Studies and journalistic stories purporting to provide empirical demonstration of the medical benefits of prayer—or, as in the case of this study in this morning’s Washington Post, studies and stories that set out to disprove such benefits—seem to miss the point in an important way, and may cause us to misunderstand the nature of prayer. We should never take seriously the idea that prayer can be subjected to this kind of test—not because we have reason to fear that it will fail, but because such tests measure the wrong things. Indeed, it can be an even greater danger when prayer "passes" such tests, if such "success" serves to entrench us in the very misunderstanding from which prayer is meant to liberate us. A much better account of the matter was given by C. S. Lewis in his Letters to Malcolm as follows:
I have called my material surroundings a stage set. In this I can act. And you may well say "act". For what I call "myself" (for all practical, everyday purposes) is also a dramatic construction; memories, glimpses in the shavinglass, and snatches of the very fallible activity called "introspection", are the principal ingredients. Normally I call this construction "me"’ and the stage set "the real world".
Now the moment of prayer is for me — or involves for me as its condition — the awareness, the reawakened awareness, that this "real world" and "real self" are very far from being rock-bottom realities. I cannot, in the flesh, leave the stage, either to go behind the scenes or to take my seat in the pit; but I can remember that these regions exist. And I also remember that my apparent self — this clown or hero or super — under his grease-paint is a real person with an off-stage life. The dramatic person could not tread the stage unless he concealed a real person: unless the real and unknown I existed, I would not even make mistakes about the imagined me.
And in prayer this real I struggles to speak, for once, from his real being, and to address, for once, not the other actors, but — what shall I call Him? The Author, for He invented us all? The Producer, for He controls all? Or the Audience, for He watches, and will judge, the performance?
Prayer is, then, nothing less than contact with Reality, an activity that reorients and reframes the things we experience, and instructs us as to their real meaning. Who would seriously prefer the make-believe of greasepaint to the unfeigned beauty of nature? And then go on to subject the latter to the test of the former?
Of course, Christians are not gnostics, and prayer is not mere meditation. Christians ask God, person to person, for specific things, and sometimes those things are granted. One cannot know with any certainty the reasons for any particular response. But one should feel confident that the answers are meant, not to demonstrate the instrumental power of prayer, but to point us toward a Reality that is quite different from (though lovingly interested in) what’s happening on stage.