(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. ((Page 56))
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. ((Page 313-314))
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.” ((Page 504))
Prayer circles have been defined as where participants join hands in a circle of prayer, often as part of a vigil ((Wikipedia – Prayer Circle. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_circle)). 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. ((Hugh Nibley, “The Early Christian Prayer Circle.”))
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.” ((Gerald R. Schiefer, “‘Where Two or Three Are Gathered’,” Ensign, Jan 1976, 35.))
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.) ((“Lesson 41: Fasting Brings Us Closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ,” Primary 3: Choose the Right B, (1994), 203.))
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. ((James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, Deseret Book Company, 1915, 139-140.))
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. ((Howard W. Hunter, Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, Deseret Book Company, 1997, 182-183))