Praying for Healing - The Challenge
Chapter 5: Praying for Healing - I
Over the years I have noticed with interest how God has led various people who are gifted in the healing ministry to pray in different styles. Ian Andrews, Monsignor Michael Buckley, John Wimber, Trevor Dearing, and the Jesuit Linn brothers, all have their own style of praying. The Holy Spirit leads no two people to pray for healing in exactly the same way. The important thing is that we pray as the Holy Spirit guides us.
Having said that, we can recognise that there are certain general rules which experience shows
are normally helpful or indeed necessary when praying for healing. So in this chapter I shall attempt to formulate
some of these in the form of general guidelines.
Clearly it is highly desirable to prepare ourselves when possible through prayer (and perhaps fasting) before going to pray with a sick person or participate in the ministry in a healing service. What happens or does not happen when we pray with a sick person can be as dependent or even more dependent on the prayers we say beforehand, as on the prayers we say at the time. Sometimes, of course, we are asked to pray with someone without warning, so we cannot consciously pray for that particular person beforehand. But people specially involved in the healing ministry of prayer will normally pray daily for their healing ministry in general, so that when they are suddenly called upon to pray with someone unexpectedly their ministry has already been commended to the Lord.
One very remarkable and unusual example of prayer preparation for the healing ministry was the late J. Cameron Peddle, who helped greatly to pioneer the healing ministry of prayer in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Before he started praying for healing with people, he prayed for one hour a day for five years to prepare himself for this ministry. No wonder miracles started to happen when he began to lay hands on the sick!
However, it is not only good that we ourselves pray for the healing of sick persons before we visit or are visited by them. Perhaps far more important is often asking other people to pray (and perhaps fast) for them and their healing. Frequently before I am going to pray with a sick person I telephone around to several people asking them to pray, or I ask all the members present at a prayer group to pray. Over and over again I have found that when more people are supporting with prayer, more good things seem to happen in the healing ministry.
So a key element in all healing ministry is to try to get sufficient prayer backing. The intercessors
behind the scenes may sometimes do far more for healing than those who lay hands on the sick. One can but commend
the example of the London Healing Mission which has a group of over 700 registered intercessors who pray daily
for their healing ministry and who each receive every month a list of five names to pray for especially. There
are also the lists of sick people to be prayed for in many parishes, which encourage praying for healing.
A weakness of much healing ministry is the lack of praise and thanksgiving. In 1 Peter 2:9 we read that we are 'a people set apart to sing the praises of God' and the psalmist says: 'I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth' (Psalm 34(33):1). Sometimes when there is sufficient praise, people get healed in spirit, mind, or body without even asking for healing. At other times a person's sickness only begins to improve when the healing team's or congregation's praise increases - I remember seeing a lady's foot visibly improving as members of our healing team praying with her gave themselves to inspired and lengthy praise. (Her foot began shaking strongly - shaking is frequently a sign of healing - and afterwards she found that she had greater mobility in the foot.)
Some people at a healing service or session mistakenly think that the period of praise at the
beginning is a kind or hors-d'oeuvre before getting down to the really serious business of praying for healing.
This view is profoundly mistaken. Nothing is more important than praise and thanksgiving when we are praying for
healing. Praise is the only right setting in which to undertake this ministry. Our intercessions should be shot
through with praise and thanksgiving. We should not praise God in order that people may be healed. We should praise
him because that is the right thing to do in any case, praise him whether people are healed in body or not. However,
as our praises ascend his blessings descend, and they will include healing in one form or another. The emphasis
should be on praising and thanking God and Jesus with all our hearts, minds, and souls. Praising God is a fulfiling
of the first commandment.
It is also good not only to praise but also to pray for protection at the beginning of a healing service or session. When we are praying for healing we may find ourselves involved in spiritual warfare. In a healing service or session there is not only the possibility of good things happening, there is also the possibility that things may go wrong, although this happens only very rarely in my experience. So it is important to pray for protection for everyone involved: those praying for healing, those being prayed with and everyone else present.
I often use the following prayer: 'Jesus, through your Precious Blood, protect us from all harm, evil, and attacks of the devil now, at times of special difficulty or danger, and for evermore. Amen.' I also make the sign of the cross, which can be a powerful form of protection. I also sometimes use holy water.
Although it is wise and right to pray for protection at the beginning of a healing service or session, this prayer should not be over-emphasised or take too long.
When we pray with people for healing we should pray for the healing of spirit, mind, and body, for they are closely inter-related. Whatever affects one of these parts of our being has an influence of one kind or another on the other two. The holistic approach is spreading increasingly in modem medicine, where the tendency is to look more at the whole person and not just at the separate parts.
This approach means that we do not like praying only for the health of the body. I normally start
by praying for spiritual and mental or emotional healing before I pray for the well-being of the body. This seems
to be the right way round, not only because spiritual healing is the most important area of healing, but also because
spiritual and mental or emotional sickness quite often cause physical sickness - and quite often the physical healing
will not take place until people have been healed at the other levels.
Sin is spiritual sickness. And since we are all sinners, we all need further spiritual healing. Repentance is the door which opens the way to receive God's forgiveness and spiritual healing. Thus in the healing ministry we often need to lead people in the way of repentance. On many occasions I have helped people to make an act of repentance and not infrequently this has ended with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. People often look on repentance as something negative, gloomy, unpleasant. We need to show people that repentance is on the contrary cleansing, healing, liberating, life-giving, joyful!
After repenting we should pray for the virtues we need, for example, for the gift of forgiveness,
humility, charity, patience, faith, hope, or love. Jesus said: 'Ask, and
it will be given you, seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you' (Luke 11:9). So we should go on asking for the virtues we need,
believing not that we shall become perfect in this life, but that we shall by the grace of God grow in that direction.
