Zac Efron has a new special out on Netflix, and in the second episode, he explores a healing miracle that took place at a shrine in France. Even though he professes to be agnostic, the experience seems to have shown him something about prayer.
His series is called Down to Earth, which documents his travels around the world with wellness expert Daren Olien to explore health and sustainability. The second episode highlights water and its healing powers, so the crew spends time in France, where they tour the public water production facility of Paris, and make a visit to a pilgrimage site.
Efron and Olien visited Lourdes to study the healing and spiritual dimension of water. In 1858, a girl named Bernadette Soubirous was tending sheep and collecting firewood when Mary appeared to her from a nearby cave. She told Bernadette to drink from a spring in the cave. Not finding any water, Bernadette began digging in a muddy patch, and water began to flow — it hasn’t stopped since.
A shrine was built on the site and more than 200 million pilgrims have visited to look for healing. They bathe in the water and pray. Thousands have claimed healing, and more than 70 miracles have been scientifically documented there.
In the Down to Earth episode, Efron speaks with the head physician at Lourdes, whose job is to investigate healings from a purely medical perspective. He shows Efron the X-rays of a man who had cancer in his hip — the image shows the bone in the pelvis completely eaten away. A later X-ray shows the man’s hip completely restored with a fully healthy bone structure. More than 300 doctors studied the evidence and could find no scientific explanation for the healing.
“There is no denying the sacred feeling you get, just by being here,” Efron says. “It’s hard to believe that back in the 1800s, a 14-year-old girl that people wrote off as crazy, had a miraculous, holy vision, right here at this very spot.”
Efron also speaks with Holy Cross priest Jim Phalan, a chaplain at Lourdes, who explains that the water and candles that people encounter there are not magic — they are symbols that help us pray. Though Efron was raised without faith, these symbols seem to move him to an experience of prayer, himself.
He and Olien participate in a candlelight procession, and he says, “Whether or not you believe in the power of prayer, when you witness thousands of people at a candlelight vigil like this, there’s no denying the energy. … I feel like I’m a part of something much greater than myself.”
Efron puts his finger on a fundamental dynamic of prayer: praying with others changes the experience. This is why people have always gathered to pray together — being a part of a community encourages us. Somehow, when people seek faith together, what happens in the group is bigger than the sum of its parts — God meets us there.
“I definitely believe there’s some kind of power in group prayer,” Efron says. “All of these people coming together for prayer, creating one massive force. … Does it work? I don’t know. But you can’t deny the extraordinary peace and beauty that is going on right here.”
Efron uncovers another truth about prayer, as well: it is a simple lifting of the heart and mind to God. Though it can be difficult to hear a response, the very act of approaching God with our needs and joys puts us in touch with a force greater than ourselves. And there’s a power to that movement — it sets a different horizon for our hopes and fears.
“Prayer means different things to different people,” Efron says. “What I found is that sometimes just taking the time to ask — it can help bring peace. … I don’t expect everything I pray for to be answered, but sometimes taking the time to ask is comforting in itself.”