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A consideration of prayer from the standpoint of social psychology online

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religious leaders have, lived a life of prayer, reports
cases of the cure of disease through its means,

Andrew Murray tells of the progress of healing
by prayer.- ''At first it took him eighteen months of
much prayer and labor before the final victory was
gained. Afterwards he had such ease of access to
the throne — that when letters came asking for prayer
for sick people he could, after looking upward for
a single moment, obtain the answer as to whether
they could be healed," While we may quite easily
doubt the basis of this extreme confidence in each
particular case, — this apparent sureness of knowl-
edge, — it is nevertheless quite true that cures were
effected. It is important to note in these cases the
growth of self-confidence bj^ the habitual use of
prayer for healing, and the growth of the confidence

' cf. Amer. Jour, of ReJ. Psych, and Edu., I, 1906, p. 107.
= "With Christ." p. 126 et seq.


of the people who came to be healed. The first ease
took him eighteen months; afterwards he did not
need so much time. The growth of confidence, of
"faith", is an important part of all such phenomena
of prayer and faith-healing.

Torrey relates an experience of cure by prayer.^
A fit of illness came upon him when alone in his
study. He was in such pain that he was unable to
arise and seek help. Fearing lest he should be left
alone and unaided for an entire night unless he se-
cured the strength to care for himself, he prayed,
and in a few moments was greatly relieved. Cases
of this tj'pe are common, not only in the printed
biographies of religious leaders, but in the lives of
some of the friends of most of us, sometimes con-
fessed, sometimes not. The writer knows person-
ally half a dozen people who habitually make use of
]irayer in this manner. The success of such a use
rests of course only on the testimony of single indi-
viduals and is extremely subjective in nature, yet
that testimony occurs with sufficient frequency to
give it weight.

There are also more "objective" cases, cases in
which the prayer was for another individual, who,
however, knew that he was being prayed for. ( There
are very few cases mentioned in which such knowl-
edge was not included in the ]u-econditions of re-
covery.) Father John Sergieff, a Russian priest, re-

' Torrey, "How to Pra.v," p. 18.


lates such occurrences as a matter of course. In
''My Life in Christ", phrases of this kind are fre-
quent: "Paul and Olga, in accordance with my un-
worthy prayers, have been cured of the infirmity
with which they were attacked. ' ' '

The examples hitherto given have been taken from
the lives of people who laid no especial emphasis on
faith-healing as a part of their creed. They show
that for the typical religious consciousness of the
past the healing of disease has been a use of prayer
frequently taken for granted, even when not empha-
sized as a ]>articnlarly and peculiarly appropriate

But when we consider the tremendous emphasis
which this use of prayer has been receiving within
the last few years, in various types of religious
movements from Christian Science down," — and
up; when we I'ealize that for many people and many
sects it has become the most vital issue in religion
at the present moment; then we see that this form
of prayer is more fundamentally connected with the
social forms which we shall discuss later, than is
the totally undiscriminating use which we have al-
ready discussed. The exact limits of its application
are yet to be determined. Yet here also our thesis
holds good: that the end of prayer is the establish-

' Father .Tolm Sfi-oipff. "]M.v T-ifo in Christ." p- 202.

- The Emininmol ]\[ovenieiit. bpcinnin^ at Emmanuel Church, Bos-
ton, is the most widesprearl movement takins; place ^Yithin the church
itself, and in connection with a reroKnized "orthodox" religion. See
"Religion and Medicine," Emmanuel Church Publications. Boston.


ment of a larger self. The unsolved question is not
so much with regard to the ultimate aim of prayer
as with regard to the types of diseases and disord-
ers which shall l)e considered affections of the
"self". And here we find, psychologically and thera-
peutically, a live issue. There has probably never
been a time when this use of prayer has aroused
more public discussion than at the present day, be-
cause the world has never before passed through an
era like that of the last fifty years, in which all de-
])endence on mental and spiritual means in the cure
of disorders was so rigorously excluded. Up to that
time those who used prayer used it as a matter of
course and with little discrimination, in connection
with other means. Now the whole matter is under
strenuous discussion, a discussion which will proba-
bly result in more adequate distinctions than have
as yet obtained concerning the employment of prayer
in this field.

