by Alexis Carrel, MD
This article on prayer and its effects was written in 1940 by a French surgeon and Nobel Prize laureate. Dr. Carrel was a devout Catholic, a medical doctor, a physiologist, who strongly believed in the curative powers of prayer based on his own observations all along his medical career. The article appeared first in Reader's Digest in 1940 and subsequently in other major journals of Europe. In its present form was published in 1944 by Librairie Plon in Paris.
Us westerners, consider reason far superior to intuition. We prefer intelligence over sentiment. Science shines while religion fades. We follow Descartes (1) and abandon Pascal (2).
At the same time we try to develop our intellectual activities, while neglecting almost entirely the activities that do not belong to the intellect, such as our moral sense, our beauty sense and especially the sense of the sacred. The atrophy (the vanishing) of these fundamental activities turns modern man into a spiritually blind individual. Such an infirmity does not allow him therefore to be a good constitutive element of the society. The decline of our civilization must be attributed to the poor quality of the individual. In all reality the spiritual is just as indispensable to the success in life as is the intellectual and the material. It is, therefore, important to revive in ourselves the mental activities that, more than the intelligence, give force to our personality. The most ignored of all is the sense of the sacred, or the religious sense.
The religious sense is expressed mostly through prayer. Prayer, like the sense of the sacred is a spiritual phenomenon. Now then, the spiritual realm is outside of our technical reach. How are we then going to acquire a positive knowledge of the prayer? The realm of science encompasses everything observable. And it can, by way of physiology, extend all the way to the manifestations of the spiritual. It is therefore by way of systematic observation of the person who prays that we will be able to understand what constitutes the prayer phenomena, its technique and its effects.
Prayer seems to be essentially an ascent of the spirit toward the immaterial substratum of the world. Generally it consists of a complaint, a cry of anguish, a call for rescue. Sometimes it becomes a serene contemplation of the imminent and transcendent principle of all things. We can define it also as an elevation of the soul towards God. As an act of love and adoration for the one from where comes the marvel that is life. In fact, prayer is man's effort of trying to communicate with an invisible person, Creator of everything that exists, supreme wisdom, power and beauty, Father and Savior of us all. Far from consisting of a simple recital of formulas, the real prayer represents a mystical state where consciousness is absorbed in God. This stare is not of intellectual nature, while at the same time remains inaccessible to philosophers and scientists, and like the sense of love and beauty, it does not demand (require) any scholarly knowledge. Simple people feel the presence of God like they feel the warmth of the sun or the scent of a flower. But this God who is so easily accessible to the one who knows how to love it is hidden to the one who knows only how to understand. Thoughts and words are inadequate when trying to describe it. This is why prayer finds its highest expression in a soaring of love that transcends the obscure night of intelligence.
How should we pray? We have learned the "technique" of prayer from all the Christian mystics from the times of St. Paul up to St. Benedict (3) and the myriad of anonymous apostles who, for twenty centuries have taught the people of the West spiritual life. The god of Plato (4) was too great to be accessible. The one of Epictete (5) was confused with the spirit of things. Yahveh was a Despot inspiring fear instead of love. Christianity on the other hand has brought God to man's reach. It gave him an image, a face; it made Him our father, our brother, our Savior. To reach God there is no longer need for complex ceremonials, blood sacrifices; prayer became easy and its technique simple.
To pray we only need to make the effort of reaching to God. This effort must be affectionate and not intellectual. Meditating about the greatness of God, for example, is not prayer, less being at the same time an expression of love and faith. According to the method of LaSalle (6), prayer starts with an intellectual consideration in order to become immediately affective. Whether it is long or short, vocal or silent, prayer must be like the conversation of a child with his father. We present ourselves as we are. In short we pray the same way we love, with our entire being.
The form of the prayer varies, from the short desire for God to the contemplation, from the simple words pronounced by the peasant during his hard work to the greatness of the Gregorian chant in the vaulted cathedrals. Solemnity, greatness and beauty are not necessary for the effectiveness of the prayer. Few people knew how to pray like St. John of the Cross (7) or St. Bernard de Clairveau (8). One does not have to be eloquent in order for the prayer to be answered. When we judge the value of the prayer by its results, our most humble words of supplication and praise seem just as acceptable to the Master of all as the most beautiful invocations. The formulas recited mechanically are in fact a form of prayer. The same as the flame of a candle. The dull formulas and the flame of the material candle are sufficient to symbolize man's impetus toward God. We also pray by action. It was said that the accomplishment of duty is equivalent with prayer. The best way of communicating with God is without any doubt to accomplish entirely His will. "Our Father...Your Kingdom come,Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.." And doing God's will means evidently to obey the laws of life, such as they are inscribed in our flesh, blood and soul.