A major weakness in the life of prayer of many Christians is the failure to listen to God. Prayer should be a dialogue with God. All too easily it becomes a monologue, and God can hardly get a word in edgeways. The boy Samuel said: 'Speak, for thy servant hears' (1 Samuel 3.10). We often only say: 'Listen, Lord, your servant is speaking.'
Listening to God is especially important in praying for healing. If we do not learn to listen to God, we shall often not know what to pray for. We should listen not only to what the sick person has to say but also to what God is telling us - and the two do not always coincide. We should pray for the gift of discernment, for without it we shall sometimes misunderstand both the person and the situation, give unhelpful advice, and pray partly for the wrong things.
How do we listen to God? Place the sick person, their needs, and situation in God's hands, ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten us, and then listen, preferably in silence. God may answer in different ways. He may clarify our thinking processes so that a situation which seemed confused becomes clear. Or we may get a 'word' coming into our minds, for example, the word 'father', which might indicate that we should pray for someone's relationship with their father. Some people get mental pictures, which can give direction to their prayers. Needless to say such 'words' and 'pictures' or impressions are not infallible and have to be tested. But in my experience in our healing teams, these insights are normally of real help.
Some Christians with gifts of healing are given these 'words' - we usually call them 'words of knowledge' - in healing services. They will feel that God is healing or wanting to heal someone present with a particular complaint, such as a sick right knee, or lung trouble, or deafness in the left ear, or a bad back, or depression. When or if it is appropriate the person who receives the 'word' will announce it publicly, and frequently these 'words' are confirmed as the sick person in question makes him or herself known and if necessary comes forward to be prayed with for healing. Sometimes the person who has been given the 'word of knowledge' also receives additional precise information about the sick person in question, for instance their age or work. I remember one 'word of knowledge' in our Cockfosters prayer group in which it was said that a person with a particular sickness worked with legal documents - and this was confirmed later.
'Words of knowledge' are not
limited to the realm of healing. A 'word of knowledge'
was once given out in our Cockfosters prayer group saying that someone present who was experiencing a sensation
in their right thumb and forefinger was intending to refuse to undertake some task, but that God wanted them to
accept it. There was present a woman who had been invited by her parish priest to become an extraordinary minister
of communion. She had said 'Yes' to the invitation
but on returning home she had had second thoughts and had decided to return to the priest to tell him that she
had changed her mind. As this 'word' was being
given out she was feeling a sensation in her right thumb and forefinger - which one uses of course for giving out
communion. So she recognised that God was speaking to her through this 'word
of knowledge', and today she is an extraordinary minister of communion.
There are several ways. For physical sickness the most common way is probably that of feeling ci pain or sensation in one's own body when God wants to heal someone else with a sickness in the same part of their body. So receiving a pain or sensation in one's left hand could indicate that God is wanting to heal or is healing someone's left hand. Another way is the receiving of a mental picture of a part of the body which God is healing or wants to heal in someone. A third way is through a word or sentence coming into one's mind, for instance, 'left elbow' or 'arthritis in the left elbow'.
An increasing number of Christians seem to be receiving the gift of 'words of knowledge'. What are we to think of this? Since many people are
clearly being helped and healed by Jesus through the exercise of this gift, we obviously should in general welcome
it - and even in a guarded way encourage its wider use. However it is very important that at the same time it should
be carefully tested and exercised under control. Only people with a tested and approved gift of the 'word of knowledge' should be allowed to exercise it in healing
services or sessions, for mistaken or unwisely used 'words of knowledge' can do real harm.
Basically, we should pray with the words the Holy Spirit leads us to use - and no two people will be led in exactly the same way. There are no magical formulas. Having said that, we can however make certain general suggestions.
As I wrote earlier, it is good to start with praise and a prayer for protection. This can be
followed by repentance for we are all sinners and we all need to come before God in repentance. Failure to repent
can block the healing power of Jesus for he answers the prayers of the humble not the proud. The person, their
sickness, and circumstances can be offered to God, asking that his perfect will may be done in them. I often follow
this with the Our Father, where we say 'Your will be done on earth as it
is in heaven'. Then one can pray that God will bless and heal the sick person. This can
be followed by praise: indeed it is good to intersperse praise and thanksgiving throughout the healing session.
People who have the gift of tongues will usually use it much during a healing session, for it can be a great help when praying for healing. Indeed I personally would find it difficult to pray over someone for healing without praying in tongues. However, praying aloud in tongues could be off-putting for people not used to it. So I often pray over a sick person silently in tongues rather than aloud. It is also important to add that people without this gift are not thereby 'second class citizens' in the healing ministry. I know people with very powerful healing ministries who do not speak in tongues - and I do not think Padre Pio spoke in tongues. However, I also know people whose healing ministries increased in power greatly when they received the gift of tongues.
There should also usually be periods of silence when we are praying for healing. We normally need times of quiet to wait on the Lord and listen to him. 'And in praymg do not heap up empty phases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words' (Matthew 6:7). The healing ministry of quite a few people would gain if they gave a greater place to silence and to the listening which goes with it.
