Ana Veciana-Suarez

Does prayer work the way we think it does?


Prayer, that unusually optimistic act of asking for divine favor, became part of pop culture not when presidential candidates began to boast about how they pray, and with whom. (Fake piety is part of the political scene, after all.) Truly, petitions slipped into the mainstream when some inspired techie came up with an emoji of clasped hands.

Capitalizing on collective prayer is now as easy as a tap on a smart phone.

So now every once in a while I get a text from a friend asking for support in the form of an official petition to the Almighty. Such a request invariably comes because of some difficulty —an illness, an accident, a family rift, a work mishap — and brevity and speed are highly prized:

Going for more tests. Pls send prayers. EMOJI.

Lately I’m left wondering if my supplications matter. In a world where data and analytics rule, where we’re tracked, traced, trailed, cookied, quantified and qualified, some continue to ask the age-old question: Does prayer matter?

Most of us have a long, and sometimes complicated, history with prayer. A product of Catholic schools, I can still remember the traditional ones by heart these many decades later. In fact, I know them, in two languages because we prayed in English at school and in Spanish at home. Though longer than the Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer was the first I mastered as a bilingual child and this probably had something to do with the comfort I derived from it.

My mother was a fan of the rosary, but I came to favor the Serenity Prayer for its message: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. These are words to live by, yes?

People tend to view prayer as an integral part of a religious practice, yet I know some people who attend neither church nor synagogue nor temple, who don’t identify with any particular religion, and are nonetheless quite spiritual. They, too, pray.

As a child I knelt bedside before bedtime and asked God to intercede in things that now seem trivial in comparison (my dog, my grades, my playmates), but these days my prayers tend to the informal, imitating the haphazard nature of my harried life. They’re now brief and to the point, even as I wonder about their efficacy.

When I married The Hubby, who is Jewish and certainly more religiously faithful than I am, I added a new set of prayers to the repertoire, some that spoke to me though they came in a foreign tongue that felt impenetrable. I do love the Sh’ma, the defining chant that praises the belief in one God.

Pope Francis, the newest rock star in the religious firmament, participates in a 170-year- old monthly prayer campaign in which he asks Christians to pray for a specific issue. Recently the Vatican launched a series of videos and an app to help devotees.

But even with this newfangled technology, a singular question persists: does prayer work?

Ten years ago a study of heart bypass patients showed it made no difference in the outcome between those who were prayed for and those who received nothing. This fact barely caused a ripple. We continue to pray, to plead, to entreat.

So maybe prayer is helpful not as a cure or remedy, or even as an antidote to the inevitable ills of life. Maybe prayer, with its familiar words and rhythm, is really another kind of medicine, a salve for pain and uncertainty.