The value of prayer for certain parts of this field
is not at all hard to find. Indeed it is rather sur-
prising, in view of the great use which has been
made of prayer in disease and the greatness of its
success when compared with the use of prayer for
other "material" ends; in view moreover of the
closeness of the connection between the organism
to be cured and the consciousness in which the
prayer or the faith in another's prayer arises; — it
is surprising that more deductions have not been
made from these two facts concerning the essential


nature of prayer as a means arising in conscious-
ness for the sake of the development of that con-

Three things must be briefly mentioned in con-
sidering the psychological connection between
prayer and health. First, that an attitude of confi-
dence towards the universe, an absence of worry, is
an element in all perfect health, and tends to pro-
duce health through a right functioning of the
psycho-physical organism. The poisonous effect of
the depressing emotions is too well known to need
comment. The healthy mood is the mood of confi-
dent action. The removal of perplexing inhibitions
makes the processes of life move more easily. The
main thing for health is that these processes shall be
let alone, undisturbed by the worries which arise,
more in some temperaments than in others, unless
held in check by some positive confidence. Confi-
dence in almost anything would do. Thus we find
diseases cured by prayers and religious ceremonials
in religions which we should characterize as com-
pletely non-ethical. And we find cures produced by
other types of confidence than the religious.

Closely connected with this negative effect of
prayer in producing a confident self, is the positive
stimulation resulting from the contemplation of a
pleasurable idea. More especially the sympathetic
sharing of a completer, more wholesome, more ade-
quate life, has an effect like that of a stimulant or
tonic. "The object is to absorb the consciousness in


the thought of the divine presence, since no other
realization is therapeutically so effectual."'

In addition to the purely general psychic accom-
paniments of the prayer-state, we must notice the
perfectly definite effect which suggestion of all
kinds has in the removal of certain diseases. It
would not be in place here to discuss the extent of
that power. In fact, we should hardly have gone at
all into this brief consideration of the physiological
effects of mental states, if those effects had not re-
ceived so much recent emphasis in connection with
religious movements. The relation of prayer to
health is as yet incompletely determined. Any dis-
ease at all affected by the nervous condition comes
of course well within its province. That is to say,
any problem which is ''social" in nature, which de-
mands for its solution the establishment of a differ-
ent self, is a problem which comes within the field
of prayer, as we have defined it.

Yet we have not included this form of prayer
among the completely developed forms for the rea-
son that neither the scientific nor the ethical discrim-
inations discussed in the preceding section have as
yet succeeded in placing it there. From the stand-
point of the scientific discrimination, the exact limits
of the efficiency of prayer in this field are unde-
termined. x\nd from the standpoint of the ethical
discrimination we must notice the fact that this par-

* H. W. Dresser, ^'Health and the Inner Life." p. 203.


ticular type of prayer does not of necessity posit a
self of higher ethical value than the me. We have
already seen that a confidence of almost any sort
will do the work. For the result depends princi-
pally upon the extent to which the immediate self of
depression, anxiety and low vitality can be given up.
''To lose self that we may find it is, in fact, the es-
sence of spiritual healing; for invariably there is
too great consciousness of self whenever there is ill-
ness and trouble.'"

Yet it must not be inferred that the nature of the
alter in the relation does not in any way affect the
result. The more strongly joyous, the more potent,
the more confidently healthful the life thus shared
through contemplation or suggestion, the more will
the resultant self possess those qualities, and the
greater will be the tonic etfect upon the nervous
organism. And for an ethical religion there has
been established in the minds of a majority of peo-
ple an intrinsic connection between the morally ideal
self and the ideally powerful self. Due to this as-
sociation at least, if to no more fundamental con-
nection, the relation with the morally and religiously
ideal self has a peculiarly important place in the
field which we have been discussing. It is also due
to this association that prayers for the cure of dis-
ease frequently result, in the case of an ethical re-
ligion, in moral and religious gains. Thus Torrey,

)-. -'."yimm

^H. W. Dresser, "Health and the Inner Life," p. 203.


in the incident quoted above, concludes: "The joy
of the healing was not so great as the joy of thus
meeting God.'"

This leads at once to the consideration of the
fully discriminating type of prayer.




''It would be," says Herrmann, "a shameful mis-
use of prayer, if trifles which have really no signifi-
cance for our inner life were to be made the objects
of our prayers." This is, as we have seen, the at-
titude taken by the discriminating religious con-
sciousness toward any other use of prayer than the
social one of establisliing a wider self. This atti-
tude is not, as we have already indicated, the result
of a definite removal of prayer from certain well
defined fields in which it was formerly employed;
the earlier forms of prayer were undiscriminatingly
social; but with greater discrimination has come
greater definiteness in the content implied by a com-
pleter and wider self.

