Working Out Spiritually?

Readings: Psalm 126, Matthew 6:1-15

Working out physically is good for our health. Might that also be true of "working out" spiritually? In other words, is prayer and worship actually good for us? And if so, are some ways of praying and worshiping better (for us) than others?

Scientific research provides us with evidence for the following conclusions. Repetitive prayer and meditation are good for the body as well as the mind. Religious rituals can produce a sense of unity with others and with the world that is uplifting and humbling. And faith is both healthy and healing.

In 1975 Dr. Herbert Benson, Professor of Medicine at Harvard University, published the results of his research on prayer and meditation in a book entitled The Relaxation Response. He substantiates that certain forms of meditation and prayer decrease oxygen consumption, respiratory and heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. He was able to replicate the results of such meditation and prayer by teaching patients what he calls "the relaxation response," which involves sitting comfortably, closing your eyes, relaxing, repeating in your mind a single word or short phrase, and not paying attention to distractions. To stay healthy, Dr. Benson prescribes that we do this relaxation response for 15-20 minutes twice a day.

Other researchers have confirmed that meditation and repetitive prayer reduces activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe of the brain – the part of the brain that helps us orient our bodies in space. This may explain why deep experiences in meditation and contemplative prayer involve a reduced sense of "self" and a feeling of "oneness" with the space and world around us.

Religious ritual may have some of the same effects on the brain, for "ritual turns a meaningful idea into a visceral experience." (Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, 2001, p. 90) Rituals involve us in repetitive acts that often stimulate our senses of sound, smell, taste, and touch as well as sight. When these sensations are combined with listening to stories and speaking or singing metaphorical language that refers to God and salvation, the entire experience powerfully affects the brain and the body. Ritual embodies thought and gives our beliefs a sense of being.

Scientists have begun to understand that rituals not only respond to the cultural needs of a community, but also reflect the neurological functioning of our brains. The prefrontal cortex of the brain mediates emotion and seems to give us a sense of will. We want to act out every feeling and idea we have, but the the frontal lobe of our brain inhibits most of these actions to keep us under control. Ritual gives us an acceptable way of acting out our beliefs and feelings, a way of entering into our myths about life and death, a way of overcoming our fears with faith and hope.

In a summary of their medical research on the brain, the authors of Why God Won’t Go Away remind us that: "The power of ritual lies in its ability to provide believers with experiential evidence that seems to ‘prove’ that the guarantees made in myth and scripture are true. Rituals allow participants to taste, if only for a moment, the transcendent spiritual unity that all religions promise." (p. 96) We are able to taste this "spiritual unity" because of neurological processes and because of memory associations we have in our brains, which are triggered by the symbolic language and repetitive actions of our religious rituals.

In short, worship involving ritual evokes feelings and thoughts associated with hope and love. Our brains are "wired" for rituals, and that is why worship is good for us.

In addition, we now know that having faith, even apart from praying and participating in ritual worship, is healthy and healing. In an article entitled "Mind/Body Medicine and Spirituality" Herbert Benson and Patricia Myers draw the following conclusions from thirty years of medical research: "Spiritual beliefs quiet the mind, short-circuiting the nonproductive reasoning that so often consumes our thoughts. Although the body is very effective at healing itself, all too often this process is hindered by negative thoughts and doubts. Worries elicit the fight-or-flight response and the stress-related symptoms and disease that can blunt the healing capacities honed through evolution. Moreover, perpetual fretting makes an impression on our nerve cells, so the body tends to ‘remember’ illness."

"Because faith seems to transcend experience, it succeeds beyond expectation in relieving distress and generating hope and expectancy. With such positive feelings comes ‘remembered wellness’ – the cerebral call for healing that mobilizes our body’s resources and reactions. Such beliefs are effective in relieving 50-90 percent of common medical problems." (In God, Science and Humility edited by Robert L. Hermann, 2000, p. 222.)

So, the church has no reason to apologize for asking you to spend Sunday morning in worship and for recommending that you pray regularly and study scripture. This is all good for you! Working out spiritually is healthy. Tell your friends and family members. A regular spiritual workout is just what the doctor ordered!

For an even greater challenge, however, I turn to a Cistercian monk, who reminds all of us that our goal should be more than relaxation and even more than good physical and mental health. Thomas Keating teaches "centering prayer," which involves quieting the body and repeating a word that points to God. This simple form of contemplative prayer might be understood as a Christian form of the "relaxation response" described by Dr. Benson. But Keating writes: "In this discussion of centering prayer, I am not exploring the methods that help to calm the body, mind and nervous system, such as breathing, yoga, and jogging. Such methods are fine for relaxation, but what we are concerned with is the faith relationship. This relationship is expressed by taking the time to open oneself to God every day . . .."

"The fundamental disposition in centering prayer is opening to God. Christian practice can be summed up by the word patience. In the New Testament patience means waiting for God for any length of time, not going away, and not giving in to boredom or discouragement. It is the disposition of the servant in the Gospel who waited even though the master of the house delayed his return till well after midnight. When the master finally came home, he put the servant in charge of his whole household. If you wait, God will . . . [come to you]. Of course, you may have a long wait." (Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, 1986, pp. 37-8)

We know God only through our minds, which is how we know everything we know. And our minds create what we know from all the sensory information recorded in our brains. Perhaps this is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12 that "now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face." The metaphors of seeing in a mirror dimly and, after death, of seeing face to face should not be taken literally. However, our faith tells us that we have much to hope for. "Neither death," Paul says in Romans 8:38, "nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor death, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Amen.

August 4, 2002 © Robert Traer 2016