Originally printed in the January-February 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Menahem, Sam. "Forming a Prayer Group." Quest 89.1 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2000): 16-21
By Sam Menahem
I was recently asked by members of my synagogue to develop a healing prayer group. Before I could even start, I was asked to write this article. This coincidence is synchronicity at its finest. Synchronicity is a meaningful yet a causal connection between events. Psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote extensively on the topic, which has gained increasing popularity since the publication of The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield three years ago. Both Jung and Redfield urge us to take careful note of synchronicities and use them to further our spiritual growth. I believe that the convergence of these two events means that I am supposed to expand my group prayer practice to augment my personal prayers.
Apparently I am supposed also to urge readers of Quest magazine to do the same. It is no accident that you are reading this article. I propose to give direction and impetus to those of you already meditating and praying privately to add group prayer to your lives.
Purpose of Group Prayer
Group prayer is much more powerful than individual prayer. This opinion is gathered from many sources. In Christianity, we are told that wherever two or more are gathered in Christâ€™s name, there he will be. In Judaism, a minion of ten or more persons is required for reciting the daily or sabbath prayers. In Agartha: A Journey to the Stars by Meredith Lady Young, we are told that group prayers are geometrically progressive in their power. That is, each additional person adds much more than just their own weight to the potency of the prayer. In The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events, Jane Roberts tells us that mass consciousness is so powerful it can affect the weather and create changes in the Earth. Finally, followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who developed Transcendental Meditation, have hypothesized the maharishi effect--a very positive influence on an entire area when enough people are meditating at the same time.
Early experimental data seem to indicate that prayer has a positive effect. Thus the idea of group prayer is to produce some overall positive effect for humankind. This effect may range from physical healing for an individual to world peace. Groups generally pray for the greatest good for all concerned.
Motivation or intent is always an important factor in the power of prayerâ€”by both individuals and groups. Most of us are motivated by a loving concern for those we are praying for. We want a physical, psychological, or spiritual healing for them. This interest in helping others is an excellent basis for forming a prayer group. In fact, it is the only reason to form a prayer group.
What Prayer Is
An understanding of what prayer is and how it works should be gained before initiating the group prayers. When people see themselves as very vulnerable, easily overwhelmed by the world around them, innocent victims of illnesses, accidents, or natural disasters, they are likely to pray to a more powerful higher power to â€œbail them out.â€ This view of prayer is a misunderstanding of who we are and what our relationship is to the divine. We are not lowly sinners begging for mercy. We are part of the divine wholeness, looking for harmony with the Higher Power.
A shift to a transpersonal view of life will do much to correct the errors of separation from the Ground of Being. This shift could be the first goal of a prayer group. Praying in a group can help each member realize that we are all connected as parts of a greater spiritual whole. All human beings and indeed all creation are parts of the universal Higher Power, Ground of Being, God. We are not isolated egos, living in bodies, praying to a powerful parent figure to save us. In order to help ourselves or others with physical or psychological problems, we have to realize that all problems are essentially spiritual and that joining together physically is the first step in creating the spirituality of the One. Connecting to the other members of the group is a good first step toward experiencing Godly connectedness.
Once we realize experientially that we are all one, we can ask what our group should pray for and how we should go about it. Buddhists have long recognized that (in the 1881 words of one of H. P. Blavatskyâ€™s teachers) â€œthoughts are thingsâ€”have tenacity, coherence, and lifeâ€”that they are real entitiesâ€ (Mahatma Letters 66). This philosophy is also echoed in the Christian oriented Course in Miracles and in the Seth philosophy of Jane Roberts, which states that we create our reality through our thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious.
In other words, whatever we are praying for, whether an individual who is ill or the entire planet, which is deteriorating, we have created our problems through our negative, uncaring attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs. Thus, the only thing to pray for is a healing of unloving attitudes, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. We join together in prayer groups to take responsibility for the human problems we created as a group and then take actions designed to move our group (or others) in a healing direction.
The very act of joining together in a prayer group for some positive outcome is a recognition of the oneness behind apparent separateness. Group prayer implies taking responsibility for each other. When we gather together to pray in a group, we arenâ€™t telling God who to heal or how to do it. Rather we are aligning ourselves as a group with the loving God force within, praying for as many people as possible to awaken to this same force in themselves.
Group action goes far toward creating a positive response in all those who are ready to be healed. It is very gratifying for a prayer group to see that the prayed-for person is recovering. But what if there is little or no apparent response?
