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Spiritual recovery

04 November 2016

Ted Harrison on the pilgrimage of a medic struggling with prayer

The Journey: Spirituality, pilgrimage and chant

J. Richard Smith

DLT £9.99


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.

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