Some Christians when praying for healing pray especially to the Father, for example, Monsignor Michael Buckley who has written very beautifully about this in his excellent book, His Healing Touch (Collins, Fount Paperbacks 1987). Other people tend to pray more directly to Jesus - I include myself in this group. John Wimber and those who have been influenced by his style of ministry tend to call much on the Holy Spirit to come, which I increasingly do myself. (Of course they all pray to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But there can be different emphases.) In this matter I think Christians should pray as the Holy Spirit leads them, but all will normally want to bring into their prayer the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
Catholics will also surely want to ask Our Lady, the saints and the angels to pray for the healing of the sick - I myself always like to include a prayer to Our Lady. However, this should remain definitely secondary to praying to the three divine persons. And it is good to remember the words of Our Lady in Medjugorje who said that it is Jesus not she who heals. Our Lady herself is not pleased if we try more or less to put her on the same level as Jesus.
It is usually good to read one or more passages from the Bible, for example, Psalm 5 1(50)
for repentance, Psalm 23(22)
for hope, or a psalm of praise like Psalm
A number of years ago now, a man came to see me with a very bad breakdown. I prayed with him frequently over a considerable period, and I gave him a list of passages from the Bible, some of which I suggested he might find helpful to read from time to time. To my surprise, he started reading them all every day, and he kept this up for a few years. He called the passages 'My Office'. In fact, after a time he could recite most of them by heart. I am sure that this daily Bible reading played an important part in his recovery. Although he is now no longer ill, he still reads or recites some of these passages regularly.
(For anyone who is interested, the following were the passages I gave him, as far as I can remember:
When I pray for healing I normally pray for the healing of spirit and mind before I pray for
the healing of the body. I often ask Jesus to fill the whole person with the healing light of his love. And I wait
as I see or imagine with my mind's eye, so to speak, the healing light of Jesus filling the person, and especially
filling any part of the body which is sick. However it is important to say that healings are not dependent on our
feelings or imaginings. Sometimes when all I am feeling is tiredness, unbelief, unworthiness, and the desire to
finish the healing session quickly more healing seems to happen! Jesus is Lord. And healings take place when and
how he wishes, not when we feel great or on form!
I also normally ask someone I am praying with whether they feel anything. They quite often say that they are feeling peaceful, perhaps very peaceful. They may also say that they feel they are experiencing warmth or heat going through their whole body or through the part of the body which is being prayed over. They also sometimes talk of tingling or glowing sensations or an electric-like force going through them.
Occasionally they say they are feeling cold or that a part of their body feels cold. They often say that they feel nothing. They may very occasionally even say that they feel worse!
Sensations and feelings of the kind described above can help to guide us in our praying with
people. For instance if someone feels nothing in their right knee when I pray over it and considerable heat in
their left knee, then I will probably concentrate my praying on the left knee, since more seems to be happening
there. However, it is important not to attach too much significance to feelings and sensations, or to become too
fascinated by them. People can be healed while feeling nothing. And people can remain sick after experiencing much
heat or other sensations. As to those who say that they feel worse, sometimes a sharper physical pain is a sign
that healing is taking place. Usually the pain disappears or diminishes after a moment.
Jesus frequently laid hands on the sick when he healed them:
Jesus also encouraged his disciples to lay their hands on the sick: 'And these signs will accompany those who believd they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover' (Mark 16.:17). This is what we find happening in the Acts of the Apostles: 'Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles' (Acts 5:12). 'So they (Paul and Barnabas) remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands' (Acts 14:3). 'It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysen teiy,' and Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him' (Acts 28.8).
Laying hands on the sick is not only following the New Testament practice. It is also a natural
human reaction. If a child bangs his or her knee the mother will often spontaneously put her hand on the hurting
knee. Indeed a person who has banged their knee will frequently put their own hands on it. For whatever reason
the laying of a hand on a hurting knee or on a feverish brow can be a help. It is of course an expression of sympathy,
but there seems to be more in it than that.
Many Christians involved in praying for healing have found that often more healing happens when they follow the New Testament practice of the laying on of hands. It is especially when hands are laid on that sick people experience such things as the healing heat mentioned in the last section. Indeed, not being able to lay on hands can be something of a barrier to being able to help someone.
It is normally good to lay hands on the head of a sick person, either standing behind them or to the side of them. Or if this would be rather off-putting one can simply take hold of someone's hand or hands, or put one's hand on their shoulder.
Experience shows that it is usually good when possible to place the hand on the sick part of the body - as Jesus laid his hands on the eyes of the blind man in the quotation from Mark 8 above. It is not of course necessary to place the hand on the skin of the sick person. If I am praying for an arthritic shoulder I would normally ask someone to take off their jacket or coat, but this would be enough.
Needless to say, it is important not to embarrass the sick person, and the person praying for
healing needs to be sensitive in this matter. It is also essential not to give people an opportunity for gossip.
Perhaps partly for these reasons, some Christians in the healing ministry place their hands near the sick person
rather than on them. Doubtless this can be the right thing to do in some circumstances, but I personally prefer
to follow the New Testament practice of laying hands on the sick rather than near the sick. If a woman has an illness
of the abdomen or a cancer in the breast, a man praying for healing can ask the woman to place her own hands over
the sick part and can place his hand over hers. Obviously it is important to avoid anything unseemly.
Frequently people are suffering from an illness because in one or more ways their life-style
is very unwise. It may be a matter of smoking, alcoholism, or other drugs, over-eating, or eating the wrong things,
being a workaholic, lack of exercise or sleep, sexual indulgences or unnecessary stress. In these cases it is obviously
not enough to pray for the healing of the physical illness - one needs also to pray for the healing of the life-style.
So if someone is suffering from a bad chest and smoking forty cigarettes per day, clearly one needs to pray also
for the healing of addiction to nicotine - and for healing of the inner hurts which may lie behind the addiction
- and perhaps also for the healing of the whole situation in which the person is involved.