Recognizing Answers to Group Prayer
Prayer groups should recognize that all prayers are answered. This attitude helps avoid discouragement when things are not going well for a prayed-for person or group. If a prayer seems not to be answered, it probably means we havenâ€™t recognized the answer. For example, if a group is praying for the physical healing of a person, one answer could be the healing. There are, however, many other answers that might occur.
The prayed-for person might be inspired or healed emotionally and die peacefully instead of in turmoil. Or the answer might be some seemingly coincidental event that might lead the sick person or prayer to a different kind of life, more meaningful than the one they were living before the illness. Or the answer may be, â€œnot yet.â€ The patient may need more time before being ready for the changes that are necessary. In prayer groups we are trying to move individuals or groups along in their spiritual journey, whether it be through healing from an illness, coping better with life, or finding more meaning in life. One way this can be done is through praying for the spiritual healing of the psychological problems that afflict humankind.
The Four Basic Problems
William Parker and Elaine St. Johns initiated a unique experiment in group-prayer therapy. Working at Redlands University, California, they devised a unique format to conduct spiritual group therapy. They divided human problems into four basic categories--hate, guilt, fear, and inferiority. They reasoned that since God is love, perceiving this love would heal these problems. Within a group format, participants would discuss their problems and receive instructions to pray for the spiritual antidote to each problem. They proposed that hate is cured by love, guilt by forgiveness, fear by faith, and inferiority by strength.
Prayers were based on affirming the spiritual quality the person lacked. In order to test these hypotheses, Parker and St. Johns devised an experiment wherein certain people prayed with the group format, others received counseling, still others were prayed for without the group format, while a control group got no treatment. The results were impressive, showing that the prayer-therapy group was the most effective, counseling second, and individual prayers third. They felt that the prayer perspective of the last group hindered their effectiveness, as they were praying from the â€œhuman beings are sinnersâ€ point of view.
A more recent study by M. M. Pendelton and B. F. Poloma showed that both individual and group prayer are â€œstrongly and positively correlated with multiple measures of well being, including general life satisfaction, existential satisfaction, happiness, and religious satisfaction.â€ In other words, we can positively influence our satisfaction with life by praying for ourselves and for others, particularly within a group format. These positive results indicate that such prayers are extremely effective in helping people overcome psychological problems.
There are many studies showing the impact of prayer on physical health. The most famous is by Dr. Randolph Byrd of San Francisco General Hospital. His double-blind study showed that hospitalized cardiac patients responded favorably to prayer, even when they didnâ€™t know they were being prayed for.
The National Institute for Health Care Research, in Rockville, Maryland, reports on hundreds of studies showing the positive effects of prayer on health. Such experiments have been going on for many years but have only recently become a forum for public discussion. If such individual prayers are helpful, imagine the benefit for whole groups of people praying. There are many examples of celebrities whose plight is noted by the public at large. Due to publicity, many people pray for these celebrities often with astounding results.
Actor Christopher Reeve started a rewarding career as a director after being paralyzed. Football player Dennis Byrd is walking again after being paralyzed. Baseball player Daryl Strawberry is recovering from colon cancer. All of these famous people were probably helped by group prayer as well as their own efforts. What all three have in common is that their lives were spiritually transformed as a result of severe hardship which led to group prayer for them. They all became much better people despite varying degrees of physical recovery.
When Tragedy Strikes
We never know when tragedy may strike us. Having a prayer group to help us through hard times is highly beneficial. The Rev. Cay Randall-May was completing a manuscript for her new book, Pray Together Now: How to Form a Prayer Group, when her son fatally shot himself. Her prayer group was absolutely essential for her ability to cope with her loss and be healed. She stated that she felt a rainbow of positive feelings during her thirteen years of leading a prayer group, but after her tragedy the feeling was different from any she had ever experienced before. The prayer group helped her feel a solid connection with God that didnâ€™t weaken, even though she was mentally and physically exhausted by her swings between rage and resignation.
The twenty-three people in her prayer group joined hearts and hands to help Randall-May. They immersed themselves in a variety of prayer experiences, ranging from prayer-healing workshops to a blessing from a Rabbi. Though her grief still comes in waves, Randall-May is extremely grateful to her prayer group. She feels that praying together sustained her in her grief, enabling her to continue with her life.
Actually Forming a Prayer Group
The most important element in forming a prayer group is that the members have an honest desire to help each other and others they hold dear. The first resource to look at is friends, relatives, and nearby neighbors. There is no minimum number in most cases to get together and begin to pray. It is helpful to have people who are like-minded concerning the type of prayer and the concept of higher power. Though this article is from the viewpoint of transpersonal connectedness, other concepts can work also, as long as there is agreement and common beneficial intent among group members.
