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Is It Healthy to Pray?

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By George Stavros, PhD

In the raising of children, parents come to appreciate how important it is to establish firm and gentle routines and rhythms of life.  These rhythms of life encompass and help to define things like mealtime, nap and bedtime, playtime, household chores, and time spent together as a family.  The wise and loving container provided by these rhythms helps a growing child, together with their caretakers, to develop the capacity for being aware of and regulating physical, emotional, and relational needs and well being.  These rhythms help provide a container for healthy development.

Research on Prayer and Health

Over the past twenty years, there has been a surge in research studying the connection between prayer and health.  Researchers such as Herbert Benson, Harold Koenig, Mitchell Krucoff, David Larson, and Kenneth Pargament have identified connections between prayer and improvements in mental health, recovery from illness, immune system functioning, blood pressure, and many other aspects of health.  Studies on intercessory prayer, or prayer for the well-being of others, have grown to the point that intercessory prayer in now classified as an experimental intervention by the American Psychological Association.

The Ecclesia on Prayer and Health

While these and other researchers continue to debate just what it is about prayer that impacts health in positive ways, the Ecclesia, or Mother Church, has quietly continued to offer to us and our children the ancient rhythms of faith that orient us towards healthy spiritual development.  In particular, the Ecclesia offers our children loving contact with every aspect of their being, physical, emotional, cognitive, sensory, perceptual, and relational.  And, the Ecclesia is unambiguous about the healing agent being offered through these ancient rhythms of prayer.  It is a relationship with the beloved Lifegiver, the Christ, the Son of God.  Given both the ancient and modern evidence that prayer is a profound resource for health on a number of different levels, how can we as parents be good stewards of our children’s prayer lives?  Here are just a few simple ideas.

The Eucharist

This Mystery is the Ecclesia’s communal, personal, and sacramental experience of God’s presence and kingdom.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann states that “Just as it is impossible to know God and not give him thanks, so it is impossible to give him thanks without knowing him” (The Eucharist, p. 176).  Our children’s presence and participation in this feast of gratitude offers a number of potential beneficial health side effects.  Our children can experience an increased sense of attachment to a community that is both contained and that transcends time and space.  They can participate in the healing and regulating flow of liturgical prayer and chant.  Their intellect can be stimulated, encouraged, and enlivened in contact with iconic and scriptural imagery.  They can participate in a sensory feast that includes incense, flowers, candles, bread, and sweet wine.

The Jesus Prayer

Modern researchers are clear in their consensus regarding the health benefits of contemplative prayer and meditation.  This ancient practice of the Ecclesia wraps the beneficial, repetitive structure of contemplative prayer in the presence and mercy of our saving Lord.  The steady recitation of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner” calls upon our Savior to bestow his healing, enlightening, and sustaining mercy and love on us.  Health side effects can include an increased capacity for emotion regulation, decreased levels of stress and cortisol secretion, and more regular heart rate and respiration.

Pray for Others (Intercessory Prayer)

Bringing this practice into the lives of our children invites them to be full participants in the Ecclesia’s mission of healing and mercy.  In this way, our children come to appreciate the synergistic healing power of prayer in calling upon God and the Saints on behalf of others.

The Eucharist, the Jesus Prayer, and intercessory prayer are just three specific examples of how our Orthodox Christian tradition of prayer can improve the health and well being of our children.  Each taps into ancient wisdom regarding the power of rhythm, repetition, and regulation as healing facilitators of our relationship with God the Trinity.  As stewards of our children’s prayer lives, we as parents—through the guidance of our spiritual fathers or parish priest—are called to both encourage our children to pray, as well as be models of prayer ourselves.  In this way, we bind ourselves to each other and to God in ways that provide solid foundations of deep health that remain even in the face of the inevitable storms and illnesses we and our children will face.

George Stavros directs the Counseling Psychology and Religion doctoral program at Boston University and has been on the clinical and training staff of the Danielsen Institute since 2004, currently serving as Executive Director.  His teaching and research interests are in depth psychotherapy, psychotherapy training, and Eastern Orthodox theology. He is a licensed psychologist and certified pastoral counselor and a graduate of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.