In prayer, St. Augustine observed, "there occurs a turning of the heart to (God) who is always ready to give if we will but take what he gives." In prayer we have "a dialogue with God," said Martin Luther. "Following his command and merciful promise we bring before him our requests, asking him for spiritual and physical gifts."
In 1921, Germany's celebrated religious studies professor Friedrich Heiler said that in prayer the worshiper experiences "the elementary force of the soul." Now, however, "there is helplessness," writes German theologian Michael Utsch, "The maintenance of the relationship between man and God seems to have expired or at least gone stale. One simply has lost the expertise."
That's Europe. But Europeans are beginning to look with undisguised envy at the United States where one scientific survey after another attests to the link between worship, longevity and health.
Four years ago a review showed that 20-year old Americans can expect to live 6.6 years longer if they attend religious services at least once a week. Now Harold G. Koenig, who teaches psychiatry at Duke University, reports that elderly people who are not disabled run a 47 percent greater risk of dying before long if they are not engaged in regular prayer, meditation or Bible study.
Koenig is the director of the Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality and Health and editor-in-chief of Research News in Science and Theology. Discussing his long-term study with a sample group up 4,000 men and women above the age of 65, he related in an interview that praying and attending divine service regularly seem to result in a "40 percent reduction in the likelihood of high blood pressure."
Of course, science cannot prove divine intervention or miracles. But it can point to more tangible causes. Religiously active Americans of advanced age smoke and drink less than others, feel more at peace with themselves and - as Koenig phrased it -- "at least perceive to have more social support."
"When people pray, their fear of death goes down," Koenig went on. Equally important, active faith mitigates the grief over the death of a husband, wife, relative or friend. "The believer can cope better with a loss because he knows the loved one to be in God's good care."
Loneliness is perhaps the most horrible experience in old age. Here again, a life of worship helps, according to Koenig: "When you know that God is present you no longer feel that lonely." This corresponds to Luther's insight. He made it clear that he conversed with God as with a friend.
As Utsch, the German theologian, reminded Europeans recently, "Faith and prayer relativize the yardsticks of a society fixated on accomplishment and adventure. At the same time, faith and prayer can protect you from feeling inferior because of misfortune, sickness or the handicaps of old age."
These are doubtless good and very practical advantages of worship. But St. Augustine went much further. He taught Christianity that prayer makes the believer bear the divine light "not only without difficulty, but even with unspeakable joy, with which the blessed life is truly and genuinely brought to fulfillment."