The imaginative social process, of which prayer
is an example, is the one means to this enlargement
of the self. "There is no possibility of being good,"
says Cooley, "without living, imaginatively of
course, in good company." "Mankind needs the

Torrey, "How to Pray," p. 18.


highest vision of personality, and needs it clear and
vivid, and in the lack of it will suffer a lack in the
clearness and cogency of moral thought."^ The
end of all personal association is just this — the es-
tablishment of a larger self. Emerson's criterion of
friendship holds throughout: "The only joy I have
in his being mine is that the not-mine is mine. —
There must be very two before there can be very
one," The self lives and grows only through this
continual incorporation into itself of new selves.
"The ideal persons of religion are not fundament-
ally diiferent, psychologically or sociologically, from
other persons. So far as they work on life, they are
real, with immediate social reality." For "the im-
mediate social reality is the personal idea". "The
vaguely material notion of personality, which does
not confront the social fact at all but assumes it to
be the analogue of the physical fact, is a main source
of fallacious thinking about ethics, politics, etc. — It
is the mental fact that we love or hate and that in-
fluences us." "All our conceptions of personality
are one in kind, as being imaginative interpretations
of experience,"^ in the form of selves arising in

The value of the association with the morally ideal
self has been felt so intensely by religious writers
that many of them have sought to limit the imagina-
tive social process to this one relation, by shutting

' Cooley, "Human Nature and the Social Order," p. 371.
- Ibid., pp. 281, 89, 98,


out other companions. *' Desire to be familiar only
with God and His angels," says Thomas a Kempis,
"and flee the society of men." '

St. Teresa mentions three things as necessary for
obtaining perfection in prayer.^ First, love for one
another; second, "disengagement from every creat-
ure"; third, humility. More admirably efficient
means from the psychological point of view could
hardl}^ have been devised. First, create a need for
companionship by emphasizing the social nature of
the self; second, deprive this need of its usual satis-
faction, that all the energy of desire may go into the
outlet which is allowed. Third, determine the outlet
which this companion-seeking shall take by assum-
ing an attitude of mind which could only admit as
alter a self great enough to inspire "humility".

In view of the emphasis already given by modern
psychologists to the social nature of the self, we
hardly need to state further that the self lives only
in companionship, and that praj^er is one expression
of the constant social intercourse through which con-
sciousness goes on. The shadowy beginnings of
such a social intercourse, in the consciousness of a
woman who had spent most of her life in the auto-
matic performance of "impersonal" tasks, is ad-
mirably expressed by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps:'' " 'I
see it now,' she said aloud to the only consciousness

' "Imitation of Christ."' ch. S.

-"The Way of Perfection," p. 23 et. seq.

'"His Sovil to Keep." in Harpers, 1908, September, p. 501.


she could address on so intimate a topic. — By de-
grees, very quietly but very plainly, it had become
apparent to the denied woman that something an-
swered; not always, not explicitly, but sometime
and in some way. She had begun to be aware of a
soft encroachment upon her loneliness, a movement
of spirit toward her own. She did not go so far as to
call it an interchange of intelligence ; she was chiefly
conscious of it as a delicate blender of feeling blur-
ring the outlines of her solitude."

But the religious consciousness does not stop with
this indefinite "blurring of solitude". It goes on to
a much more definite social relation with a much
more definite alter. Its "method of forming an ideal
of God is to take the highest and most purified affec-
tions, and the noblest moral sentiments, and con-
ceive of the Divine nature through them." And
with the self thus conceived, it enters into com-
munion. ' ' Confession, supplication, thanksgiving and
praise all go and blend to form the great whole." ^
"I can imagine some to object," says Granger, "that
God can never be so realized by us as to be the ob-
ject of love in the same way human beings are. The
reason is plain; such persons regard God as an in-
tellectual ideal."- And the answer is equally plain;
the religious consciousness does actually succeed in
regarding God, and in making use of him, as friend,
judge, inspiration, companion in every sense.

' Beecher. "A Ti-easuiy of Illustration." pp. 241, 383.
== Granger, "The Soul of a Christian," p. 190.


A few of the ways in which this social relation-
ship is used must be noticed. Augustine finds com-
fort and strength in suffering through the thought:
"Thou didst know what I was suffering and no man
knew. Thou findest pleasure in us and so regard-
est each of us as though Thou hadst him alone to
care for. "^ Browning makes David bring Saul back
to the uses of life by promising him :

■'A face like my face that receives thee ; a man like to me
Thou slialt lo\(' and be loved hy forever; a hand like this hand
Shall throw open the siates of new life to thee."

Gates, in a devotional book entitled ''The Sorrow
of God", lays great stress on the fact that ''He is
touched with the feeling of our infirmities", and
asks "what the practical value of such a truth is".
He comes to the conclusion that it is "the essence
of consolation". It changes the whole situation "to
know that God is not indifferent to the tragedy but
is involved in the suffering".-' On the other hand,
the psalmist in one place" finds his chief consolation
in the fact that God is untouched by his sufferings,
because so infinitely greater than they. This latter
type of attitude will he taken up in greater detail
later. But the difference between the two may be
briefly noticed here. In the former case, the suf-
fering self, the me, which may mean simply a nar-
rowly individual pain or a wider sense of all the

'Augustine, "Confessions." 12:7: 3:11.
= Gates. "The Sorrow of God." pp. 6, 7.
'Psalm 101'.


tragedy contained in human existence, is prominent
enough in the conflict to color the finally resulting
self very strongly. God must overcome the suffer-
ing not simply by blotting it out of the realm of
facts worth noticing, — the me is too insistent for
such a result to be possible, — but by sharing it and
still overcoming it in a large reality. Yet the desired
comfort is obtained in both cases through a par-
ticipation in a life greater than the suifering, be-
cause capable, in the one case of ignoring it, and in
the other of containing it without being overwhelmed
by it.

