NEW YORK TIMES
A Devotion to Healing Through Prayer
By JAY AXELBANK
Published: April 12, 1998
IT was a picture perfect life, all right, for Nigel W. D. Mumford, a transplanted Englishman: a thriving picture-framing business in Wilton, president of the Wilton Rotary Club, a comfortable home he shared with his wife, in Newtown, Ct.; a dog, a boat and, in his words, ”plenty of other toys.”
Spiritual concerns, he recalls, were ”far down on the list,” even though his father is a clergyman. In fact, before emigrating to America in 1980 (because he found the United States ”fresh, open and clean”) he was Corporal Mumford, a drill instructor in Her Majesty’s Royal Marine Commandos who, he said, ”taught men to kill or be killed.” He made grown men cry on the drill field.
Now, as a minister of healing in New Milford, Mr. Mumford has come to realize how much it takes to deal with people’s suffering. ”Now I am often the one to cry,” he says, ”when I listen to the torments they endure.”
Mr. Mumford’s new life in the healing ministry of the Episcopal Church began after two incidents in 1990. The first was being summoned to the bedside of his gravely ill sister in a London hospital; there, he says he witnessed how an Anglican clergyman, through prayer, enabled her to overcome a devastating neurological disease — and to walk again.
The second incident took place shortly afterward in Wilton, when a customer entered his shop complaining of a severe headache. ”My hands went to the top of her head and I said a little prayer,” he recalls. Startled, the woman broke into a broad smile. ”The pain is gone! What on earth did you do?” she exclaimed.
But nobody was more surprised than Mr. Mumford himself. ”It was as if some spiritual force had drawn my hands out to her — it was mysterious,” he relates. ”When word got around, I couldn’t tell whether people were coming into the shop for picture framing or prayer. When I prayed, many would tell me their suffering had been alleviated.”
Only after several years did it dawn on Mr. Mumford that ”God was telling me what to do with the rest of my life.” Following a divorce (there were no children), he chucked his house, his business and ”all those toys,” and two years ago entered a semi-monastic life, as he puts it. He became director of the Oratory of the Little Way in Gaylordsville, a part of New Milford, operating under the auspices of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. The Oratory is one of only three such residential prayer retreats in the United States.
Before his appointment, the former commando, who is 44, was given psychological testing by the Episcopal Church to make sure ”I wasn’t some kind of a crackpot.” He says there are still many doubters among mainline Protestant churches as to the healing effects of prayer. Then too, ”a lot of so-called faith healers give us a bad name — I mean the charlatans,” he said. ”Here at the Oratory we avoid the term faith healing.”
A tree-shaded, four-acre oasis off Route 7, the Oratory offers ”those ill or injured in mind, body or spirit a place to find prayer, peace and welcome,” according to Mr. Mumford, who is a lay minister of the Episcopal Church. ”All who come here are reminded that I don’t heal — God does. I am only a conduit.”
Prayer, he asserts, has a significant role in dealing with emotional distress ”and recent scientific research shows irrefutably that emotions can directly affect a person’s immune system, blood pressure and, ultimately, even longevity.” Mr. Mumford has just begun a series of monthly prayer services for patients and others in need at the New Milford Hospital.
During this Easter season, he said, ”healing is very much on our minds because in the message of resurrection we have the ultimate healing.”
Two recent visitors to the Oratory (they are called supplicants) recount healing experiences through prayer. One of them, Michael, of Stamford (he withheld his full name), has put prostate cancer behind. ”Fifty percent of my treatment was medical, of course,” he says, ”but the other half of my recovery was getting rid of anger over my family and a divorce — which probably contributed to the cancer.”
Kathleen King, 33, of Norwalk, said at first she hesitated to seek help at the Oratory. ”But in that atmosphere of prayer and love,” she recounts, ”I was able to finally forgive somebody who hurt me badly many years ago.”
Most supplicants seek spiritual, not physical healing. ”But even those with physical sickness,” Mr. Mumford goes on, ”also have underlying emotional or spiritual problems, usually anger or stress, that must be dealt with first. We call this healing of the memories.”
At a recent prayer service at the nearby Gaylordsville United Methodist Church — there is no longer enough space at the Oratory — Mr. Mumford placed his hands on the head of a woman suffering from cancer and prayed for the pain and cancer cells to leave her. Others at the service sought divine intercession for such afflictions as arthritis, substance abuse, severe depression and the loss of a job.
The Rev. Christopher Seitz, professor of Old Testament at Yale University Divinity School, who helped Mr. Mumford officiate at the service, says, ”Prayer puts people in any type of distress into the hands of God and helps allow them to accept His will.”
