans by Using Positron Emission Tomography (PET)”
8 Worthington EL Jr, Witvliet CV, Pietrini P, Miller AJ (2007) ‘Forgiveness, health, and well-being: a review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness’ Journal Behavioural Medicine 2007 Aug;30(4):291-302
9 Exline et al (2008) ‘Not so innocent: does seeing one’s own capacity for wrongdoing predict forgiveness?’ Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 2008 Mar;94(3):495-515
10 Charlotte Witvliet (no date) “Embodied Forgiveness: Empirical Studies of Cognitive Emotional & Physical Dimensions of Forgiveness-related Responses”. ?
11 Religion and Belief Matter - An Information Resource for Healthcare Staff (2007)

Website references were accurate when accessed on 13/10/08.

The Christian Fellowship of Healing, Scotland, sadly ceased in 2012. We have hosted their various writings here:
Anne Douglas, 28/06/2010
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