The prayers that rise like great clouds from the face of the earth are different ones from the others just as the personalities of those who pray are different. But they consist of variations on two identical themes. It is entirely legitimate to implore the help of God for those things that we need. It is, however, absurd to ask for something that will only satisfy a capricious desire that we ourselves can obtain. The aggressive, obtrusive petition brings results. The blind man on the side of the road cried his supplications louder and louder, despite all the people who tried to quiet him down. "Your faith has healed you" said Jesus who was passing by. In its most elevated form prayer is no longer a petition. Man reveals to the Master of all that he loves Him, that he is grateful for all the things he was given and that he is ready to do His will no matter what that will is. Prayer becomes contemplation. An old farmer was sitting alone in the last pew of the empty church. He was asked "What are you waiting for?" "I am looking at Him" he answered, and "He is looking at me." The value of the prayer's technique is measured by its results. Any technique is good when it puts man in contact with God.
Where and when to pray? We can pray everywhere: on the street, in the car, on the train, in schools, at the office. But we pray better in the fields, in the woods, on the mountains, or in the solitude of one's own room. There are also the liturgical prayers that take place in church. But no matter the place of prayer, God does not speak to man unless man establishes peace inside himself. Physical and spiritual stillness are difficult to achieve in the noise and agitation of the modern city. There is a need to have places of prayer, preferably churches, where city dwellers can find, even for a short moment, the physical and psychological conditions indispensable for their inner peace. It would be so nice to have in the big cities, small islands of peace, welcoming and beautiful, where people would be able to, in raising their thoughts to God, rest their bodies and their spirit, clarify their judgment, and receive the strengths to navigate the difficulties of modern life.
It is by practice that prayer acts upon the character of the person. We must therefore pray frequently. Epictete said: "think about God more often than you breathe." It is absurd to pray in the morning and act as a savage the rest of the day. Short mental thoughts or invocations can keep man in the presence of God. Therefore, all our behavior is inspired by prayer. In this way, prayer becomes a way of life.
Prayer is always followed by a result if it is done in favorable conditions. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "No one has ever prayed without learning something." However, modern man considers the act of prayer as an obsolete, antiquated habit, a vane superstition, a remainder of barbarism. In reality, we ignore almost entirely the effects of prayer.
What are the causes of our ignorance? First of all, the infrequency of prayer. The sense of the sacred is on the way of extinction for the civilized man. Then, prayer is most of the time sterile because those who pray are mostly egotists, liars, Pharisees incapable of love and faith. Finally, the effects of prayer, when they happen, we miss them most of the time. The responses to our prayers and our love are generally slow, inaudible. The small voice that whispers those responses deep in our souls is easily chocked by the noises of the world. The results of our prayers are also obscured and they are generally mistaken for other phenomena. Very few people, even among the clergy, are able to observe them very precisely. The medical doctors, for lack of interest, do not pay attention to the situations that are at their disposal. On the other hand, those who observe are most of the time confused by the fact that the response is not always the one expected. For example, the one who asks to be cured of an organic illness remains ill but undergoes a profound moral transformation. Nevertheless, the practice of prayer, whatever it is among the general public, remains more consistent among the groups who remained true to the ancestral faith. It is among these groups that even today we can examine its influence. Among those effects, the medical professional has the chance to observe its, so called, psycho-somatic and curative effects.
1 Rene Descartes, (1596-1650), French philosopher and mathematician. Author of many philosophical treaties, the best known "Discourse on Method" where he said: "I am thinking therefore I exist."
2 Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French mathematician, physicist, Roman Catholic philosopher. Wrote influential works on philosophy and theology.
3 St. Benedict of Nursia (480 AD-543 AD), founder of Western monasticism, author of "The Rule of St. Benedict."
4 Greek philosopher and mathematician (428 BC-347 BC).
5 Greek, Stoic philosopher (50- 138 BC.)
6 St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719), French priest, educational reformer, founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools and patron of educators. Was canonized in 1900.
7 Spanish mystic (1542-1591), reformer of the Carmelite Order. Well known for his poetry and studies on the growth of the soul. Canonized in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII. Considered one of the Doctors of the Church.
8 French abbot (1090-1153), primary builder of the reforming Cistercian Order. Canonized in 1174 by Pope Pius VIII and given the title "Docto
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