Book Review -- Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine by Larry Dossey, MD

Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1993

291 pages; $22.00

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All of us who are involved in providing comfort and strength for people afficted with AIDS ought to think about the power of prayer and the practice of medicine. Thanks to Larry Dossey, MD, we now have the means to consider this connection.

In his book Healing Words, this physician-author shares a wealth of knowledge. In some instances, he cites findings from other sources. But Dr. Dossey also permits us to gain insights from his own experience of responding to the needs of a multitude of patients who have turned to him for help in the midst of an illness-provoked crisis.

Not at all surprising, among his patients have been men and women who have manifested great faith in God, as well as those who have displayed either a lack of theological belief or some ambivalence when they have wondered if a Supreme Being has been an active presence in their lives.

Inasmuch as there is a perception that medicine and religion are not necessarily allied, Dossey offers a significant observation early in the book--namely that in some 15 to 20 percent of cases, there is advanced healing when the patient and others have prayed for divine assistance. It is within this context that Dossey, whose practice is in Santa Fe, New Mexico, writes, "Prayer says something incalculably important about who we are and what our destiny may be."

Relying upon reports from the world's many and diverse religious communities, the author provides us with examples of instances when prayer has seemed to induce medical "miracles" brought about by mystical and/or saintly individuals who have given evidence that the Divine has not only dwelt within them but that the spirit of God dwells in all of us, too.

Thus, physical health and spiritual achievement become interrelated in a way which appears to be mysterious to most of us--be we physicians or clergy!

As a result of maintaining faith in God, it seems that those who are ill are able to accept the negativity of pain and suffering and to transform it into something positive. So, when relying on prayer as a healing instrument, these patients become focused, authentic, genuine, and accepting of their fate. And, simultaneously, they give evidence of having a power which may even enable them--and their physicians--to cause the regression of life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer.

This prompts Dossey to posit a theory and to explain in some detail a number of prayerful techniques that seem to have some efficacy, including certain kinds of therapeutic touching, transpersonal imagery, remote sensing, and the bringing on of telesomatic events.

Next, the author asks his readers to consider the connection between prayer and the unconscious mind, so as to look at both psychological and physiological reasons why faith and prayer might cause extraordinary healing to occur.

Nevertheless, beyond that which is reasonably explained, he does have us explore such matters as the nature of prayer itself and the kinds of prayer which seem to have unexpected potency.

And, given that love is intimately related with health, it can be concluded that both human love and God's love enable some patients to recover, even when reasonable explanations fail to describe what has occurred.

Dossey then turns to his medical colleagues with a message: "The belief of the physician may somehow bring about improvements."

It is essential, he argues, that each member of the "healing team" has a clear understanding of his or her own theological concepts, and members must tap into their own spiritual resources as often as possible.

The balance of this enlightening and well-written book helps us to examine prayer from a scientific point of view, to read research evidence that clarifies the link between prayer and healing, and to have a better understanding of the essence of healing itself.

It seems to me that we have a manifold responsibility: to acknowledge the extent of our own faith (or the lack thereof), never to dismiss the idea that belief and healing are interwoven, and to encourage those who seek divine intervention to reach deep into their hearts, minds, and souls for assistance.

A reading of this book will help us--and them--along the way toward understanding.

Rabbi Allen I. Freehling was the founding chair of the Los Angeles County Commission on AIDS. He is a member of the AIDS Project Los Angeles board and the Reform Movement's Committee on AIDS, and is a trustee of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care.