There is surely something wrong in a person asking god to heal their illnesses and not trying
to do anything about healing the bad life-style which causes them. Healing miracles are not meant to be a substitute
for sound living. I think the whole area of diet is a field in which this obviously applies. Many people are over-eating
or eating and drinking the wrong things - and making no or little effort to change these habits.
I have in front of me a Guide to Healthy Eating, produced by the Health Education Council and distributed freely by our local borough. Right at the front of the guide it makes the following five points, which are developed in the rest of the booklet: 'Cut down on fat, sugar, and salt. Eat more fibre-rich foods. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Go easy on alcohol. Get plenty of variety in what you eat,' How many people are simply ignoring the advice contained in this booklet? How many priests are probably shortening the length of their active ministry by eating too much or the wrong things and by not taking enough exercise? Only yesterday I was speaking with a priest under sixty whose health has cracked up because, so he told me, he was overactive and ate unwisely. Why wait until one has had a stroke or a heart attack before eating sensibly and taking enough exercise? I know a priest who had to have open-heart surgery when he was about sixty. Now he lives a rigorous life of no smoking, and carefully planned diet and exercise. What a pity he did not get on to a healthy regime before he had the heart attack!
Health is a great gift from God. To live healthily as far as we reasonably can is surely an expression of gratitude to God and an expression of the right kind of self-love. Obviously it is right sometimes to risk or sacrifice it for a good cause, as many missionaries have done. Also we must avoid an excessive concern for our health. But to neglect or abuse our health unnecessarily is not pleasing to the God who created us, and gave it to us.
Living healthily involves being disciplined and making sacrifices and can be, I think, a very suitable form of asceticism in our age. There is a Benedictine monastery at Pecos in the USA where all the monks and sisters are involved in the Charismatic Renewal and where no one smokes and where the community's life-style in matters of food, drink, and exercise are very much on health-building lines. I was very impressed by all this when I was there, and I think this life-style helps in part to explain why this community is so very fruitful as a centre for retreats and for the healing ministry.
So, to conclude, I think that our work in the healing ministry of prayer will quite often involve us in praying for the healing of bad life-styles, for people to give up smoking and excessive drinking, for people to eat wisely and take enough exercise and rest. For people to stop worshipping mammon and over-working in the pursuit of wealth - and sometimes it will perhaps involve us in giving someone a copy of a Guide to Healthy Eating!
Chapter 6: Praying for Healing - II
Praying for your Own Healing
Not infrequently I meet Catholics who are ill, sometimes seriously, who have never prayed for their own physical healing. When asked why they give various reasons. Some will reply that other people are more ill or needy than they are and that it is more important to pray for these others. This argument seems to pre-suppose a limited God who can only answer a certain number of prayers, so that if I receive some of his healing love he will have less to give others. The correct response is that God is infinite and that my receiving of his healing love does not mean that he has less for others. I can pray both for my own healing and that of other people.
Some Christians, especially perhaps some Catholics, do not pray for their own physical healing because they think it is nobler and less selfish to accept the cross of sickness sent by the Lord and offer it up rather than pray for physical healing. Leaving aside special cases where the Holy Spirit himself leads a particular person not to pray for physical healing, perhaps for example a very elderly person who rightly feels that God is now calling them to himself in heaven, I think this attitude is in general wrong - and for various reasons.
In the first place, I do not believe that God normally sends people sickness, although he certainly allows people to become ill and will often bring good out of a sickness. Indeed, the devil not infrequently plays his part is making people sick so that they cannot do the work God wanted them to do. For example, if a parish priest becomes unwell there will sometimes be no Mass on Sunday in the parish.
Secondly, we have in general a moral obligation to try to be in good health, so that we can serve God more actively and are less trouble to other people. If I fall and break my wrist, then I have a moral obligation to try to get it healed, normally by going to the doctor - and, I would think, also through prayer. To justify not going to the doctor by saying that if I do not seek medical attention I will have more suffering and sickness in my wrist to offer up would clearly be wrong.
We have in general a moral obligation to make use of medical science - or some alternative therapy - in order to try to be in good health. I would suggest that in the same way we should usually make use of prayer for healing. It is no more selfish to pray for one's physical healing than it is to go to the doctor. In both cases we are seeking to be well so that we can serve God more actively and be less trouble to others. I would add that seeking to be or to remain in good health is surely also part of the commandment to love ourselves. Some Christians seem to believe that Jesus said: you shall love your neighbour and not yourself, instead of 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:3 9).
Other Christians say that they do not pray for their own physical well-being because the only thing that really matters is spiritual health. Is it not better to concentrate on the important and leave aside the unimportant? It is of course in general of greater value to pray for our spiritual health rather than our physical health. But we can pray for both. My main answer to this objection is that it makes complete nonsense of the healing ministry of Jesus and the apostles, who went round healing bodies as well as souls. Let us not try to be more spiritual than Jesus, who was very interested in healing bodies!
Finally, some Christians do not pray for their physical healing because they do not feel worthy to do so, because they feel that they have done nothing to deserve the healing touch of Jesus, because their weak prayers in any case would not make any difference. The answer to these objections is that Jesus came to save and heal sinners and not 'good' people who do not need forgiveness. So if we repent of our sins he will forgive us and we can pray to him for healing. It is not a question of deserving to be healed, or being a great pray-er. The healing touch of Jesus is all love, mercy, forgiveness, grace, undeserved blessing. So any repentant sinner - and that should be all of us - can turn to Jesus with hope for healing. People are healed by Jesus not because they are worthy but because he is worthy!
