Prayer and the Courage to Heal

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June 1, 2011
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Julie Pelc Adler

This morning I received a text message from my Aunt Linda saying, “I am doing well… love being home after three weeks in the hospital and rehab.” I almost replied, as if on rabbinic autopilot, “I’ve been praying for your recovery,” but instead wrote, “I’ve been thinking of you a lot! You’re so strong!” Some might argue that my aunt was able to recover from the infection in her hip replacement, to heal from the surgeries to remove the new hip and clean the prosthesis, and to begin rehabilitation again because God heard the prayers of the many individuals and communities praying for her health and healing. But then, what about those who don’t have the strength or courage to persist — those whose infections, diseases, or disabilities pressed them past the point of healing? Does God deem them less worthy of renewed health? Do their families and friends pray less zealously? Aunt Linda replied, “Well, you have been my inspiration.”

Almost nine years ago (when I was 26), I was forced to completely relearn how to function after a brain aneurysm ruptured in my cerebellum. In addition to the open-cranial brain surgery and five weeks in the hospital and rehab, there were countless outpatient therapies and doctors working tirelessly to nudge me in the direction of healing. There were also rabbis, ministers, chaplains, friends, and family praying for my recovery: My rabbinic school classmates held healing services around my hospital bed; friends placed notes in the Wailing Wall for me; and the silent prayers of my worried family circled me like a protective salve. I am an ordained rabbi. I recovered and survived.

People tell me quite frequently that I am “a miracle,” which makes me shudder. Though I appreciate the sentiment, the theological implications are abhorrent to me. Were I to accept that I am worthy of being a “miracle,” I would also have to accept that the vast majority of young adults who die instantly from aneurysms are not. I do not want to be a miracle; I cannot believe in a God who would deliberately select individuals based on unknown criteria and “allow” them to survive calamities any more than I can believe in a God who would deliberately select individuals to suffer. And I do not believe that I survived merely because God was persuaded by the prayers of my friends and family. I don’t know that prayer “works” in that sense.

There are three ways that prayer can be effective. The one we usually mean when we say that prayer “works” is what might be called a prayer of intervention: If I can only pray the correct prayer, in the correct way, doing everything just so, God will do as I ask and grant my request. I do not accept that kind of prayer. At the other end of the spectrum is what some call “humanistic effectiveness.” This type of prayer elevates and inspires a community to action; it helps people bond and feel comforted in the face of suffering. We confront our own fears and awareness of mortality, appreciating the very tenuous and fragile nature of our human bodies. This type of prayer, I know, works. It can generate the very results it seeks. Between those two kinds of prayer is a huge gray area of possibilities. There might be a “metaphysical effectiveness of human agency” (“I’m sending you healing energy”) or any variety of responses from God (“God hears us and offers us compassion, even if God does not intervene to solve the problem”). And I don’t know yet what I believe about the many possibilities that inhabit this gray area.

I know I believe that prayers for healing can be transformative, even if only at the level of humanistic effectiveness. But I don’t think prayers are magic; I do not believe that prayers alone can heal, or that they can necessarily compel God to heal us. For that matter, I don’t even believe that healing is necessarily a complete return to life as it was before the accident, illness, or disability. Healing requires coming to terms with life as it is now: life with struggle (and sometimes chronic pain or discomfort), and life with the memory of what came before. Healing requires work, strength, and courage. Healing is a partnership among body, spirit, and soul — between humanity and the divine, the individual and the community.

To tell Aunt Linda, “I’ve been praying for you” would be inauthentic, not because I wouldn’t pray for her but because I couldn’t — not without explaining all of this, and clarifying all of the understandings about what I think it might mean to pray for someone, so that she would be clear on what I did and did not mean by what I said.

Since many people do not wish to hear — especially in a time of trouble — that prayer may not be effective in the way they think it ought to be, I am beginning to find that it’s best, in general, to just not say, “I’ve been praying for you” at all.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler will begin working at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in Chicago, Ill., this summer. She also serves as the director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism and the executive director of the National Organization of American Mohalim. She is co-editor of the anthology, Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, which was published by the State University of New York Press in 2003. She found deep personal and spiritual meaning writing and researching her rabbinic thesis on the book of Job: “Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People).”

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