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Chaplaincy, prayer, efficacy and mystery

Rabbi Gabbi Sar-Shalom

24 April 2018

We balance spirituality in a clinical world. Maybe we need to try to measure prayer, also. What are the clinical measurements of the efficacy or prayer? How can we (can we?) prove that prayer is doing good things? Spirituality cannot be measured on a graph, with clear verifiable objectives and outcomes. We who deliver it are not objective. We, too, suffer. We, too, are broken…

Salvation Army chaplaincy event keynote speaker Rabbi Gabbi Sar-Shalom is the pastoral care coordinator of Melbourne’s Caulfield Hospital; these notes are from her presentation: ‘Seeking connection with spirituality – prayer in chaplaincy.’ These notes are used with her permission.
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As a Jewish person invited to speak at a conference like this; I feel very connected to you, and I am honoured to be here today.

Prayer is undertaken: for me by me; for me by others; for others by me; in a group; and by a leader. What is your experience of prayer? In my tradition, synagogue is like gym for my soul, the corporate worship and fellowship.

Mystery is a part of life. We pray because we believe change is possible, but there are no guarantees.

As much as we’d like to be able to change and solve all the problems in the world… prayer is both a recognition of our hopes and faith, and of our limitations. We can’t do it on our own, we need divine intervention, but we can’t and don’t understand how it works.

Prayer is a fuel. Without our fervour and our urging, perhaps God will not act. Perhaps there is some mutuality at play. We feel God’s compassion through prayer. There is no suffering too strong or too great, as witnessed through the Christian tradition of Jesus as a healer.

There was some research done in 1983 by Wayne State University, who observed patients at the San Francisco General Hospital’s coronary care unit. People who received prayer were found to function better and fewer deaths occurred in their cases.

The neurological effects of prayer and meditation have been found to be long lasting. Prayer and meditation can be shown to actually change how our brains function, making us more receptive to gratitude and hope.

Perhaps we can see a rich prayer life as a good therapeutic idea. How expansive can we be about prayer? How wide and inclusive can we be about prayer? Can we still pray with and for people when they don’t share our outlook or beliefs?

Among the claims of US research in the area is that prayer can help us enjoy better mental health, and be less likely to suffer from depression and high blood pressure.

Prayer helped people make peace with their situation in life. In a clinical environment, that can mean they comes to peace with the prospect of ending their lives, rather than expecting a miraculous change in their physical health, or a change in their behaviours, or the instant removal of an addiction.

Prayer is practised in the hope that God is working through you to show you, and those you pray for, what compassion is… what care is.

We, in our roles, have to work with health professionals, social workers, police… everyone is a product of their own circumstances. Prayer is a way of we can imagine beyond those circumstances.

I wish I knew if prayer affected God’s compassion, or if it worked on us to do more, to feel more… it is a mystery.

The Salvos connect through prayer and practice, which is something that I admire. If I am not praying, and building my relationships with God, then I am not a full vessel that can be used to help others.

One thing that we can all learn from the Salvos is practical engagement. There are many good things that may come from those who sit in caves exclusively communicating with God. That creates energy. But my tradition sees prayer as a doing word: prayer and practice go together.

Perhaps prayer is us hedging our bets. We do need to be careful not to use prayer to offer false hopes. We need to avoid committing spiritual abuse against those we wish to help. But it is also a disservice to not offer prayer; to not offer some hope of improvement.

We need to ask God to heal people in whatever way is possible. We need the humility to recognise we are not the deciders.  ‘What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).   

Healing may take place emotionally or mentally or psychologically or physically or spiritually. Prayer is part of our preparation for life and part of our preparation for death.

Prayer calms, and de-stresses. It lowers blood pressure and slows heartbeats. Prayer helps us find optimism and hope, gratitude and peace and restoration. Prayer reaches the Spirit. Prayer is good for ‘them’, and it is good for us.

What are the clinical measurements of the efficacy of prayer? How can we (can we?) prove that prayer is doing good things? We don’t know, and we can’t know. But you don’t have to understand a gift to appreciate what it gives us.