Praying for one's own healing is very much like praying for someone else's. When I receive communion I ask Jesus to fill me with his healing love, spirit, mind, and body, praying especially for any particular healing of spirit, mind, or body of which I become aware. I ask Jesus to ifil me with the healing light of his love. I also sometimes ask the Holy Spirit to fill me with his healing presence. I also ask Our Lady, the saints, and the angels to pray for or watch over my health. If I am prying for a sick part of my body, I will normally lay my hands on it, praying both in English and in tongues, and thinking of that part of the body as being filled with the healing light of Jesus. I also rebuke the sickness in the name of Jesus and I will often anoint the sick part of my body with the sacramental of blessed oil.
Perhaps I may be allowed to testify here. During the Second World War, I was knocked over by a car and my left ankle was broken. The bones set wrongly, and about fifteen years later I began to limp badly. A top surgeon then performed a lengthy operation. After this I no longer limped, but if I ran for a bus I would almost certainly find myself limping afterwards. As the years went by I would sometimes limp when walking. My local doctor could do nothing for me. I then starting asking people to pray over my ankle and this helped. But what was especially beneficial was when I started placing my hands on my ankle and praying over it - usually in tongues - for about thirty seconds every night, also anointing it with blessed oil - all of which I still do. I now normally (at the age of sixty-seven) do a very short jog every morning - something my ankle could not stand up to for many years. Recently when I showed it to a Catholic doctor who I was seeing about someone else's health he was amazed that I could walk and run as I do with an ankle which is as discoloured and deformed as mine is - he said he would have expected me to be walking with a stick.
Yes, we are in general right to pray for our own healing, including physical healing. And if
we do so our body is likely to be in better health than if we do not pray for it. However, this prayer should be
against a background of handing our health entirely over to God and saying 'Yes' to whatever his will for us is, including any trial of sickness. And I must add that we should try to
avoid any excessive preoccupation with our own health.
When we pray for healing for the elderly, what are we praying for? Obviously we pray for spiritual
healing and for the healing of things like fears, anxieties, depression, the difficult memories of the past. All
this will largely be the subject of the next chapter. But what are we praying for when we pray for physical healing?
As the years go by inevitably our bodies begin to wear out, our eyes see less well, we hear less easily, our backs
get stiffer, we find it more difficult to move about - we might say that the 'ageing car' begins to rattle in various
places! Do we pray that an elderly person will have the sight and hearing, mobility and strength of a teenager?
Obviously it would be unrealistic and out of place to ask God to give someone advanced in years the body of a teenager
again. However, it is possible for people to grow old in a more gentle and unbroken way, more able to cope physically
with life; or they can be, in a more broken, disrupted way, less able to cope physically and be more dependent
on the help of others. We can pray that the former way of growing old comes to pass, that eyesight, hearing, and
mobility will last longer, that the mind will remain clear, that the ageing person will be able to cope in a way
that is less burdensome to others.
However that does not mean that we should not hope to see physical improvements in answer to
prayers for older people. I remember Winifred in our prayer group whom the doctor had given three months to live
with cancer when she was in her
Quite often when we pray for physical healing with elderly people - indeed with other people
also - there is a temporary improvement and then things return to their former state or continue to deteriorate.
In these cases I start by thanking god for the temporary improvement in healing. Thank God if the pain disappeared
or was reduced for only a few hours; thank God if someone had one good night's sleep.
For some time I was praying regularly with an aged aunt of mine who suffered from a number of physical illnesses. Amongst these was a sick foot which made walking painful and difficult. There was always an improvement in the foot after we had prayed - less pain and she could walk more easily. But when I saw her again about two weeks later, the foot was back where it had been - indeed there was a downward trend. Some people may think that this praying for her foot was a waste of time. But I have often reflected that if we had not prayed for the foot, she might well have spent the last year of her life in bed instead of only the last three months as actually happened. I must add of course that physical healing was not the most important thing we prayed for.
Perhaps I may be allowed also to refer to my experience of praying for healing for my beloved
father and mother who died at the age of ninety-three and ninety-four respectively. They were very generously and
imaginatively cared for by my sister
My parents both suffered from a number of physical infirmities in their last years. When I prayed
for the healing of their ailments, for example, my mother;s arthritis and my father's heart, I would tell them
that I was not praying that they would live for a day longer than God wanted - and they both understood this. In
fact the three of us prayed that God would take us at the right moment and prepare us for that time.
My father died after three weeks in hospital and my mother after three days in a nursing home. In God's providence they both died when they did largely, I think, because they knew it was time to go, and they did not wish to be a burden to others. I telephoned the nursing home on the evening my mother died and I was told that she was declining but that the doctor had said that day there was no immediate danger of. death. Immediately after telephoning I celebrated a house Mass, and we prayed that the Lord would come soon for my mother - and he did. My brother telephoned immediately after the Mass to say that she had died.
Sometimes people are clinging onto life when it is time to leave this earth. They may be holding on because of fear of death, fear of judgement, the need to be reconciled to someone, the need to communicate something or to do something. They have in one way or another some unfinished business to do before they are ready to go. Our task can be through prayer ,and in other ways to help them to complete their business so they can pass on to the fuller life. (There is an excellent book on this subject by Mary Jane Linn CSJ, Dennis Linn SJ, and Matthew Linn SJ: Healing the Dying, Paulist Press, New York, 1979)
So it can sometimes be right to pray, as I did for my mother: 'Jesus,
please come and take this person soon.' This prayer can be especially appropriate when
someone is suffering much. Praying for healing will sometimes result in someone dying sooner rather than living
longer. We need to remember that none of us will be fully healed unifi we get to heaven. We should not seek to
delay the ultimate healing when the time for it has come.
