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A convert to the healing powers of faith

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Are religion and health related? Is there a correlation between healthy people and believers?

I've always wondered about the answer and the substantiation to this age-old question.

Take Beth. At 56, her husband had a massive stroke. The doctors didn't offer much hope. He could not talk, walk or eat. But she took him home and for nine years took care of him. She taught him to talk a little, walk a little and to eat a little. A diabetic herself, she was up at night with him, catheterizing him, changing diapers and care-taking. All this time Beth was cheerful and hopeful that he would return to the man she once knew and loved. He didn't. He died in his sleep a few months ago.

But when all her friends questioned her as to how she kept so strong, she told them: Constant prayer. "Then at night I would ask God to get me through another day, and when this was granted, I said 'thank you.' "

Even now she is not bitter that their golden years together were tarnished with illness.

Recently, I read an article from Maturity News Service, and the findings attest to the belief that there is a strong relationship between health and religion.

Jeffrey S. Levin, an epidemiologist at Eastern Virginia Medical School, completed studies among diverse groups of people while measuring their religious commitment to their physical and mental health. From the data, researchers found that the more religious people are, the healthier they remain as they age.

The article quoted David B. Larson, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, who said that especially the elderly, who have more frequent and stressful crises, benefit from religious belief and the respect of a church community.

Psychiatrist Harold G. Koenig of Duke University added that in his studies private prayer or public worship eased anxieties and dread and gave the believer a sense of being loved and appreciated -- that faith helps with fear and the sense of helplessness. Instead of struggling with the problem, "they are somehow able to give the problem up to God."

In 1975, Dr. Jerome Frank, professor emeritus of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, gave the commencement address on the subject of the faith that heals. Retired now and in his 80s, he still thinks that prayer -- even "absent" prayer -- speeds up the healing process. He points to evidence that the mental state of the patient can affect bodily processes.

Malcolm Boyd, an author and Episcopal minister who now lives in California, says he is not surprised by the news of this new data from the medical world.

"I look at it this way, if someone has a guardian angel to talk to -- or God or Jesus -- to look up to, then they are not alone," says Mr. Boyd, a columnist and author of two dozen books, including "Rich with Years: Daily Meditations on Growing Older." "It indicates underlying belief that love of that kind is unconditional and strengthening."

When he had to place his 97-year-old mother in a nursing home, he found that her spirituality and religious beliefs allowed her to adjust quickly with great serenity to the new routine.

Bill Moyers' 1993 book and his PBS series on "Healing and the Mind" examined the healing connections between our minds, bodies and beliefs. Several interviews with therapists, patients, philosophers and physicians demonstrated that poor mental health and loneliness affect the immune system.

I have found the premise and the link-factor to hold with my own aging friends. Those who believe in a higher power seem to better withstand their ailments and frailties.

I asked a theologian with whom I grew up to explain the good mental and physical health of couples in their 90s who are non-believers?

"Two answers," she said, "even if you don't believe in God, God believes in you. Secondly, with seemingly happy senior couples, their great love is the faith that exists between them."

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