Some scientists beginning to notice prayer’s power

Ryan Loew

Graduate student Ryan Kenyon says he overcame the challenges and frustrations of depression through his Christian faith, and everyone who chooses to believe can be cured, too.

Credit: Andrew popik

Ryan Kenyon’s life was a living hell.

Spending most of his life struggling with attention deficit disorder and depression, Kenyon stumbled through high school and college, taking drugs like Ritalin to balance out his mind.

An undergraduate for six years, he had poor grades, switched majors three times and almost dropped out twice.

And yet Kenyon, now a 26-year-old second year graduate student studying information architecture and knowledge management, said he lives the life of a healed man.

“My life was a train wreck,” Kenyon said, “and it’s stable now. It’s about a thousand times better. Before, any minute thing would ruin my day.”

A conversation with a friend’s father, Michael Nardi, 59, of Rootstown, turned his life around, Kenyon said, allowing him to abandon the crippling weights of a learning disability coupled with depression.

That conversation was a prayer, and because of it, Kenyon said, he is now a completely healed person.

“It’s a lot different now, when you can trust in God to take care of you, it changes everything,” he said.

But the idea of the healing power of prayer is something larger than Kenyon, stretching beyond one religious denomination and something even science, although skeptically, is beginning to notice.

Is there power in prayer?

A recent Roper poll discovered that almost half of all Americans said they pray or meditate every day, reported U.S. News and World Report. And according to a collaborative poll between U.S. News and the Internet site Beliefnet, of the nearly 5,600 people interviewed, 65.1 percent said that when they pray for their health, they pray about mental health and depression. More than 40 percent said their prayers are answered often.

Whether prayer can alter one’s mental health is an item of skepticism for John Updegraff, assistant professor of psychology.

“The short answer is, speaking as a scientist, there’s no evidence that that can happen,” Updegraff said. “There’s been studies that religious people in general tend to be happier. Being part of a church gives you a good social support network. Religion can give one a sense of hope, but there’s no evidence.”

There is no cure for learning disabilities, said Anne Jannarone, director of Student Disability Services.

“I think they can overcome some of the day-to-day difficulties by becoming just better managers of their life strategies,” she said, “but you can’t cure a learning disability.”

Prayer is, however, a way religious people cope with problems, Updegraff said, and it helps them believe they’re doing something about their problem.

While some research has been conducted on the effects of meditation reducing stress in the body, Updegraff said there has been little research into the health effects of Christian prayer.

“Culturally, most Americans would tend to be rational,” said Jeff Jerek, a Catholic priest and pastor of the University Parish Newman Center, “but more people are beginning to believe in the mystical dimension.

“It acknowledges that God works in mysterious ways within people. I think that for us, people of the Roman Catholic faith, a lot of it has to do with their connection to believers. A lot of time it has to do with how connected these people are to each other. While it cannot be measured, it is still powerfully present.”

Surinder Bhardwaj, a retired geography professor and a Hindu, said prayer is about no longer being dependent on a “small resource called a human being, but an enormous resource called God.”

“The total effect of prayer is to connect with that supreme being,” Bhardwaj said. “And that connection, once achieved, is to rise above that problem, and that is how I believe you overcome things like depression — by transcending it.”

Certain physical activity, such as yoga or Pilates, can help some overcome mental illness, Bhardwaj said. When the human body is put to the test, its realizes that it is in control, making it possible to overcome problems such as depression.

“Many of the physical ailments have psychosomatic relationships. Many times those tendencies can disappear or become manageable,” he said. “It would be my feeling that the constant application of yoga or Pilates creates conditions for the mind to help the body.”

Kenyon, a nondenominational Christian, said he believes his instant transcendence of his disabilities was the result of a strong faith in God, but such instant change was a long time coming.

Prayer changed his life

Originally from outside Columbus, Kenyon graduated from Granville High School in 1996, but his problems with attention deficit disorder only followed him to college.

“I had the attention span of a newt,” he said. “It seemed like I always had several trains of thought going on at once.”

Figuring a state school would be the best bargain for a student likely to exceed four years of college, Kenyon started his freshman year at Kent State in 1996 as an exploratory major. For that first year, things went well, he said.

“In some respects, freshman year was easier than high school,” he said, “and then I went into the architecture program.”

After a year-and-a-half stint in architecture starting his second year, Kenyon said both his grades and quality of life were slipping, and he left the program. That year, he said, Psychological Services diagnosed him with manic depression.

“I was becoming mental to the point that I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “At this point I had a 1.4 GPA, so the learning disability just really mixed things up in my nerves.”

During his third year, he met Nardi, the man who prayed for Kenyon. Since then, Kenyon said, his life has exponentially improved.

Kenyon said Nardi, a Christian minister, recognized that Kenyon was having problems with learning disabilities and depression and offered to pray to help him.

“It was definitely the biggest event in my life so far,” Kenyon said. “It was more real than anything I’d ever experienced. I had been in agony for years, and all of a sudden, I just felt relieved. I cried my butt off for two reasons. I could think straight, and I was in trouble because this guy was real. I had a lot of changing to do in my life.”

Kenyon said he spent the next three years as an undergraduate studying journalism, and he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in information design.

By having a strong relationship with God, Kenyon said, what one prays, happens.

Nardi agreed.

“It’s the same spirit that Jesus had in him,” Nardi said. “When you have a correct relationship with God, then you have power over all things.

“When I pray for someone, they are healed of what they have. If I pray about it, it’s going to happen.”

Mind, body, soul

Jerek, however, said prayer is not about expecting results but reacting to them.

“It is not a really explainable phenomenon,” Jerek said. “More often than not, prayer is not about what God is supposed to do, but what we’re supposed to do. And so sometimes prayer can bring forth energies and abilities that have been latent, not visible.

“It’s not at our beck and call. It doesn’t happen magically. It can’t be planned or programmed. It’s not a treatment; it’s a response. I believe in it, but I don’t (believe) I control it at all. Nobody does.”

For Jerek, prayer affects the body due to a three-part connection: mind, body and soul.

“We believe that the human person is an organic whole,” Jerek said. “The human body, mind and soul are all connected. More than ever before we’re acknowledging that we’re multisensory creatures. And that hints very strongly at this connection between mind, body and soul.

“I think that prayer taps into the life of a person’s spirit, which by tapping in can release some healing.”

Kenyon said had he not met Nardi, he would have most likely ended up in a mental institution or dead.

But out of the depths of serious depression and disability, Kenyon said he has grown to academic success through the power of prayer.

Now his daily routine consists of waking up at 7 a.m. to read his Bible and study — what Nardi calls a “maintenance plan.”

Contact administration reporter Ryan Loew at [email protected].