Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.
Among liberal Friends today, many feel uncertain about how to pray for one another, or about prayers of petition or intercession. Many do not conceive of a divinity with whom one can have a personal relationship. Some feel the Divine is distant and does not intervene in human affairs, while others, in contrast, believe the Creator is already so well aware of the needs of the whole world that it is presumptuous to make specific requests. My personal experience, however, and the experience of Newtown Square (Pa.) Meeting, suggests that God wants us to pray for one another, indeed invites us to participate in divine healing of ourselves and others. In doing so, we come face to face with the Mystery in which we live, move, and have our being.
Newtown Square Meeting is a small, close spiritual family. During the six years I was a member, the meeting weathered a number of crises together and learned precious lessons about listening to one another—letting go of personal agendas, forgiving, discerning God’s will, and being gathered by the Spirit. There were usually no more than seven active members and attenders at any time. Together we studied Quaker texts and explored spiritual practices, shared meals and took trips. We knew a lot about each other’s lives, and there were many bonds of friendship among us. Our worship was often silent, yet it was spiritually nurturing and sometimes extended well beyond an hour. Over the years, we also learned the value of praying for each other.
In the early winter of 1998, we were deeply challenged when one of our beloved members, whom I will call Louisa, became painfully ill. An infection was eventually cured, but for many months a chronic pain persisted that was not healed by medical intervention. Some members of the meeting visited Louisa frequently, even daily, and played an active role in seeking appropriate medical help. Some of us talked and prayed with her on those occasions when she came to worship with us.
One Sunday when Louisa was too unwell to come, someone gave a moving account of the devastating effects of chronic pain on Louisa’s mental health. I prayed for her during meeting for worship that day with a new intensity and deeper willingness to offer myself for the sake of my friend’s healing. I am convinced this heartfelt prayer had a powerful healing effect—but it wasn’t the effect I anticipated. The day after that prayer, I sensed there was something seriously wrong inside myself, something that had been wrong for a long time, but to which I had not given much attention. I felt an urgent need to take a time of retreat in the country in order to begin attending to what needed healing within me. Days later I was spending time in woods and fields on a friend’s farm, being rejuvenated by spring blossoms, wide skies, silence, and solitude. During that time I came in touch with an abiding love for God and remembered the light shining at the core of my being.
I returned home with renewed energy, determined to help Louisa. At our business meeting the following day, Newtown Square Meeting agreed to schedule a special meeting for worship for healing. We planned to place Louisa in the center of a circle of prayer, hoping to help bring about a healing many medical professionals and pain clinics had failed to provide. Unfortunately, we were too late: Louisa died early the following morning, by her own hand. As it turned out, the renewed spiritual energy I had received during my brief retreat was used to pray with her loved ones. In the aftermath of her death, our meeting mourned together, prayed for Louisa’s soul, and asked questions about what had happened and why. We deeply regretted not having done more to help her.
Privately, I wondered why my prayer for her life hadn’t been answered. She hadn’t been healed in any way we could see. Instead, I felt as though the one who received healing in response to my intense prayer for Louisa was myself. I felt that God had intervened to transform me, helping me address destructive patterns that were contributing to my own lack of well-being. Inwardly a long, slow path toward healing was illuminated that required many changes over a period of years. I was shown that I needed to undergo major transformation and healing, reorienting my thinking about who I am, placing greater faith in God’s love and power, and honoring the Divine who resides within me, as in all things.
I’ve heard many people say they stopped believing in God—or at least in prayer—when their prayers for an ill family member went unanswered and the beloved one died. Our meeting was troubled by Louisa’s illness and death, but we did not stop praying. As a faith community, we continued to believe God was present with us and that it was important to pray for one another.
When we held a meeting retreat in November 2001, Louisa’s death was more than two years past. It was our meeting’s first overnight retreat in our memory. Nine of us drove one Saturday to Kirkridge retreat center in eastern Pennsylvania, where we had rented the Hermitage for one night. It was a bittersweet gathering, a wonderful opportunity to be together in a beautiful place, yet also a time of endings. Two of us would soon be stepping down as co-clerks of the meeting. I would be transferring my membership to a meeting much closer to my home, while the other co-clerk would be moving to another city. A small group would remain to shoulder the large burdens of caring for a meetinghouse whose oldest section had been built in 1711.
Though discussing various property issues was important, we nonetheless felt led to begin our retreat by making time for spiritual renewal, dedicating two hours for individual meditative walks in the woods. When we came together in front of the fireplace in the Hermitage afterward, we were glowing from having reconnected with nature and our inner lives. With pleasure we shared the stories of our meditative walks. Before we retired for bed that night, one member of our group urged us to pay attention to our dreams, telling us that someone might have a dream with relevance for the whole group.
