Prayer Circles and the Power of Group Thinking in Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’

Book Cover

Book Cover

(This is a continuation of my thoughts about The Lost Symbol from my previous post.)

One of the themes taken up again and again in Dan Brown’s latest novel The Lost Symbol is the idea of power in group thinking and concentration.  Katherine’s character in particular is engaged in the scientific study of producing physical changes through the power of group thought and concentrated collective intention.  In connection with this, the practice of prayer circles is brought up:

The shocking discovery, it seemed, paralleled the ancient spiritual belief in a “cosmic consciousness”—a vast coalescing of human intention that was actually capable of interacting with physical matter. Recently, studies in mass meditation and prayer had produced similar results in Random Event Generators, fueling the claim that human consciousness, as Noetic author Lynne McTaggart described it, was a substance outside the confines of the body . . . a highly ordered energy capable of changing the physical world.1

In another place, Brown continues:

Galloway knew, of course, that one needn’t go to a lab to witness proof of this bold new idea, this proposal of man’s untapped potential. This very cathedral held healing prayer circles for the sick, and repeatedly had witnessed truly miraculous results, medically documented physical transformations. The question was not whether God had imbued man with great powers . . . but rather how we liberate those powers.2

And again:

Katherine smiled down at him. “We have scientifically proven that the power of human thought grows exponentially with the number of minds that share that thought.”

Langdon remained silent, wondering where she was going with this idea.

“What I’m saying is this . . . two heads are better than one . . . and yet two heads are not twice better, they are many, many times better. Multiple minds working in unison magnify a thought’s effect . . . exponentially. This is the inherent power of prayer groups, healing circles, singing in unison, and worshipping en masse.”3

Prayer circles have been defined as where participants join hands in a circle of prayer, often as part of a vigil4.   Such circles have existed for a very long time (see my paper “The Genesis of the Round Dance“).  They are witnessed today in even the simplest act of joining hands around the dinner table while saying grace.  Hugh Nibley wrote extensively about their use in early Christianity in his paper “The Early Christian Prayer Circle.”  In that paper he said: 

It is because each prayer circle is a faithful reproduction of the celestial pattern that impulses can be transmitted from one to the other by all who are in a receptive state; the thoughts of those in the circle are concentrated as in a burning glass, or, since the thing most emphasized as the indispensable requirement of the circle is the absolute purity of mind, concentration of thought devoid of any reservations or distractions, and since the communication is beamed from one Treasury of Light to others, the analogy of the laser is quite striking…

The fullest expression of that altruism by which one saves oneself in saving others is a simple but ingenious device employed in the prayer circle; it was the “diptych,” a sort of looseleaf notebook or folded parchment placed on the altar during the prayer. It contained the names of persons whom the people in the circle wished to remember. The diptychs are among the oldest treasures preserved in the oldest churches. The name means “folded double,” though the documents could be folded triple or quadruple as well if the list of names was very long.5

In the scriptures we are told, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).  Christ taught that there was strength in numbers – “if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:19–20).  Prayers of many righteous people together are the most effectual – “Whatsoever ye shall ask in faith, being united in prayer according to my command, ye shall receive” (D&C 29:6).

An article in the January 1976 Ensign recounts the power of group prayer:

Why is it that when a ward comes together in fasting and prayer, it makes a greater difference somehow than if anyone had done so alone? In part because such united efforts of the Saints are a testimony unto the heavens—a witness that Christ and his purposes take precedence over our hostilities and personality problems. The revelation says, “Be agreed as touching all things whatsoever ye ask.” (D&C 27:18.) Or again, “If ye are not one ye are not mine.” (D&C 38:27.) Brigham Young, who learned much about prayer by listening to the Prophet, said repeatedly to the Saints that when someone prays in a congregation the rest of us should be saying in our minds what he is saying with his lips. We should repeat the very words in our minds. Then when we say “amen” we know what we are saying amen to. “Why?” Brigham asks. “So that Saints may be one.” The effectual, fervent power of united prayer cannot be overestimated. Powerful prayer unites the “Saints—unity expands the power of prayer.”6

There are numerous stories in the church that have been told about the power of prayer and fasting in groups, which has the realization of healings, good fortune, receiving blessings, diverting disaster, or even altering nature.  One such story is told about the Utah drought of 1977:

It was spring and the farmers in the valley were worried. It had been a dry winter, and they needed rain so they could plant their crops.

The stake president decided to hold a special fast, and he asked each bishop to announce it to the members in his ward. He knew the people needed to draw closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus before they could receive the special help they needed. People from everywhere in the stake came to a meeting to join in praying and fasting. They prayed for rain or snow so they could plant their crops and they would grow. They waited and waited, but the moisture they needed did not come.

