The Journey: Spirituality, pilgrimage and chant
J. Richard Smith
Church Times Bookshop £9
”PHYSICIAN, heal thyself,” the proverb quoted by Jesus in St Luke’s Gospel, came to mind as I read The Journey by Richard Smith, an eminent gynaecological surgeon.
After a divorce and illness, which he describes as a seriously mind-focusing experience, he writes of discovering a spiritual life to complement his practice of scientific medicine.
The teenager, who drifted away from the Church of Scotland, rediscovered faith as an adult within the Anglo-Catholic tradition.
The book is based on accounts of pilgrimage to four of the most evocative destinations in Christendom: the Holy Land, Assisi, Patmos, and Iona. He admits to travelling like a typical Brit abroad. He laughed along with two Patmos youths, amused by the sight of him hiking past with walking poles, backpack, and striped scarf wrapped over his head.
At most of the pilgrimage sites he visited, he found himself attuned to their sacredness. Even in the thronging crowds of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem, he knew he was, to use a Celtic term, in a “thin place . . . where he sensed God very strongly”.
Only in Bethlehem did he fail to discover holiness. The oppressive security and obvious poverty made him uncomfortable. On a rushed visit, he admits to being tourist rather than pilgrim, “in the wrong frame of mind” to appreciate Jesus’s birthplace.
Smith enjoys elaborate high-church liturgies, and yet the scientist inside him has struggled with prayer. The discovery of Christian meditation through chanting released his inhibitions. He provides fascinating insights into a new medical understanding of the effects of meditation, acknowledging how the heart literally, and not just metaphorically, contributes to our emotions.
In a revealing story, Smith describes addressing a patients’ meeting. After his medical talk, he said he would like to speak about spirituality and religion. “The response was amazing. One woman shouted ‘this is what we want to talk about.’”
Medical staff fear for their livelihoods if they discuss matters of the spirit with patients, but in not doing so we let many people down, he concludes. This is a book highly recommended to be read by atheists.
Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.