What is the value of prayer? For a person of faith, this can seem like a non-starter question as the answer would often be that prayer is engaging in conversing with Gd. Yet, I think most of us continue to ask this question, even if the actions we take appear to express the implicit value of prayer. In our current world, this question has also found itself being engaged in by scientific research. While research in prayer is challenging as it relates to setting up controlled experiments and defining what prayer means, it is still an area of exploration.
Much has been spilled about the “power” of prayer as it seems like an elusive answer. There was a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, “The Science of Prayer” that engages some of the current scientific observations about the value prayer can offer in our lives. The timeliness of this piece is on display in the following reflection:
“There may still be some atheists in foxholes,” says Kenneth Pargament, a professor emeritus in the department of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who studies how people use religion to cope with major life stressors and trauma. “But the general trend is for the religious impulse to quicken in a time of crisis.”
A fundamental value of prayer is in how it can be a method we use to cope with trauma and crisis. One way Jewish communities express this practice is via the inclusion of the recitation of extra chapters of Psalms or other prayers outside of the formal prayer structure. While there is a hope and wish that the prayers result in a positive outcome, there is clearly an element of prayer that is most focused on the recognition about our not being in control. As an example:
“This is what prayer can do,” says Amy Wachholtz, associate professor and clinical health psychology director at the University of Colorado Denver, and lead researcher on the meditation study. “It lets you put down your burden mentally for a bit and rest.”
Prayer allows for a pause. It can also be seen as a means of connection to others, as in the following comment:
Prayer can also foster a sense of connection—with a higher power, your environment and other people, including “the generations of people who have prayed before you,” says Kevin Ladd, a psychologist and director of the Social Psychology of Religion Lab at Indiana University South Bend.
I think the idea of prayer as connection to others is something to emphasize in this moment of physical distancing and semi-isolation. Through prayer, we can find an approach of continued engagement with community even when we are not within the physical space of the others in our community. Regardless, as this piece expresses, prayer has multiple functionalities that are of value throughout life, during moments of crisis and moments of calm. Prayer is a method of self-care and communal connectivity.