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crows nest
By Stephen Tomkins
More Crow's Nests here
The wonderful world of prayer
January 2004

A scientific study at Duke University shocked and disillusioned no one at all in October by failing to uncover any evidence that praying for patients makes heart-surgery more successful. Never mind, though, whatever the medical limitations of prayer they are surely compensated for by its financial benefits, as proved by news that has reached the Crow's Nest from Los Angeles.

On Sunday morning 23 March last year, Sister Mary Catherine Antczak led the nuns of her elementary school in prayer in their chapel for a successful day at the races. They then took $2,560 from parents and teachers down to the Santa Anita racecourse and bought a "Pick Six" six-race ticket with it. When each of their six horses won, they were abundantly blessed with a $194,047 bounty. What a godsend.

"Some would call it luck," says Sister Mary Catherine (whom you may know better as the author of "New Paradigms and Unchanging Purposes of Catholic Schools: A Response to Sister Angela Ann Zukowski"), "but I call it a blessing."

So next time you're praying for a loved one going under the scalpel, you won't be surprised if you hear a deep ethereal voice booming, "No can do, I'm afraid, but I've got I've got a dead cert for the 2.30 at Epsom."

With which punchline, beloved reader, I invite you to come up to the Nest and have a look at what's been happening in the strange world of prayer.

A survey by the UK's RAC motoring organization reveals that 73 per cent of British people pray while driving. The most popular prayer is, "Please don't let that speed camera have any film", which raises interesting questions about making the Lord guilty of perverting the course of justice. Half of drivers, more encouragingly, use their road time to pray for others.

The most intriguing aspect of the result is that several surveys by the BBC in recent years show that only 60 per cent of British people believe in any kind of God – 13 per cent fewer than the number who pray in their cars. This leaves us with three possibilities. (1) Surveys – and I throw this out as no more than a possibility – are a load of bollards. (2) 60 per cent of people pray to God in their car, the other 13 per cent pray to their car. (3) They used to say no one is an atheist under fire. The modern version is that no one is an atheist on the Hanger Lane gyratory system.

News from Brazil, where prayer is louder. In the town of Fortaleza, Doralice Bezerra Lima is suing a church on her road for the volume of its prayers. "It is impossible to watch TV or do anything else when they are praying," she says.

Fortaleza Church of Christ (suggested motto: "Peradventure he sleepeth and must be awaked") is now being investigated by the local authority who are expected to demand soundproofing. The congregation is supported by Northside Church of Christ, Texas, who visit every two years "to encourage the church". Crow's Nest respectfully suggests this is no longer necessary.

In London, Police Inspector John Sutherland ("John the Baptist" to colleagues) has been in the news for his claims that prayer has reduced crime in his borough. He has started emailing prayer requests to local Christians and reckons that street crime and burglary have fallen as a result.

"I believe in the power of prayer and the person of Jesus," he says. "If you take an individual burglar, and pray for him, and he becomes a Christian, one of the net impacts of that is that he may stop burgling." Which is fine, it's just that for someone so confident in the power of Jesus, I find the word "may" a little disconcerting there.

Members of the World Ministries Church in Tucson, Arizona, have been more ambitious in their prayer life, if less successful. When the 50-year-old James Killeen died last year (apparently while on a 40-day fast, believing he could control his diabetes through prayer), his wife, rather than reporting the death, stepped out in faith and kept the body for the purposes of resurrection.

She was found three weeks later, tending the bloated body at home with her church leaders, the room full of spiritual music and lots and lots of incense. Those with regular recourse to the phrase "Still, you've got to admire their faith" have found a new hero.

Let us close this time together with a word or two from our friends in the world religions. First, the United Arab Emirates, where the azan, the call to prayer, has rung out from mosques five times a day for more than a thousand years. It has now become the first country where you can get the service through your mobile instead.

And lastly India, where in this summer's life-threatening heatwave, the Hindus of Andhra Pradesh turned to less technologically sophisticated means of prayer for rain. One was the traditional ritual of marrying frogs (to one another), which may sound far-fetched, but the BBC assures us it is quite common.

More to the point it worked, and they started to find watery pits dug in their forest. They turned out to be the work of a bear with an unusual ability to sniff out underground springs. Villagers took to following him around, at a safe distance, and taking his leftovers. Not only that but they expressed their gratitude by sharing the water with the rabbits and deer they usually hunt. Kind of like Christmas Day in the trenches. Upliftingly bizarre, I'm sure you'll agree. Amen.
also see
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Andrew Rumsey's regular column about the religious life
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Stephen Tomkins' regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
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