Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

My Once Sacred Path (Sep-Dec 2005)

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by J. Donald Moore, M.D.
September – December, 2005

The opinions and views expressed in the following article by Don Moore, M.D., are those of the author and do not represent the views of Vanderbilt University or Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.

I had just walked away from one of the most transforming events of my life. After watching the sacred burial of my patient, I shook hands with the man who dug the grave and so carefully lowered the tiny casket and its contents to rest. I felt the mixture of sweat and dirt on the hands that had beautifully orchestrated the very ritual his family and I had fought to prevent. Though unsure of what it all meant, I walked away knowing that what I had experienced was significant. The loss of this patient was a difficult lesson that was only beginning, a course in the practice of life that would continue to unfold over the coming weeks and months. I would return to the gravesite alone the following Saturday morning, five days following his burial, unable to beckon him from among the dead. I went early in the morning, as was my practice, knowing that I could be alone with my thoughts and my patient. It would also give me time before the July sun became unbearable. I had sensed calm and clarity in the cemetery and was drawn back to that place as a starting point, not only to pay my personal private respect but also to listen to what this sacred space had to teach. Borrowing the headstone of a nearby grave I finally took the time to sit, mourn my patient’s loss and reflect on the questions I could not escape. The most pressing question at the time was “Why?”

I refused to go to church the next morning. How could I possibly go there again as an actor, knowing the experience in no way could approximate the reality of what lie before me. This was far more spiritual for me than showing up, shaking a few hands, asking politely how an acquaintance was doing, and not stopping to question the process called church and its lack of relevance to the majority of my life experiences outside. I was literally surrounded by graves, each asking me how I would now start to live. The line of conflict was clearly drawn between what I was observing and the ritual I had come to observe on Sunday. The situation demanded that I act or at least move for that implied some sort of progress. I knew for certain that the direction was outward, away from what I once held as sacred. I would go to a local lake that Sunday morning, not for a day of fun and relaxation, but to be alone and attempt to at least identify where I was in life, how I got there and most importantly, where I was going. I walked the trails surrounding this peaceful and beautiful setting but spent much of the time looking down at the trail beneath my feet. I could not bask in the natural beauty without viewing it through the lens of pain. Along the way there were a few flat sections but for the most part, the trail I had chosen was plagued with rocks, tree roots, steep inclines and unsure footing. Even as I reached the summit, the July rain fell upon me. I look back now at that worship experience as a symbolic event, predicting that the coming year, and perhaps the remainder of my life, would be equally demanding and frustrating. Perhaps even my summit experiences would require co-recognition of the reality of suffering. There would be innumerable questions with few answers, but more importantly was the initiation of tangible movement, away from the ritual of life and into its practice.

When I returned to work following my patient’s burial, I began to dissect the very vocation, which had demanded my time and attention for so much of my life. Was this the final destination I had sought? Was so much stress and now tears the reward for my sacrifices? Was this perpetual cycle of ever longer work days to be my destiny? Granted, there have been deeply meaningful experiences along the way but the price was becoming costly- emotionally, physically and spiritually. My vocation had become the greatest single force pulling me from my church and family. How could I possibly renew my spiritual life when the demands of my profession would not allow it? The white coat that hung in my office somehow had become a worn yet meaningless remnant of some long forgotten dream, like a noble suit of armor in an abandoned medieval tower. I considered leaving medicine for that appeared the more humane option rather than continue this seemingly futile cycle of living a reactive life as the doctor I never chose to become. But what had kept me from fulfilling my original vision in medicine? Why such a tension between my spiritual life and the vocation that had now become the subject of my autopsy?

This tension was not new for I can long remember the disparity between my academic and spiritual lives. Growing up in the traditional church of what some are calling the “modern” era, this disconnect was reinforced very early. I had failed “church 101”. I had done everything right initially to be certain. I attended regularly. I studied privately. I served communion. As a rising high school senior, I was well on my way to recognized ministry until choosing college. The church of my early years encouraged and embraced those who chose “full time Christian ministry” while I felt little encouragement for having pursued premedical education at a less spiritually respected state university. This would be a pattern that would persist through my life, as I walked two separate paths, finding myself diluted between the two, now leaving me a hollow shell that no longer had the stamina or the interest to pursue both. The recent events brought this dilemma again to the forefront of my consciousness. How could such a transformational event occur completely outside the church? Why did the events of Sunday pale in comparison? The wound I thought had healed was again exposed but its acuity demanded immediate attention. What I thought to be a superficial issue was a complicated laceration, penetrating deep into my very identity as a follower of Christ in a medical profession, or any “secular” profession for that matter. I continued for some time with this internal debate, heaving back and forth between the demanding yet potentially fulfilling world of medicine and an ever-dimming hope of returning to deeper spirituality. I either had to leave medicine or leave church- at least the concept of church I had come to accept. I had never before considered a new path, which was really nothing more than the original. My liberation was ultimately found in releasing what once was sacred and embracing what once was secular. The concept of church, again as I had conceived it, had actually been the distraction to my mission outside it.

