Ten years ago, I begged God to help me do what I could not alone. Like millions of other smokers, I had struggled for years to quit and failed every time. Although a cradle Catholic, my prayers were rusty and I had only recently started going to church again. Yet a strong and loving voice that I was certain belonged to God suddenly said, clear as a bell: "I will make this easy for you."
I felt calm and free. I have not smoked since, nor wanted to. Unfortunately, the voice also said: "But you have to tell people how I helped you."
Now, surely, came the hard part. I wasn't good or devout, I was a doubting Thomas and worked in the cynical media. I was certain that if I told people God had spoken to me, they'd think me vain, mad or a "God Botherer".
It turns out, though, that I needn't have worried. When I wrote a piece about my experience for The Daily Telegraph at the start of the year, it generated a substantial and supportive postbag. Now I know why. According to new research commissioned by the Church of England, a staggering six people in seven believe in the power of prayer - despite the dramatic drop in formal religious observance.
My experience bears out these findings. Scores of readers wrote, privately describing similar miraculous releases from addiction or illness following prayer or meditation. Most were Christian, but others were agnostic, Buddhist or had simply prayed to their "angels" or "Higher Power".
Many experienced complete, instant freedom, like solicitor James M: "I had, from my teenage years, been a heavy smoker, reaching 60 per day. One Christmas Eve, I and a friend, now my wife, were received into the Roman Catholic Church. Within days, I woke up with the sense that I did not have to smoke any more. I suffered no withdrawal symptoms. The odd thing is that I had no wish or intention to give up. It just happened."
Talking about miracles is very un-British: you could spend decades attending mainstream churches and not hear a single person acknowledge God's help in defeating some sort of heinous addiction.
Valerie from Somerset described long battles with over-eating. Five months ago, she prayed "to God to stop being tempted. On waking the very next morning, temptation was removed from me. It really was as simple as that. Christmas slipped past with all its richer foods and, yes, still there was no temptation to snack. Thank God. And I mean that in the best possible way."
Two people wrote of apparently miraculous recoveries from cancer. Neither had conventional faith. Peter H wrote: "A growth on my thyroid 16 years ago was diagnosed (from a biopsy) as a malignant cancer, but when operated on it appeared miraculously to be benign. I'm somewhat agnostic but I went through a deep process with God before the operation, and afterwards I wanted to tell all about God's love and power with genuine conviction."
Ellen J wrote: "I know what you mean by living in a secular society in which 'believing in the Higher Power' is often met with ridicule. I myself am not a religious person at all but my siblings are." They prayed for her recovery from a second operation on a breast tumour, and "the oncologist who saw me afterwards said he had never seen a patient healed so quickly".
A former army major described how his 40-a-day smoking habit escalated to "a 100-a-day-with-the-filters-ripped-off-habit" when he was in Bosnia during the siege of Sarajevo. Milos Stankovic MBE - described by former MP Martin Bell as a hero - gave up by using willpower alone, but it took a year of gritted teeth determination. "But I much prefer your approach. From your description, I have no doubt that you had divine help."
The ex-paratrooper ran Schindler's List-type secret escape lines for endangered families in Bosnia and helped found the Braveheart military charity for traumatised veterans. He is now a consultant and trainer in a shamanic-influenced method called Neural Pathways Restructuring, which claims a high success rate among clients suffering from combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and addictions - including smoking and heroin. "All my clients' successes have occurred when they suspended their disbelief," Stankovic says. "And all the failures occurred when their egos and conscious thought-processes allowed doubt and scepticism."
The Bible describes many miracles, and sceptics believe it attunes Christians to divine help. One of my online critics felt sure I had subconsciously manufactured the voice through my deep need and my Catholic background. I can understand why a sceptic would think that. But I remain grateful for what happened.
Colette was a long-lapsed Catholic and struggling with infertility and repeated miscarriages when her GP confided in her that he, too, was a Christian and felt that prayer would help guide her. "It never occurred to me to include God in this journey," she told me. She wrote of a set of "coincidences" that led her and her husband to adopt a child, whose genuine birth name was, she believes, revealed to her in prayer.
"Like you, I am an educated woman and not prone to flights of fancy but I know the Holy Spirit guided me and spoke to me clearly throughout the whole process. All I can say is that where prayer is involved, there are many coincidences."
If prayer is a placebo, as many in our secular world believe, it is an extraordinarily powerful one, and "small miracles" are more common than we realise.
A hospital consultant friend of mine, a non-believer, is currently reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Britain's leading aetheist. He mentioned Dawkins's claim that only 17 Lourdes miracles have been indisputably confirmed (which is, none the less, 17 deeply blessed people). More worryingly, he says, his hospital sees "at least six cancer patients a year" who die unnecessarily because they have refused conventional treatments and instead relied solely on "wacky faith cures".
But I believe God helps those who help themselves. I didn't just pray when I wanted to give up smoking as I explained in my article; I also joined an NHS quit-smoking group and walked and swam for miles to release my feel-good endorphins in a healthier way. I experienced occasional pangs, but this time I knew I would make it: the support of that loving voice stayed with me throughout.
It is already known that prayer and meditation have considerable beneficial effects, physically as well as psychologically. They calm the mind, slow the heartbeat, abate fear, diminish the pumping of stress hormones and boost the immune system. If this is "mind over matter", it is certainly powerful. It could be self-generated, as sceptics think, but what if the process is itself divine?
A mother wrote to me of a relative's recovery from drug addiction thanks to Cenacoloro, a non-denominational international recovery community founded 30 years ago by an Italian Catholic nun, which claims a high success rate. "Young people from all religious backgrounds and none, but suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, enter the community and learn through hard work, prayer and a structured daily routine to rebuild their lives. They all say it is the prayer that works," she says.
Several readers had used the Twelve Steps method of Alcoholics Anonymous, now widely applied to other forms of addiction, to give up various vices. AA was founded by Christians but merely advocates appealing to a Higher Power, so that people of all faiths can benefit from its key teaching, namely that we only recover from addiction when we admit our powerlessness and need for "the God of our understanding" to help free us. We need to hit rock bottom and surrender.
Gina, who wrote to me, follows AA's programme. "A belief in a Power greater than myself and acceptance (that took a long time) of my powerlessness over all my addictions has made it possible to remain sober and, amazingly, also to stop smoking. I think I had tried everything before, short of marooning myself on a desert island. And that wouldn't have lasted. I would have headed straight for the nearest shop the moment the rescue plane touched down.
"It was quite sudden and relatively painless. I have had pangs, but they pass. I am also learning to meditate, which helps. Quite simply I believe I had help from a Higher Power. And for that I am very grateful."
It may seem odd in these cynical times to be endorsing the power of prayer. I can only relate what readers told me. I am working on a book about the power of prayer and the spirit, and would be delighted to hear from people of other faiths and agnostics, too. Asking God for release from addiction may seem superstitious baloney to non-believers. But, God knows why, it seems to work.