That night I dreamed about a prisoner condemned to die soon. Somehow our meeting had a spiritual obligation to release this prisoner from death row. When we gathered around the fireplace in the morning and settled into silent worship, I pondered the strange dream I’d had and prayed to understand what message it might have for our group. I remembered how early Friends often spoke of the seed of God within each person, a seed that needs to be carefully attended in order to grow and flourish. They spoke of the seed often being imprisoned, crushed down inside people, oppressed. I wondered if this was the prisoner I had dreamed of, whom the meeting had a spiritual obligation to release. I prayed to understand how I might be oppressing and condemning that seed within myself.
Breaking a long silence, Doug Humes began to speak. Though he sometimes graces the meeting with a musical ministry of spontaneous piano compositions, in six years I had heard him speak during meeting for worship only a couple of times. He began by telling us about a friend from college years named Georgette. They’d lost touch for decades, but recently he had visited her in Texas, where he found her struggling in the aftermath of a divorce and battling cancer. As he recounted the painful treatments and losses she had suffered, Doug’s sadness was evident. He told us Georgette had nonetheless managed to keep a positive attitude through it all, caring deeply for other cancer patients she met. He reported there was now a tumor near the center of her head and explained that doctors were going to use stereotactic radiation—radiation coming simultaneously from more than one point. Doug’s voice became choked and he had to pause a long time before explaining that the procedure would require a metal device being fastened to Georgette’s head. Drilling holes in her skull would be necessary.
"I was wondering if we could try stereotactic prayer instead," he said. The members of the meeting were tremendously moved by Doug’s emotion and his friend’s situation. In silence, we began to pray for Georgette’s healing, sending simultaneous prayer from the several different "points" of the nine people present. We prayed for a long time, each in our own ways.
In my mind, I made a connection between Georgette and the prisoner on death row whom I’d dreamed about. Perhaps our meeting had an opportunity to release Georgette from the death sentence her cancer might represent. I wondered if there was some inner significance to Georgette’s tumor, located near what the Hindu tradition refers to as the third eye, an important site of spiritual perception. I imagined she might be a person of strong spiritual intuitions, which she may have learned to suppress or deny due to outside pressure and the desire to please others. I had never met Georgette, but that morning I felt led to pray for her as though she were myself. I placed an image of her face in my mind’s eye. I imagined smiling at her and beaming encouragement to let the Light shine. I imagined her pain melting away and her face relaxing in peaceful trust. I felt the Spirit guiding this prayer. The woman I saw in my mind’s eye seemed to grow more beautiful as I prayed. Loving her, I felt as though I were being shown how to love myself, and how to let myself receive the love and healing that comes from God.
Years before, I had felt the Spirit guiding my intense prayer for Louisa, though in a different way. The way to pray in each case seemed to be given to me. My prayer for Louisa had to do with my answer to a question posed to me in worship two weeks in a row: would I be willing to give my life for my friend’s healing? The first week this question was posed, my answer was no. The second week, out of a deep feeling of compassion, it was yes, and my prayer was to offer my life for her healing. I believe that my willingness to offer my own life for another is what led to my own healing.
Now, for Georgette, each person in the room was praying in a different way, all of us turning our hearts and minds to the Spirit for the sake of her healing. Possibly the many ways we had grown in response to Louisa’s illness and death increased our capacity to pray for Doug’s friend. After a long time, someone stood up, stretched out her arms, and spoke a prayer out loud. Not long after she sat down, I felt a sense of inner relaxation, as though our prayer (and the meeting for worship) were concluding. Then a sudden, powerful gust of wind whipped around the little building where we were gathered, sending fall leaves swirling at the windows all around us. Several of us felt intuitively that the gust of wind signaled that the prayer had been effective in an unusual way. Something real and powerful had just happened, something that called into play powerful forces of nature. Several of us believed the wind was a sign that a miracle had just occurred.
Georgette Peterson had not known that our meeting would pray for her. Nonetheless, that morning, while wandering through her house in Texas, she suddenly experienced a powerful feeling overcoming her, bringing tears. She wondered, "Where on Earth did that come from?" That evening, Doug called and told Georgette about our meeting’s experience, and she wondered if the prayer had been connected to that sudden feeling. In an e-mail she wrote: "It was so fleeting and so out of the blue and so uncharacteristic of me. So perhaps that was the time when all the energy and prayers were sent my way and I was simply momentarily overwhelmed without understanding the cause."
The next morning Georgette went to the highly respected Houston cancer center where her stereotactic radiation procedure was scheduled to take place. Diagnostic tests showed, however, that the tumor was now gone, so the procedure was canceled. That night Georgette e-mailed Doug with the unexpected good news: "I just got a call from MD Anderson. The neuroradiation doctor said there is no longer a reason for radiosurgery. He said . . . there is nothing to target. I’m pretty sure this is very good news!"