But is my spirituality confined now only to medicine? Can the path of Christ be so neatly packaged? Is this simply the layering of Christ on my chosen profession? To do so would cheapen both the profession I respect and the costly grace I have accepted. To move forward in this vocation is to fully accept the inherent risks and sacrifices along with the sometimes-sparse moments of rest. Though my current path does travel through medicine, I seldom control the varied and unpredictable terrain this path affords. Furthermore, the mission is larger than the label of “ministry”, thereby expanding the scope of my responsibility. For me to claim a special calling in medicine or any other “ministry” for that matter might actually signify my reliance on external labels to the exclusion of spaces along my path that also demand my attention and involvement. I cannot ignore the movement through other equally important spaces called father, husband, friend, and neighbor. I am also challenged to even question the notion of a “path” if it does not recognize poverty, suffering and social injustice that exist within and beyond the confines of my medical practice. The path ultimately is not mine alone, for it is shared with the common thread of humanity, and Christ, who walks there also, becoming manifest through the lives of his followers.

So what about church? Have I truly left church or only changed my perspective and behavior? I still attend Sunday morning services and have established meaningful community outside its walls, often with those I’ve met along the path. Sunday mornings for me, however, are no longer the spiritual destination but only the terminal through which I pass. If I choose to sit in services and classes each week without testing and applying the lessons learned, I’ve done nothing more than sit in an airport without ever catching a flight. I’ve congregated with others to analyze and critique trail maps rather than walking the very trail I profess to claim as my own. I cannot practice medicine without touching a patient, nor can I claim Christianity without actually following Christ through spaces in which I am confident He moves outside of religion. In short, my emergence has little to do with the activities within the walls of institutional church on Sunday mornings. Although essential to the health of the church and its members, the activities within are validated in my mind outside the walls through the week, along the varied and unique sacred paths we the body of believers traverse. The barometer of Sunday worship is located outside the building. Sermons are not critiqued but are empowered through the works of those who’ve listened. Yes, “church” as we’ve created it on Sunday’s is changing- I feel for the better. I am grateful to those who instruct me on Sundays and continue to till the often-barren soil of my own heart with new methods and tools. Through their teaching and worship leading, I am encouraged to stay on the path that leads outward. I have been encouraged in church, to leave church, and am finding that in doing so, I’m starting to actually find it anew.

The theme of last summer would eventually unfold as that of loss and grief. The loss of my patient was just one of several events that served to catalyze change in my practice of both medicine and faith, which I now see as nothing more than one and the same. This summer has not yet been pierced with funerals for me. To bask in the healing of this season so far is to forget that others’ trails may be marked with doubt, pain and suffering. I also better understand that my own path can change instantly. From this perch in the midst of academic medicine, I’m preparing for the weekend of work on call. I tap into the live internet feed from the institution’s annual “white coat ceremony” as a new medical school class gathers in the company of friends and family, to receive their white lab jackets as they begin their journey in medicine. There is typically a lecture by a respected member of our fellowship and a group reading or recital of an oath such as that penned by Hippocrates. Each student is then called individually to come forward, and their first white coat is placed upon their shoulders. They are officially immersed into the profession, marking them as one of us, and so begins their medical education. Thus, from an early stage, our profession ascribes importance to the external symbol of our vocation. As we progress, the symbol then matures and as I have learned, finds refinement and deeper meaning from the journey itself. With these thoughts in mind, and all that has transpired over the last year, I viewed with a grin. I remember the importance of my own coat and pause for a moment before placing it on my shoulders. I now better appreciate that the coat is a gift of grace, a symbol of great achievement by the fathers of my profession, given to me in hopes that I can not only carry on the rich tradition but might also enflesh what it represents in practice. To wear the coat requires action, not unlike the cloak of grace I have come to accept. My pager beeps, reminding me it’s time to leave the office and get to work.New Wineskins

Don Moore is a pediatric cardiologist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. See his previous article Sacred Spaces: The Ethic of Compassion in the Christian Ethics issue of New Wineskins.

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