Gray Matter: A Neurosurgeon Discovers the Power of Prayer…One Patient at a Time, by David Levy – Stephen Gallup Reviews

Physicians who write about their craft (Atul Gawande, for example) have a willing audience in me, so I didn’t hesitate to pick up this one when I came across it. Turns out that the practice of medicine forms the setting, but the actual subject matter is prayer. Despite the subtitle, the degree of that focus took me a little by surprise.

Almost all of the content is a series of interactions with various patients (ranging from a fetching two-year-old to a crisp upper-level business executive to a retired mercenary) who come to the author with brain aneurysms, tumors, and similar dire conditions. At the beginning of the book, Dr. Levy has recently begun praying in private with his patients prior to their surgeries, and he is overcoming fear of professional backlash in order to pray more openly in the presence of nurses and even other doctors.

Each of the anecdotes he tells is interesting enough in its own right, but after 100 pages I was beginning to wonder about the back story. What could have led him to do something that obviously comes as a surprise to people every time he suggests it? But then he pauses in the narrative to provide that information. At least, he tells a little about his early years, about (a) starting out working in a gas station, with no serious career plans, and suddenly realizing that medicine sounds interesting; (b) making up his mind in med school to be the best, to the extent that he alienates some of his peers; and (c) beginning to commune with a voice in his head that sometimes challenges what he’s doing.

Having provided that much summary, he resumes the stories of treating patients. It seems that in many cases prayer (or at least the soul-searching that is prompted by prayer and discussion) is often demonstrably beneficial. But not always. Some surgeries do not go well, and some outcomes are tragic. Those become the subject of further prayer.

All this is very touching, as is the almost childlike eagerness of many patients and professional people alike to join with him. I would appreciate having such a doctor, because I believe Western medicine errs in taking too narrow a view of illness and treatment. But if I had access to Dr. Levy, there are a lot of questions I’d want to ask. The apparent ease with which he entered the medical profession after his inauspicious start, and with which he became an effective spiritual guide on top of being a highly esteemed neurosurgeon, does not mesh with my own experience and observations. To me, it feels like he’s still leaving something out.

Stephen Gallup is the author of a memoir, What About the Boy: A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son. He has an eclectic interest in books and authors, and reviews books as part of his passion for the written word. He blogs at

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