The fundamental desire to share an emotion is not
even entirely dependent on a rational belief in the
possibility of response. A man who believes that
there is no response may cease, and must, as a ra-
tional being, cease, from the overt attempt to com-
municate; but he will feel the need of communica-
tion none the less, and times of crisis may become
too strong for his rational processes. As Voltaire
said: "If there were no Grod, we should have to
create one." For "thought, especially vivid
thought, tends irresistibly to take on the fonn of
communication".^ This is its normal outlet. A
man will talk to an utterly indifferent listener merely
for the sake of working off the emotion which is
bothering him. Prayers of confession could fre-
quently be brought under this type of classification

^Gooley, p. 57.


■ — the alter furnishing a mere listener. But in an
ethical religion a prayer of confession usually passes
over into another type of relation in which the alter
serves the function of moral authority and judge.

For the relief thus exi)erieuced in mere self-
expression is by no means continuously satisfying
to the normal human being. As we have remarked,
he craves the response of a genuine social relation-
ship. So when Cooley, in his discussion of the real-
ity of personal ideas, says that "a favorite author
is more with us in his book than he could have been
in the flesh; we therefore do not desire intercourse
with him",' he overlooks this desire for response
which is, for some temperaments at least, an inte-
gral part of a personal relationship. It is true that
as far as getting a definite contribution of new ideas,
actual intercourse with the author might give us
nothing, yet there is in the minds of most of us a
feeling of being a little cheated if we are compelled
by an author's books to feel a really personal love
for him, because we realize the impossibility of mak-
ing him feel the same for us. There is a recognition
of our own ])rivate selves, our own particular point
of view, wliich we want and do not get. The best
we can do is to share our enthusiasm over the au-
thor's brilliant passages with some other friend,
and we feel lost indeed if this consolation is denied
us. This fact indicates the character of any social

» Ibid., p. 82.


relation in which the me is a noticeable factor and
is yet not self-sufficient. There is a demand for
response. So in a letter recently sent to a theo-
logical school in answer to a circular describing the
course of study, a man enumerated as chief among
the things on which he desired to know the best
modern thought, the question "A^^iether there is
any answer to prayer other than that supplied by
the individual's own imagination". If there is no
belief in such a response, a vast number of indi-
viduals cease to pray, in spite of the numerous
spiritual advantages which they know will accrue
from the practice.

The religious consciousness posits a real social
relation, and for that relation it finds many uses.
We have noticed several, none of which has, except
by implication, demanded an ethically ideal self as
alter. Such a demand is, however, a very prominent
one. A recent writer in the Congregationalist^ ex-
presses the need of the religious consciousness for
such an ideal self. ' ' If the meditations of mv heart
constitute the one place where I may deal inclu-
sively with my life, is there any one great test to
which I may subject my meditations? I cannot test
them by the judgment of my friends, even the most
intimate. I want some authoritative, searching, just
and vastly compassionate test; — objective in that
its standards are without and above me; subjective

* Congregationalist. 1908, Sept. 12, G. G. Atkins.


in that it reaches depths deeper than my own self-
knowledge." Such a test is found in the jiulgnient
])assed bv the morally ideal alter.

A few more prayers expressive of this need of
companionship may be noticed, before ])assing on
In a more definite inspection and classification of
tlie prayers of the developed religious conscious-
ness. I will take three characteristic examples from
Mrs. Tileston's collection of prayers.^

"0 Thou Author of all good, — may Thy mercies
be our daily song and may the light of Thy counte-
nance in this world of power and beauty move our
hearts to great thankfulness and a sweet trust."
Tn this the joy of social intercourse is touched also
with the delight of jpsthetic contemplation, Tn the
following prayer of Christina Hossetti's, the need
of companionship is more unmixed : "0 Lord, show
forth Thy loving kindness, I entreat Thee, to all
liersons who in this world feel themselves neglected,
or little loved, or forgotten. Be Thou their beloved
companion, and let communion with Thee be to them
more dear than tenderest earthly intercourse." And
the following prayer by George Matheson : "Lord,
T thank Thee for Thy constraining love. I thank
T1ioe that Thou art not re])elled hy my bitteniess,
that Thou :irt not turned aside by the heat of my
spirit. There is no force in the universe so glorious
as the force of Thy love; it compels me to come in."

' >rrs. Tiloston. "Prayois .\n

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Online LibraryAnna Louise StrongA consideration of prayer from the standpoint of social psychology → online text (page 4 of 7)