Most healing in answer to prayer is gradual, whether it is healing of spirit, mind, or body. Immediate healings are more rare, especially when the sickness is serious. This means that there is normally need for ongoing prayer for healing.
We usually suggest to sick people who come to our healing services or sessions that they should come back for further ministry, perhaps come along regularly for quite a time. If we pray with someone for depression or arthritis and there is some improvement, it is probable that if they return for prayer the following week there will be a further improvement. Moreover, if they do not seem to have benefited the first time, they may begin to improve on the second or third or tenth visit.
I remember the case of a woman in her thirties who came for prayer especially for her physical health, there being several parts of her body causing her trouble. We prayed on about six occasions for all her physical ailments but none of them seemed to improve, though she was experiencing great spiritual blessings. Eventually, on about the seventh visit, her knee was healed, and after that other parts began to improve. Now this person is one of the leaders of one of our healing teams. If this woman had given up coming after the fifth visit, assuming that no physical healing was going to happen - or if we on the healing team had given up praying for her physical healing -then she would have missed what God had in store for her through our ministry.
There are some people who have been coming to our healing sessions for quite a time, even a few years, to be prayed with for the same things, and apparently there is no improvement. I think of a person with deep depression, of another with deep fears, of another with arthritic shoulders, of another person who is an alcoholic. Is our ministry here a waste of time, as some people have suggested? I do not believe so, although obviously it feels more rewarding for a member of a healing team to see healings happening. It may be however that our regular ministry has prevented the depression or other sickness from getting worse. It may also be that our regular prayer has helped to keep the person's head above water. Or it may be that God has used it to bless someone in another direction. The person with deep fears mentioned above says that her moments of fear have not improved. She has however now been baptised as a Catholic and her husband has started going to communion again after many years. As to the alcoholic mentioned above, he still drinks and the general state of his health has declined. But he has come back to the sacraments with real sincerity after being away for many years.
Francis MacNutt taught us the importance of ongoing praying for healing, of 'soaking prayer' as he called it. This can apply not only to the
number of healing prayer sessions, but also to their length. Sometimes there have been remarkable results when
prayer for physical healing was continued by a healing team for several hours on end. If someone is moving an arthritic
limb more easily after ten minutes' prayer, it is probable that they will move it still more easily after a further
ten minutes or still longer. All this poses problems of time and energy for those ministering healing prayer. There
is need for the gift of discernment and the light of the Holy Spirit in knowing how often and for how long to pray
with a sick person
A last point: since most healing is gradual, it is often desirable if possible to arrange for
a follow-up session. This may simply be a matter of arranging to see the person again at the prayer meeting the
following week. Or it may be desirable to take the person's telephone number and address, or give them one's own.
If the ministry is mainly for an arthritic elbow, we may not need to do this. If, however, one is praying with
a depressed and suicidal person, it can be very necessary to keep in contact if possible. And if circumstances
prevent this because, for example, one is only visiting the district, then it is important to try to put the person
in contact with a suitable local Christian. Indeed it could be a mistake to start certain forms of healing ministry
if one is not able to follow it up or arrange for someone else to do so.
More and more Christians are finding that praying for healing over the telephone can be very worthwhile. Obviously it is normally better to pray in the presence of the sick person but it is not always possible for one reason or another. Praying for healing on the telephone can be more effective than simply praying for the absent person; it often seems to add something to absent prayers.
I find myself praying for healing on the telephone very frequently. It may be that a depressed person or a sufferer from cancer telephones me and asks to come and see me. After fixing an appointment I often suggest that we say a short prayer, and this frequently seems to bring real help. Or it may be someone whom I have prayed over in a prayer group or at the monastery, and we follow this up by praying together on the telephone. Perhaps someone lives too far away for us to be able to arrange a meeting, or someone is going through a time of immediate crisis or special difficulty. And of course one is not only asked to pray for healing on the telephone: a lady used to phone me from the USA to ask me to pray for her matrimonial problems. She once asked me to pray for her financial difficulties, which I did - but I think I also suggested that seeing or telephoning someone living near her would be cheaper!
When it comes to praying on the telephone I am not only on the giving end. If I have a special problem or if I feel that I am being threatened by 'flu, for example, I may well phone a member of our healing team and ask them to pray with me.
When praying for a physical sickness on the telephone it is good to ask the sick person to put their free hand on the part of their body which is affected if this is possible. It is also in general helpful to pray for quite a time if convenient - and if one's telephone bill can stand it!
Members of our healing teams have sometimes seen remarkable results from praying for healing in this way. There was the sister who began to see more clearly through her bad eye as she was being prayed with for healing on the telephone. Another person felt her deep depression being lifted as she was prayed for. People not infrequently feel a healing warmth in the sick parts of their body when being prayed with on the phone. And most obviously they often experience real peace as the prayer for healing continues.
One word of caution: I think that prayer for healing over the telephone should normally be kept simple. Praying for deep inner healing and especially praying for deliverance could open up wounds which really require the physical presence of the person giving the ministry.
A last point: praying for healing on the telephone can cause a real problem for some members
of healing teams: the telephone can ring so often that the situation gets out of hand. One priest with a powerful
ministry of healing had to run off to the USA for some months to avoid the deluge of telephone calls. A married
woman had to change her telephone number twice. Members of healing teams may need to think and pray before giving
people their telephone numbers. They may also sometimes just need to leave the phone ringing, while saying a quick
prayer for whoever may be on the other end of the line. I do not think that God always wants us to answer the phone.
Some of us need to pray about when and when not to answer. The writing of this book has meant that a considerable
number of telephone calls have gone unanswered.