Months went by. The people continued to fast and pray. Finally, the stake president called another meeting. “Plant your crops,” he told the people. “Heavenly Father has heard your prayers.”

Even though the farmers had not seen any signs of rain, they did as they were directed. Within a few weeks, Heavenly Father’s answer came. Day after day the rain fell, giving the crops the moisture they needed to grow. That year the farmers had one of the best crops they had ever seen. (See David Carl Danielson, “Rain in Due Season,” Ensign, July 1978, pp. 68–69.)7

Many times we consider such events to be miraculous, and they are, because we do not understand the operations which cause them.  Consequently, we also consider miracles to be outside our reality, i.e. that God causes them to happen contrary to natural law.  But consider the thoughts of Elder James E. Talmage in Jesus the Christ:

Miracles cannot be in contravention of natural law, but are wrought through the operation of laws not universally or commonly recognized. Gravitation is everywhere operative, but the local and special application of other agencies may appear to nullify it—as by muscular effort or mechanical impulse a stone is lifted from the ground, poised aloft, or sent hurtling through space. At every stage of the process, however, gravity is in full play, though its effect is modified by that of other and locally superior energy. The human sense of the miraculous wanes as comprehension of the operative process increases. Achievements made possible by modern invention of telegraph and telephone with or without wires, the transmutation of mechanical power into electricity with its manifold present applications and yet future possibilities, the development of the gasoline motor, the present accomplishments in aerial navigation—these are no longer miracles in man’s estimation, because they are all in some degree understood, are controlled by human agency, and, moreover, are continuous in their operation and not phenomenal. We arbitrarily classify as miracles only such phenomena as are unusual, special, transitory, and wrought by an agency beyond the power of man’s control…

In the contemplation of the miracles wrought by Christ, we must of necessity recognize the operation of a power transcending our present human understanding. In this field, science has not yet advanced far enough to analyze and explain. To deny the actuality of miracles on the ground that, because we cannot comprehend the means, the reported results are fictitious, is to arrogate to the human mind the attribute of omniscience, by implying that what man cannot comprehend cannot be, and that therefore he is able to comprehend all that is.8

Could it be the the power that comes from prayer circles, fasting, group concentration, and the like, is actually because we tap into a power or energy that “transcend[s] our present human understanding,” “through the operation of laws not universally or commonly recognized” by us today?  That is not to say that God does not have a part in the process.  Since God knows all, could he have taught us about prayer and fasting so that we could utilize such laws which we don’t yet understand?

I believe that some day we will come to know and understand all the laws of the universe that we live in, and we will come to find that the peculiarities of quantum mechanics, energy and mass, the unique characteristics of light, the power of the priesthood, prayer circles, fasting, the operations of miracles, etc., are all interrelated and connected, and as President Howard W. Hunter once taught, that all truth is part of one great whole:

Truth never conflicts with itself. When we understand and work from true principles, we can expect order and agreement. True principles are part of one great whole, as the Savior explained to Joseph Smith…

When we encounter apparent conflict in our studies and scholarly work, it is because we see only a part of this great whole. Our understanding of the truth we seek may be partial or limited. We may hold an opinion or an idea about the world or human nature that is not entirely true. When we encounter situations of seeming conflict, we should not feel angry or discouraged, but rather we should confront the matter with great optimism and hope. For we know that this apparent conflict is only a prelude to a new understanding and a closer approximation of the ultimate principles we seek, and that this conflict will yield, in God’s own time, to those who seek wisdom by study and by faith.

It is inappropriate… to divide learning into secular education and religious education. Truth is, or ought to be, the object of our endeavors… and truth is not two things; it is one. Our concern is with true science and true religion. Certainly the laws that govern the behavior of both molecules and men are part of the laws known and used by our Heavenly Father. God is the perfect scientist. We must not forget that our knowledge is not yet perfect. Everyone in this life must often look at matters through a glass, darkly.

Nevertheless, all our discoveries in the physical sciences, in the social sciences, even in the workings of human nature testify that there is a set of eternal laws that govern in this universe. We come to realize that God, in his infinite wisdom and power, uses these laws in accomplishing his work. As we come to this awareness we can sense the beauty and majesty and harmony of the gospel. These truths are learned not just by study or prayer, but by study and prayer.9

Notes:
  1. Page 56 []
  2. Page 313-314 []
  3. Page 504 []
  4. Wikipedia – Prayer Circle. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_circle []
  5. Hugh Nibley, “The Early Christian Prayer Circle.” []
  6. Gerald R. Schiefer, “‘Where Two or Three Are Gathered’,” Ensign, Jan 1976, 35. []
  7. Lesson 41: Fasting Brings Us Closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ,” Primary 3: Choose the Right B, (1994), 203. []
  8. James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, Deseret Book Company, 1915, 139-140. []
  9. Howard W. Hunter, Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, Deseret Book Company, 1997, 182-183 []

9 Comments

  1. Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful, Bryce. This may tie in with a post I need to write at some point. Thanks.