Another resource for prayer-group members is their own religious institutions. Many churches and synagogues have such groups, while others are open to their formation. If you are already a member of a church, it is probably the easiest way to find people willing to gather together in prayer.
A third resource is to join with a national organization. If you would like to join with already established prayer groups, there are several national organizations that pray together. Here are a few resources to contact:
The Upper Room Prayer Center
Guideposts Prayer Fellowship
Rev. Cay Randall-May
How to Begin
If you are forming your own group, you can set it up any way you want as long as there is loving, positive intent. The larger the group, the more challenging the process. It is probably best to begin by establishing general group norms and goals. Thus, for example, it should be decided early whether most of the group time will be spent in silent prayer or prayer aloud.
Many questions need to be answered. Should the focus be on group members or their loved ones? Should there be time spent praying for the greater good? Should the prayers be spontaneous or follow a religious tradition? Should there be a prepared format, or should format follow immediate need? How often and where should the group meet? How will members be selected?
The probability is that early meetings will be concerned with these vital questions. Once the format is set, the actual praying can commence in earnest. There are many ways to pray. The following are simply some suggestions I developed for my clients to guide them in healing themselves. These suggestions can be implemented in a group format as well.
Some Suggestions for Effective Prayer
Take some time to get centered and relaxed. A silent counting of the breaths from one to four (several times) helps to clear the mind and establish connection to the higher self.
Pray from the heart. Learn to use thoughts and images that evoke feelings of love, peace, and thankfulness.
Utilize emotion--add power to your prayers by imagining your emotion as you visualize the positive outcome.
Make your prayers affirmative rather than pleading. Create positive statements and declarations. For example, â€œThank you for the highest good for this person and those around him. I see this manifesting now.â€
Pray for the faith to overcome fear.
Pray for the love to overcome hate.
Pray for the forgiveness to overcome guilt.
Pray for the strength to overcome inferiority.
Pray for the insight to recognize the answers to your prayers.
Pray for the ability to take appropriate action, should action be necessary.
Pray for the increasing efficacy and harmony of the prayer group.
Be thankful for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon us as the answers to our prayers.
Pray for continued guidance as to how to pray more effectively.
We all lead busy lives. It is easy to forget to make contact with the spiritual dimension. The fact that we have an interest in prayer is a good start, but it is not enough. Gathering together in prayer groups will give increased potency to our prayers as well as establish a positive habit and structure to insure that we keep praying regularly and developing spiritually. As soon as you finish reading this article, make a few calls and begin the process of forming a prayer group. Amen.
Byrd, Randolph B. â€œPositive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit.â€ Southern Medical Journal 81 (1988): 826â€“9.
A Course in Miracles. Farmingdale, NY: Foundation for Inner Peace, 1975.
The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. & K.H. Ed. Vicente Hao Chin. Manila: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993.
Parker, William, and Elaine St. John. Prayer Can Change Your Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.
Pendelton, M. M., and B. F. Poloma. â€œThe Effects of Prayer and Prayer Experiences on Measures of General Well Being.â€ Journal of Psychology and Theology 19 (1991): 71â€“83.
Randall-May, Cay. Pray Together Now: How to Form a Prayer Group. Boston, MA: Element, 1999.
Redfield, James. The Celestine Prophecy. New York: Warner, 1993.
Roberts, Jane. The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1981.
â€”â€”. The Nature of Personal Reality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.
Young, Meredith Lady. Agartha: A Journey to the Stars. Walpole, NH: Stillpoint, 1985.
Blavatsky on Prayer
Q: Is there any other kind of prayer than outward petition?
A: Most decidedly; we call it â€œwill prayer,â€ and it is rather an internal command than a petition. A Theosophist addresses prayer to the Father which is in secret, not to an extra-cosmic and therefore finite God; and that â€œFatherâ€ is that deific essence of which we are cognizant within us, in our heart and spiritual consciousness, and which has nothing to do with the anthropomorphic conception we may form of it. Let no Theosophist say that this â€œGod in secretâ€ listens to, or is distinct from, either finite humans or the infinite essenceâ€”for all are one. Nor is prayer a petition. It is a mystery rather, an occult process by which finite and conditioned thoughts and desires are translated into spiritual will, such process being called â€œspiritual transmutation.â€ Our â€œwill prayerâ€ becomes active or creative force, producing effects.
[adapted from The Key to Theosophy, ch. 5]
Sam Menahem, PhD, is a psychologist and the director of the Center for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Growth in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of When Therapy Isnâ€™t Enough: The Healing Power of Prayer and Psychotherapy (1995) and All Your Prayers Are Answered .