Members of praying for healing teams and other individuals involved in this ministry will frequently be told things which people may normally only tell doctors, nurses, or the clergy. Obviously they need to observe the same rules of confidentiality as the clergy and the medical profession do.
However, in our prayer groups sick people will often spontaneously share their problems, and this can be helpful from the point of view of encouraging and helping other people to pray for them - but sharing in public should have its limits!
Here in Cockfosters we have in addition to the large Monday evening prayer group, a smaller prayer group of about thirty people on Wednesday afternoons where there is much praying for healing and where the Lord has been doing beautiful things, including some helpful physical healing. The regulars at this meeting have become a very caring, loving group, and they will spontaneously share much with each other, thus enabling them to 'bear one another's burdens' (Galations 6:2) in prayer. Only two weeks ago a lady who recently started coming for prayer after a cancer operation asked us all to pray for her husband who has a drinking problem. Last week she came back with a large smile on her face saying that for the first time for years her husband had not had a drink that week. Doubtless that change would not have happened if she had not felt able to share the problem.
I think all Christians should if possible be members of a small sharing group in which people
support each other in prayer. However, sharing in a group needs to be accompanied by a sense of discretion and
confidentiality, something for which we should pray.
Being a rather cautious person temperamentally, I would have preferred to write nothing about 'resting in the Spirit' in this book, for what I write is bound to be misunderstood by some people. However, I feel it would not be right to side-step a subject which is undoubtedly relevant, especially since some people may unexpectedly come across this phenomenon and wonder what is happening.
When prayed with for healing or for another purpose some people sometimes 'rest in the Spirit' or are 'overcome in the Spirit' or are 'slain in the Spirit', to use the names which are frequently, if not entirely happily, used for this experience. The person can appear to faint or nearly faint while in fact remaining conscious. They may fall to the floor or go limp in their chair. And this can last from a few seconds to several hours, although the latter is not common. Although this experience usually happens when people have hands laid on them in prayer, it can also occur without anyone being touched, especially in the setting of powerful worship.
There is no doubt whatever that a considerable number of people have received wonderful healings of spirit, mind, or body and remarkable spiritual blessings while they 'rested in the Spirit'. I myself have been blessed in this way. In 1975 when Francis MacNutt prayed over me in a healing service I 'rested in the Spirit' for two hours and twenty minutes. During that time I not only realised that I had not forgiven certain people, a fact I was unaware of before, but I also learned more about the nature and demands of Christian forgiveness while lying on the ground there than I had ever understood from talks or books. The Holy Spirit gave me a much deeper insight on this subject, which I regard as one of the major spiritual blessings of my life.
I have also received significant blessings while 'resting in the Spirit' on three other occasions. Two of these experiences led me directly to undertake international journeys which were truly fruitful and blessed. The third experience was for me an important spiritual blessing which remains with me to this day.
So if people can benefit in this way by 'resting in the Spirit', why not simply rejoice and encourage this experience whenever possible. The answer is that although this experience can bring great blessings, it can also have its dangers, as Francis MacNutt pointed out in a chapter on this subject in his book, The Power to Heal (Ave Maria Press 1977), and as Cardinal Suenens has underlined in his book, Resting in the Spirit (Veritas 1987).
The dangers or problems can include:
(1) Sensationalism - people wanting to see lots of bodies falling around at a healing service or wanting to receive an emotional kick themselves.
(2) 'Resting in the Spirit' is not always only or mainly the work of the Holy Spirit - other factors can be involved.
(3) Pride - my own satisfaction at seeing people 'rest in the Spirit' when I prayed over them has not always been entirely of God.
(4) 'Resting in the Spirit' can open up deep inner wounds or spark off deliverance problems.
Father Leo Thomas OP in the chapter on this subject in his valuable book, The Healing Team (Paulist Press, 1987), writes:
In general I agree with Father Thomas. However one cannot of course always prevent people from 'resting in the Spirit' in large meetings. But one can influence the situation considerably by the way the healing team prays over people. If they are prayed over while standing up, then far more are likely to fall to the ground 'resting in the Spirit'. If they are prayed over sitting on a chair, then far fewer are likely to 'rest in the Spirit', and those who do so will usually just slump back on the chair and not fall to the ground. When I am in charge of a public healing service I ask the healing team to use chairs if possible for those being prayed over, to avoid the problems which can arise when people fall to the ground right, left, and centre. Although the faith of some will be strengthened by the sight of people falling down and 'resting in the Spirit' at healing services, others will be frightened and badly put off.
So I think it is in general better to pray with people sitting down in public healing services, but I would not want to criticise the ministry of someone like Father Edward McDonagh CSSR of Boston, who seems to have been led by God to pray with people standing up in his very powerful healing ministry. I also think that, in general, it is better to pray with people sitting down in smaller groups and on a one-to-one basis.
A further point: I think that Cardinal Suenens and John Richards are right when they point out the ambiguity of using the expression 'resting in the Spirit'. The 'resting' may not always be in the Spirit, it can be just an expression of human emotion. So if we do use this terminology, which seems to be widespread, let us not lose our sense of discernment.
A final warning: if you are praying with someone standing up, try to have a suitable person behind
them to catch them if they fall. Otherwise stand by their side so that you yourself can catch them. And I add that
I myself would never want to risk someone with a bad back problem falling down.
Some Catholics query the need for healing services. They would say that every authentic Christian service of worship, especially every prayerful celebration of the Mass, is a healing event. So why talk about 'healing services' and 'healing Masses'? They might add that praying with people for healing is surely better done in private.
It is true that every authentic service of worship and every prayerful celebration of Mass is a healing event. There is however room for, indeed a need for, services of worship and celebrations of Mass which underline and give greater prominence to the healing side of prayer. There is, I think, a parallel with Masses specially celebrated for the intention of peace. At every mass we pray for peace; in some celebrations of the Mass we concentrate especially on praying for peace.
