No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza
Monday, November 8, 2010
The Healing Power of Prayer
My father's family is Inupiat from the Northern parts of Alaska. Though he doesn't speak the language, he understands it, and uses various words of it in appropriate contexts mixed into English sentences. As a result, I grew up regularly using various Native words myself. They don't tend to come out of my mouth as often anymore living away from others that would understand them. Still, occasionally I'll find myself saying or remembering a Native word unexpectedly. One of my favorites is more of an exclamation than anything else. Truth be told, it's kind of a cuss word, but only relevant to certain kinds of situations.
If you're hurt and it's almost too much you call out "Argh!" (pronounced "Ah-RAH!") usually quick and short. It's commonly used by older people whose joints have gone bad. As they stand and their knees creak they'll call out "Argh!" and then hobble across the room.
My parents were just visiting the 11-year old and I out here in the East. They'd flown out from Alaska so they could see where we're living and also stay with the little one while I took my ersatz conference trip.
This morning I toured my folks around little towns in the area they hadn't been able to see while I was gone. We entered a book store in Woodstock, Vermont that turned out to sell hand painted signs in the back. While we each wandered around separately looking at the merchandise my dad waved me over smiling. He was standing there reading the signs.
Most of the signs were longer statements like, "Forgiveness: the letting go of a burden", or, "You haven't lost your smile at all. It's right under your nose." A few were shorter signs saying something simple like, "Joy", or, "I said, no." Standing next to my dad I was skimming the wall.
He pointed diagonally across the wall. "You know that Native word don't you?" He was smiling enormously, with both eyes mischief and shiny.
I looked up to where he was pointing and there on the back wall was a sign that just said "ARGH" across it. I laughed at the duality of the moment. It was painted as some kind of complaint over the state of things in English, a simple exclamation, and at the same time, surprisingly enough, it was a sign hanging up in Inupiat. My mom walked over and was tickled enough by the sight of it she purchased the sign, but not until the three of us had stood there for a bit talking quietly and laughing.
At the counter the saleswoman had noticed the three of us all tickled over the sign a few moments earlier (something, honestly, I doubt that she sees very often over a sign that just says basically "Ugh") and so kept asking my mom repeatedly, "Oh! Do you like Charlie Brown? Yes, you must like Charlie Brown. Is that your interest in the sign? Charlie Brown?" trying, apparently, to explain to herself what we were so interested in.
The reliance on Charlie Brown as an explanation was odd. (He actually says "Augh!", you know.) But it was apparently the only cultural reference the saleswoman could muster to explain our enthusiasm over such a simple thing, and neither my parents nor I felt like explaining it to her.
On the way out of the store my mom told me a story about an Inupiat, family friend we all share. The woman was the oldest in her family now and had earned her way to arthritis and a bad back. She'd complain regularly about her discomfort and have difficulty getting up in the morning too.
Parts of the Alaska Native community have a strong Evangelical Christian background so that people fly in from the villages to attend church services in Anchorage. Evangelical churches regularly burst into spontaneous song, or speaking in tongues, and also offer healing prayer services. During prayer services the person in need will go to the front of the sanctuary, often with family members accompanying them. The pastor will call on everyone in the church to turn their attention together towards prayer for the person in need. Then he will lift his hands into the air, call on god's power, and through prayer bestow that power onto the individual sufferer. It is often a powerful moment for the individual being prayed for, and people will often express some kind of relief from their suffering during that moment of prayer, and sometimes for a long while after. People will also feel a sense of deep humility and gratefulness during these moments of prayer and when the pastor is finished the individual prayed for will often quietly leave the front overwhelmed by so much attention from the entire church community.
The Inupiat woman's daughters had begun going to Evangelical services regularly, and on a visit to town the Inupiat woman was of course complaining about her joint pain. She'd get up from the couch, "Argh!" and hobble off to the bathroom. Then through the door they could hear that she'd "Argh!" herself from the toilet to the sink. The pain was finally enough that the family decided they would bring her to an Evangelical church service and ask her to be prayed for.
The Inupiat woman waited in the audience while various others went forward, were prayed over, and then quietly stunned went back to their seats in the audience overcome by the power of the lord. Eventually it was her turn to be prayed for so her two daughters accompanied the woman up to the front of the church, one on each side. The woman kneeled down on stage in front of the pastor as he spoke into a microphone asking the church community to turn their attention to the woman's healing. He prayed for her knees. He prayed for her back. He prayed that her joints would in this moment feel relief. She knelt quietly in front of him. He held his free hand in the air as he prayed, calling on god's power, and then lowered his hand to her head bestowing the blessing of christ on her as he did. Then he asked her to rise.
He was standing in front of her holding the microphone. He'd just told her to "Rise! Rise in christ's love!" so she did what made sense. She grabbed his arm to pull herself up to standing again. And as she stood her mouth just happened to pass the microphone right as she let out her loud, reliable "ARGH!" Through the microphone the noise of it filled the sanctuary.
The sign my mom purchased is apparently being sent to the younger of the two women's daughters that stood with her on stage.