Mother Teresa will be declared a saint by the Vatican on Sunday for performing two miracles beyond the grave. The miracles took place half the world across from each other – one in Brazil, which is home to the world’s highest number of Catholics; and in India’s eastern state of West Bengal, where Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity with 12 others in 1950. Today, her order has more than 4,500 members and runs orphanages, hospices and homes in 133 countries.
The West Bengal miracle happened first, where Monica Besra claimed her abdominal cancer tumour disappeared after she placed a medallion blessed by the Mother on it. Doctors at the Balurghat Hospital where she was being treated said it was strong medicines and treatment that cured the early stage tumour.
The second miracle was the healing of Marcilio Haddad Andrino from Santos, Brazil, who was allegedly cured of a bacterial infection in the brain that caused debilitating headaches from brain abscess. He prayed to Mother Teresa and slipped into coma, only to wake up cured on an operating table, where he had been taken for life-saving surgery.
No scientific validation
The Vatican whetted and accepted both miracles as real, and so have millions of Catholics. But can faith and prayers heal? Well, there is no scientific validation to show they do.
There is no arguing that the Mother with the unpronounceable given name of Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was a very good person, but her goodness does not turn faith healing into a science. If she could really cure cancers and other diseases with blessing and touch, the several billions being spent on medical research, hospitals and medicines could be freed up to feed the poor she spent her life caring for.
That would have been a miracle.
Healing through prayer, rituals, blessed objects and visit to pilgrimage centres are part of almost all religious traditions. Faith healing is as old as religion in India and takes as many forms as there are gods. From chanting the ‘great death-conquering’ Mahamrityunjaya mantra from the Rig Veda, people have turned to gods, gurus and saints to cure their ills. They still go to great lengths to do so, some swallowing live fish to cure asthma, others eating holy ash to cure arthritis, while still others paying $99 online to buy television yoga guru-turned-entrepreneur Ramdev’s indigenous cures for cancer.
All these tales of healing, however, are anecdotal and have not been validated by independent and unbiased scientific reviews.
Saving from hurt
Most people will tell you believing in a miracle can’t hurt, but it does when people chose faith over medicines prescribed to treat them. People develop life-threatening complications – some lose their lives – because they stop medical treatment believing their faith will see them through. People go blind because they’ve stopped diabetes medicines thinking they were cured, people with cancers seek treatment in late stages because they were convinced their prayers sent their tumours in remission, and people with heart disease get heart attacks and strokes because their cholesterol and blood pressure are uncontrolled.
They often mistake the sense of optimism and fulfillment they experience from prayer with physical well-being, which makes them seek medical treatment too late or not at all.
Does faith, then, offer no benefit or does it those who believe? Does prayer have a placebo effect, which has been known to lower symptoms in people disorders ranging from anxiety and depression to heart disease and Parkinson’s? In the context of prayer and healing, the placebo response is modulated by the person’s sense of optimism, contentment and degree of engagement with the ritual.
It’s scientifically established that people of faith cope better with pain and recover faster than those with no faith at all. Faith provides emotional support that brings psychological benefits through interpersonal contact with others like you, which brings down anxiety and stress to boost immunity. It works by regulating the amygdala, the brain’s “fight or flight” centre, which initiates of the body’s response to stress.
Bringing down the body’s stress response lowers chronic pain, cravings associated with addiction, blood pressure and heart rate, while improving sleep and boosting immunity. Another plus is that believers are more likely to clean up their lives and adopt healthy lifestyle behaviours, such as not smoking and drinking. The downside is that when praying for recovery does not show results, people may blame themselves for not having enough faith.
The verdict? Faith heals, but only if you continue medication.