As to the objection that it is better to pray for healing in private, I think it is not a question of either/or but of both/and. We certainly need to pray for healing with some people in private. But we also need healing services, for two reasons. Firstly, some people would be too shy to come for individual ministry, but they would be willing to slip into the back of a healing service unnoticed. Secondly, there are far too many needing prayer for healing to be able to see them all in individual sessions. If I speak to one person on the importance of forgiveness for twenty minutes, I can touch one life. If I preach to a congregation of three hundred on the importance of forgiveness, as I frequently do, I can reach far more people with the healing message of the gospel.
Healing services can take various forms, this depending largely on the circumstances. Obviously there are big advantages in praying for healing within or following the celebration of Mass. However, this may be ruled out by the absence of a priest, or for ecumenical reasons when a large proportion of those present at the service are not Catholics. Whatever form the healing service takes, it would seem that the following elements should normally be present: a time of praise and worship; the reading of Scripture; a time for teaching or preaching; a prayer of repentance; general prayers for the healing of spirits, minds, and bodies; when possible the laying on of hands; and when possible an anointing with oil. It is good also to include a prayer for sick people not present.
The following passages from the New Testament can be suitable for reading in healing services:
For about eight years now a Central London prayer group has arranged a Healing Mass on the first
Friday of the month. This attracts about three hundred people and has, I think, been very worthwhile. We start
with the celebration of Mass, the homily of which is usually connected with healing. After the Mass a general prayer
for the healing of spirits, minds, and bodies is said by two or three people. This is followed by an opportunity
for the laying on of hands by members of our healing team, which includes medical doctors. We have a two-tier system
for this - those who only want a brief prayer go to one part of the hall, where they receive the laying on of hands
by a member of the healing team, who will pray over them for about twelve seconds and then anoint them with the
sacramental of blessed oil. Those who want a lengthier period of ministry go to another part of the hail, where
one or more members of the healing team will minister to them for five minutes or more. The whole evening lasts
two and a half hours, but those who want or need to leave earlier can of course do so. It is important in a healing
service that a sick person should not have to stay too long.
As John L. Mackenzie writes in his well-known Dictionary of the Bible under the heading 'Fast': 'Jesus supposes that his disciples will fast.' Jesus said: 'And when you fast' (Matthew 6:16), not if you fast. He also said: 'The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast' (Matthew 9:15 cf, also Mark 2:1 8ff and Luke 5:33ff).
In the New Testament church we see the disciples fasting: 'While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said: 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them'. Then alter fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off' (Acts 1 3.'2). We also read: 'And when they [Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed' (Acts 14:23).
Many Christians have found from experience that when praying for healing the following of the biblical and ancient tradition of fasting has added something to prayer. I remember a leader of a house church with a powerful ministry of healing telling me that he found that if he fasted from solid food all day before taking a healing service in the evening, he was usually more blessed with 'words of knowledge'. I know a woman who is very gifted in praying for healing who will always try to fast during the week if she is leading a healing service at the week-end, for she has discovered that fasting strengthens her healing ministry. I myself, although not one of the stronger brethren when it comes to fasting, normally decide to drop a meal before a healing service. I also prefer not to pray for healing with an individual soon after a meal.
There are many different forms and degrees of fasting from food and drink. I advise people not to do any fasting with which a doctor would not be happy. Doctors, however, would be delighted if many of us did far more fasting! It is a sobering thought that in a world in which large numbers of people are dying from starvation, many Christians in this country and others are shortening their lives by over-eating. This, however, is not the right place to develop that important subject.
Fasting can vary from dropping this or that item of food or drink, for example, sugar, sweets, meat, alcohol, or coffee (partial fasting), to going without all food and drink, though I personally would never advise people to go without all liquids for reasons of health. Fasting can be for part of a day to several days or longer. It can be a regular practice - like the American sister whom I met who took no solid food one day every week for the sake of Latin America, where she had been a missionary. Or it can be an occasional practice when a particular situation seems to call for it, for example, someone's health crisis. An increasing number of Catholics are practising the 'Medjugorje fast', which is fasting on Fridays on bread and water, as asked for by Our Lady for the intention of peace.
The important thing is not that we do this or that particular fast, but that we fast as the Holy Spirit leads us - and he will direct us in very different ways. One friend of mine fasted from all solid food for three days for the sake of a healing service we were doing in his parish. He found no difficulty in doing it, which for me confirmed that his fast was of God. However, it could be very wrong for another person to try to do a three-day fast.
I think that those of us who are particularly involved in praying for healing do especially need
to consider what God is asking us to do in the way of fasting. I know that I myself can always find plenty of excuses
for not fasting - my tiredness, my health, the weather, what others will think - but God does seem to be pointing
me more in that direction. Perhaps I am not the only one!
Frequently the health of an individual is closely linked with the atmosphere and situation within their family. So when praying for the healing of an individual we often need to pray for the healing of relations within the family and for the whole family situation.
When a husband and wife are both present it can frequently be good to pray over them together. I sometimes encourage them to hold hands and I ask Jesus to restore anything which needs healing in their relationship. I also pray that Jesus may be more and more at the centre of their marriage, that they may be more and more united in his love and light, that they may increasingly be led by the Holy Spirit in their relationship, that there may be perfect forgiveness, and that their union may be ever more fruitful for the building up of God's Kingdom. One can also pray for the children of the marriage.
In praying for these things it is important not to forget to thank God for all his past blessings on the marriage and the family.