Though the stereotactic radiation procedure was declared no longer necessary, Georgette was later persuaded to undergo some general radiation "for consolidation purposes"—just to be sure there were no stray cancer cells lurking somewhere. Half a year after our meeting’s retreat, extensive tests were done that found no live cancer cells, and Georgette was declared to be in full remission.
Georgette writes: "I am a great believer in prayer and I feel that having been through the process of cancer twice in the last two years, along with a divorce at the same time, it is the people in my life and their prayers that have played a large role in my recovery. . . . I want people to know that this is real and true and that I completely support it."
When a story is told of a prayer that was answered (that is, in which a person received healing in the way requested), people often quickly cite cases of unanswered prayers. Does the fact that miraculous physical healing sometimes occurs mean there is something deficient in people’s prayers or faith when such healings don’t happen? This question causes discomfort, and it may seem easier just to deny that prayer can ever play any role in physical healing. However, removing illness and postponing death are not the only ways that healing can come to individuals who are ill. A Friend once told me about the illness and death of her son when he was a young man. She and her family and their meeting had prayed very fervently for a miraculous cure, which did not come. However, something else happened. Her son’s illness had severely tested his growing faith. Shortly before his death, however, when he could no longer speak, he wrote a note to his mother. It said, "God is good." He wasn’t able to describe his experience, but it’s clear that in some way he had received the gift of an inner assurance of God’s goodness.
Emotional and spiritual healing can happen in the midst of illness and death, even if there is no physical cure. The fact that miraculous physical healing sometimes does occur, however, gives witness to the existence of a divine power that is not limited by time, space, or physical laws. Georgette and those who were present at our meeting retreat believe we were participants in a healing miracle. Like believers throughout the ages in every spir-itual tradition, we experienced the movement of a Power that transcends time and space, a power that can remove illness and restore wholeness in an instant, a power residing in each person that can flow through us to one another and the world.
Although many such healing miracles were associated with early Friends—particularly George Fox—Quakers of succeeding generations have been reluctant to talk about them, or even fully to believe miracles can happen. Our modern science does not have place for events that operate outside of the physical laws known to us. Unfortunately, many of us have come to place more faith in the changing hypotheses of physical science than in the testimony given in scriptures of all religions to an unchanging spiritual power that transcends physical limitations. I believe miracles do not violate natural laws; rather, they operate according to laws little understood as yet by scientists. Prayer, faith in divine love, and openness to healing are all natural forces that have a role in such miracles.
Several years ago, I experienced a strange illness that caused my eyelid to droop and my eye to become inflamed. A series of doctors were baffled by symptoms that did not respond to the medications they prescribed. Cancer was suspected. One afternoon, after praying fervently for healing, I received a vision and a message, followed in subsequent days by a series of dreams. They indicated that the problem was not cancer, but a pseudotumor caused by inflammation, and that I would soon receive the medical help I needed. At my mother’s insistence, I traveled to Boston to receive the opinion of a highly respected specialist in the field. He thought I had a rapidly growing cancer and was not much interested in my dreams. However, unlike the previous surgeon I’d consulted, he said it was possible to operate on that sensitive area beside my eye without the use of general anesthesia.
In the midst of the operation, he sent a sample of tissue off for preliminary identification while continuing to remove more pieces of the growth. When the lab report came back saying it looked like a pseudotumor, not cancer, I reminded the surgeon that my dreams had been correct. As he continued to operate, he then told the story of a miraculous healing he had witnessed after the family of a little boy had refused the medical treatment he had recommended. They chose to treat the fast-spreading tumor with prayer alone. Not only did the tumor disappear, but bone that had been destroyed was completely healed.
"I’ve seen many such healings that happened when there was no treatment but prayer," this highly respected expert in his field told me as he continued to operate on his wide-awake patient. "I don’t recommend prayer as treatment," he added. "But if patients are going to do it anyway, I encourage them."
These days it is becoming more acceptable even for medical doctors to tell about miraculous healings they have witnessed and to affirm the role prayer can play in healing. My hope is that it will also become easier for Friends to acknowledge the reality of miracles and the power of intercessory and healing prayer. Whatever the reasons for Georgette’s illness, Newtown Square Meeting is grateful for the opportunity to have participated in her healing, and we give witness to the mysterious power of God and the importance of prayer. Such experiences convince me that Friends (and all people) are called to dedicate more of our time and hearts to prayer. Indeed, I suspect prayer may be the single most powerful way that we can, individually and collectively, help bring God’s healing to others and the world—both directly and through the action prayer prompts us to take.
Let us pray.