Dr. Joan Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches based in New York, says, ”I think there is greater recognition today of the influence of the mental and spiritual on the physical.”
Those who seek help at the Oratory, according to Mr. Mumford, must not lose sight of the difference between being healed and cured. ”Not everybody is cured,” he says, ”but all supplicants are healed in some way through prayer.” He adds: ”In the case of the gravely ill, we have to pray for coming to terms with God’s will.”
The Oratory operates on a nondenominational basis; people of any faith are welcome. In the two years since Mr. Mumford became director, the average weekly attendance has grown from a handful to as many as 60 people. Supplicants may attend the weekly Tuesday prayer service, visit for an hour of one-on-one prayer and spiritual dialogue or remain in residence for up to five days. There are also rigorously conducted, silent retreats during which not a single word is uttered by guests or staff, not even to say goodbye.
The only fees charged are $25 for a day of retreat and $65 for an overnight stay, although donations are welcome. The eight guest rooms are spartan: spare furniture, no television, no telephone. Simple meals are served in communal style.
Before Mr. Mumford will pray for those with emotional problems, he asks them to consult a therapist or doctor to ascertain if the Oratory is appropriate for them. ”We work symbiotically with doctors and therapists,” he says. ”We add a spiritual dimension to clinical treatment.”
The Oratory is far from a somber place. ”There is joy and laughter here and camaraderie,” says one supplicant, passing along a platter of sandwiches at a recent lunch. The ex-Marine chimes in, ”I can’t cook to save my life and yet we run a Christian bed and breakfast here!”
A stay at the Oratory can be as full or as empty as a visitor wishes. Supplicants can engage in spiritual reading and conversation or ”just empty their minds,” Mr. Mumford explains.
Mr. Mumford says he never loses his sense of awe when supplicants report miraculous cures or healing. ”I always say to myself, ‘Wow — this is amazing,’ and I give thanks to God.” He is sometimes confronted by skeptics who ask what percentage of people are healed, ”And I usually respond: ‘God acts in wonderful but mysterious ways. If there is another outcome than the one we prayed for, we must accept this.’ And someone who is healed may not come back to tell me — or healing may take a long time.”
One who has come back to tell is Alberta Peterson, 44, of Brookfield. In a recent interview, she recounted her experience this way: ”I fractured my wrist and finger in seven places last year. That’s what the X-ray showed. Three days later Nigel Mumford prayed for me at the Oratory. My hand felt cured and the very next day I went back to the doctor. He took another X-ray and he was amazed — he couldn’t find any breaks. He took five more X-rays. Still nothing. So he took the cast off!”
At the first regular healing service at the New Milford Hospital in February, Mr. Mumford prayed for Mary Ellen Lanigan, 54, of New Milford, a multiple sclerosis victim who was confined to a wheelchair. Her condition, she asserts, had already improved through prayer of friends, family and clergy. Within a week of the healing service, she says, she was able to walk with a cane. ”I thank Nigel. Jesus used him to heal me,” she says.
The Right Rev. Andrew D. Smith, bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, says, ”Without question, something significant is happening through Nigel Mumford’s presence and ministry that imparts the healing grace of God.”
The National Council’s Dr. Campbell takes the view that there may be a scientific explanation for what appears to be a miracle. ”Or the curative effect may simply be explained in terms of achieving peace of mind and soul,” she says.
The Rev. J. Richard Fowler, interim pastor of the New Preston Congregational Church, while accepting that miracle cures can occur, says he is dubious about those who ”credit the person who prays, instead of God, for the healing.”
The Rev. Carl Franson, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Sharon, who admits to having had doubts about the Oratory’s mission, came away impressed with the ”lack of hype and the spiritual uplift.”
According to the Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., executive director of the Christian Conference of Connecticut, a Hartford-based group representing 14 denominations, including the Catholic Church, ”there has been a reawakening by mainline Protestant churches to God’s power to heal the sick, particularly in the context of the AIDS crisis. We encourage prayer services for AIDS victims.”
Mr. Mumford, his voice dropping, says, ”I know as well as anyone that prayer can seem to go unanswered,” adding: ”Through prayer my sister was cured. But her little girl, my niece, has had a malignant brain tumor. But we never give up our faith in prayer.”
In his daily prayers for Oratory supplicants Mr. Mumford admits to occasional ”compassion fatigue” — particularly in cases of the terminally ill or sick children. At these times, he himself seeks healing prayer from others. ”I am only human, too,” he points out.