Wednesday 26 April 2017

Breathing space: The power of prayer

You don't have to believe in God to pray

You don't have to believe in God to pray
You don't have to believe in God to pray
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

'Say your prayers' was a bedtime order when I was growing up. My grandmother was especially firm on this ritual, and had an uncanny way of knowing if you were counting sheep rather than reciting a Hail Mary.

I wonder if today's parents still tell their children to say their prayers. As we move away from organised religion and its rituals, many Irish people now describe themselves as atheistic, agnostic or 'spiritual' and, depending on the company you keep, the word 'prayer' can elicit everything from a raised eyebrow to an unashamed eyeroll.

We still tell the bereaved that they are in our "thoughts and prayers" when we write a condolence message, but I wonder if this is, for the most part, a convenient platitude rather than a genuine sentiment.

The new guard of spiritual-seekers avoid the words 'God', 'prayer' and anything else that harks back to the Angelus generation, and it's only a matter of time before these condolence messages are littered with more modern terminology.

The 'ask and it will be given to you' bible verse of our parents' era is now known as 'manifesting', while 'prayer' is better known as 'intention'. Even 'God' has gone through the euphemism treadmill - 'universe' seems to be the preferred term these days. Perhaps we'll soon tell our children to "make an intention" at bedtime.

Like most of my generation, I have my concerns about organised religion. However, I believe in God (that is to say my own interpretation of God) and I believe in the power of prayer… when I remember to.

I realised recently that I hadn't prayed in quite some time. There was no existential crisis or doubting of my faith. My attention had simply shifted elsewhere and prayers before bedtime had given way to late-night Netflix binges.

This dawned on me after a particularly hectic month. I got tied up in projects and became more and more aware of the loved ones that I had fallen out of contact with. I felt a gulf growing and I began to worry about the unacknowledged emails and unanswered phonecalls. I could have just picked up the phone to assuage my anxiety but praying seemed like the better option.

The Catholic school hangover used to surface when I prayed. I would begin with sentences like "Dearest oh goodest God, I cometh before thee..." before wondering why I felt compelled to use nonsensical, flowery rhetoric.

These days I just wish for my loved ones to be happy, healthy and peaceful, before imagining them being enveloped by a soothing white light.

Gandhi wrote that when prayer is "properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action". My interpretation of this is that a heartfelt 'thank you' is infinitely more effective than 10 mindless repetitions of the Our Father.

I also like to pray when I'm at sleep's antechambers. We go through alpha and theta waves just before we slip off to sleep and these stages, otherwise known as the gateways to the subconscious, make prayers, intentions, or whatever it is you like to call them, especially powerful.

I immediately felt unburdened after praying for the first time in a long time. At the simplest level, I had processed my thoughts, vocalised my intentions and allowed myself a quiet moment to reflect on the people that are dearest to me. An entrepreneur would call it 'goal-setting'; a psychologist would call it 'cognitive restructuring' and a yogi would call it a mantra. Again, it's all semantics.

The difference is that some people believe that they are communing with a higher power or divine being; some believe that they are communicating with their superconscious or higher self and some are simply cultivating a mindset of inner peace and creating a space in which to quietly contemplate. Prayer is effective, whatever your beliefs.

Still, many atheists dismiss the power of prayer. They believe that science and spiritual-mindedness are incompatible, while I believe that quantum physics is inching ever closer to the discovery of a unifying consciousness and a world in which terrestrial and celestial laws can coexist.

Though still in its infancy, the study of quantum entanglement - a phenomenon whereby two subatomic particles stay connected no matter how far apart they travel - may one day prove the power of prayer. Mystics call the unifying force the 'etheric cord'; scientists call it a mystery.

There is tangible evidence too. One landmark study proved that AIDS patients that were not prayed for by distance healers spent 600pc more days in the hospital and contracted 300pc as many AIDS-related illnesses.

A more recent study enlisted 36 couples to investigate short-term changes in a receiver's physiological state when their partner focused their thoughts on them.

It was observed that the receiver's skin conductance increased to a significant degree, while blood flow and perspiration changed within two minutes, when they were sent "loving, compassionate intention".

In the words of late physicist Max Planck, "when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change".

Three of the friends I prayed for that night, the same ones whose company I had avoided, got in touch the next day. An atheist would call it a coincidence. A spiritualist would call it a synchronicity. I prefer to call it an answered prayer.

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