  2. Jennifer O.
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Bryce, great work as always.

    As with Enos’s fine example, we realize that true prayer starts with the individual, the couple, the friends, and ultimately moves to the community and about the community, including enemies, as a way to truly open the conduits of heaven. We can see this clearly in prayer circles as you have described. The voice of the group can bring upon powers that are greater than its parts, as it demonstrates a unity of heart and mind, a true oneness with God and among man, the ultimate reward being the realization of Zion as a people and eventually as a place.

  3. Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks Ben and Jennifer. You’ll have to show me your post when you write it, Ben. And great thoughts, Jennifer.

  4. Roy
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    I just finished The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown and had to look up the apotheosis of George Washington on the Internet. I thought all through the book that this was very close to LDS doctrine. It was Good vs. Evil all the way through and at the end it showed that we have to work at being righteous all through our lives and if we put our minds too much on the things of the world, we can lose everything that is good.

  5. ChrisS
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t help but think about “power” and how it relates to subjects that I/we in the church throw around all the time like ‘faith’ and ‘priesthood’ when I finished reading this book. When I was done the one scripture that kept coming back to my mind over and over again is, “faith is the SUBSTANCE of things hoped for.” It’s not etheral, it’s not pretend…faith is SOMETHING…it is THERE. It has SUBSTANCE. Same thing with the POWER of the Priesthood. Like the quotes you found in the post Bryce, it might not be laws we fully understand, but they are laws none-the-less. And those laws are bound by TRUTH (thanks for that quote by President Hunter – awesome!!!). As we grow in knowledge and understanding, we grow in capacity and ability. We become more like our Heavenly Father – that’s what he wants – that’s the goal!

  6. DavidL
    Posted September 28, 2009 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    This could and should be expanded to include family prayer, which has been encouraged to be held morning and night, to call down the powers of heaven on behalf of the needs and protection of the family. Thanks for the insightful post.

  7. Steve
    Posted October 2, 2009 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    I liked that quote from Elder Talmage, very good stuff.

    I also find it kind of amusing how people down here on this little rock floating in the vastness of a universe that we can’t even fathom the end of, presume to declare that there is no God. Only a handful of us have ever been beyond the moon. It’s like a grain of sand on a beach judging the entire world from it’s vantage point. We’re not as wise as we think we are.

  8. Posted October 6, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Considering the prayer circles have to do with covenants, unity, and the Atonement, I found this interesting:

    D&C 93 states that “if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace.”

    David DeSilva (Ph.D. in Religion from Emory University, with emphases on New Testament
    interpretation, Roman history, and sociology of religion), writing on the social context of the Greek “charis,” says that to the Greco-Roman world “grace must be met with grace; favor must always give birth to favor; gift must always be met with gratitude. An image that captured this for the ancients was the picture of three goddesses, the three “Graces,” dancing hand in hand in a circle…we learn that there is no such thing as an isolated act of grace. An act of favor and its manifestation (the gift) initiate a circle dance in which the recipients of favor and gifts must “return the favor,” that is, give again to the giver…Only a gift requited is a gift well and nobly received. To fail to return favor for favor is, in effect, to break off the dance and destroy the beauty of the gracious act.” (DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, 2000)

    Not only does this “circle dance” capture the essence of a covenant relationship, but it (as far as I’m concerned) destroys the Evangelical understanding of “saved by grace, not of works.” This fits perfectly within the LDS “grace for grace” context.

  9. Jackie
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Great article Bryce, thank you, thank you, for your effort…I’m new to the site, chatted with you a moment the other evening, and all this got me to thinking about, lest we not forget, that great missionary/lds book by Grant Von Harrison, “Drawing on the Powers of Heaven”. Harrison quotes Joseph Smith on page 1: “Regarding faith, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that: 1) “…as faith is the moving cause of all action in temporal concerns, so it is in spiritual;” 2) “…faith is not only the principle of action, but of power also,” and 3) “Faith, then is the first great governing principle which has power, dominion, and authority over all things.” Joseph Smith, “Lectures on Faith”, pp. 8 & 10. Hmmm, authority over all things (all should be underlined). He also speaks to the power of group prayer in his book, fasting and other methods of drawing on the powers of heaven to make thoughts into things, as I’m sure you know.
    And, from the New Testament: “…when ye pray, believe that ye receive [them], and ye shall have [them].” Mark 11:24 And, just before this verse: “For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.” Mark 11:23.
    Love this site.
    Jackie

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