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Archive for May, 2022

THE PHYSICIAN…

My father, Ernest Vernon Smith, Jr., was ‘an old-time country doctor, as was his father, Ernest Vernon Smith, Sr.  The ‘old time country doctor’ did everything from surgery to helping deliver babies, to making house calls and were, in reality, on-call seven days a week.  My grandfather and father served folks in a city of about 18,000 and in the farmlands that surrounded this small mid-western community.  In 1942 my grandfather wrote and published his autobiography (he was in his 35th year of practice).  The title of his autobiography is ‘The Making of a Surgeon’ [A Midwestern Chronicle].  This morning, Gentle Reader, I am going to offer you excerpts from the last three pages of his autobiography. 

My Grandfather writes: Fundamentally every good doctor’s first thought is for his patient…  The relation of the doctor to his patient is a thing intangible and almost impossible of expression, but it is, nevertheless, experienced by every physician worthy of his name.  It might be called an invisible bond that develops between the doctor and the patient he is trying to help…  The great satisfaction of seeing [a] patient well and happy is a reward beyond price, and it gives the doctor fresh enthusiasm and courage to go on with his work. 

Even more acute is the effect on a good doctor of the patients he could not help…  There is the terrible gnawing sensation known to every [physician] when he believes and ponders the situation of a patient who could be helped…but who will not permit it.  There is a feeling of bleakness which comes over the mind of a doctor who stands helplessly by and watches a patient waste away as a result of the influence of some incurable disease…   There is, too, the genuinely pathetic case of the individual who has not been helped by one physician and so mistrusts all other doctors…

Modern medical practice demands both a well-trained hand and brain, et those two do not suffice.  Every true physician should have, in addition, a sensitive conscience and a kind heart.  It was so in the beginning; it is so now; and I hope that it will be so everlastingly.

Here, Gentle Reader, is a photo of my Grandfather, Ernest Vernon Smith, Sr. in 1942.

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If you were to spend time in a monastery, as I did for 16 months when I was 18 years old, you would experience the monks gathering early in the morning for an hour of sitting meditation.  For me, it was an intimate and moving experience to sit in silence with others.  I was deeply touched by the stillness and the disciplined practice that opened the pathways to stillness.

The Egyptian desert Fathers had a name for this experience: hesychia.  This Greek word is translated in different ways, depending upon the context: Stillness (which resonates with me), quiet, tranquility, peace.  Hesychia is synonymous with deep meditation and deep awareness.  One meditates on God and seeks to become aware of God’s presence.  The 7th Century monk, John of the Ladder, described ‘hesychia’ as ‘worshipping God unceasingly… [An] inviolable activity of the heart.’  In this place of stillness, everything other than God faded from consciousness.  God’s presence became evident.  One became aware of being ‘in God.’  The person who has achieved ‘hesychia’ noted John of the Ladder, ‘has arrived at the very center of the mysteries.’ 

Gentle Reader, you might recall that I have been learning about the Desert Fathers and I have been reading the writings attributed to them.  John of the Ladder was a 7th Century monk who lived in the Sinai desert.  We know little about him.  He did write a book: ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent.’  He advised monks to carry a small notebook with them and to record their thoughts as they emerged during contemplation.  Today, monks continue to engage in ‘writing meditations.’  John’s impact can be noted as he has been declared a ‘saint’ in the Roman Catholic, the Oriental Orthodox, the Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Catholic churches. 

In his writings, John helps us learn how to let go of the things, the activities, and the ideas that hinder ‘hesychia’ from taking root in our hearts.  For John – and the other Desert Fathers – this involved a lifetime of effort.  For them, ‘stillness’ was an ‘end’ to be sought’ and it was the ‘means’ by which one lived into the ‘end.’  ‘Stillness’ was a ‘disciplined practice.’   

‘Hesychia’ might involve at any given moment: a withdrawal from activity, a reflection upon one’s relationships with another, a specific way of praying, a commitment to being open to one’s strengths and frailties, an act of transparency (revealing one’s self to oneself and to God), and a living prayer.  It was, it seemed, a touchstone for almost everything in the monks’ life that mattered. 

Stillness – a Disciplined Practice – enabled one to face one’s self without excuse or evasion.  It enabled one to become vulnerable especially when one was tempted to seek ‘security’ in the world.  For the monk, the world did not provide the ‘space’ for stillness.  The Desert Father, Abba Anthony, noted: ‘Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so do monks who pass their time with persons of the world lose the intensity of inner stillness.’ 

Stillness – A Disciplined Practice is available to all of us – and, as the monks remind us, it requires a life-time commitment.  Are we, who are addicted to ‘hurry sickness,’ ‘distraction’ and ‘busyness’ willing to make such a commitment? 

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‘THE PARADOX OF LINCOLN’

Sadly, the ‘Party of Lincoln’ is dead.  My parents were members of Lincoln’s Party as I was until it died (‘killed’ would be a better term).  Like each of us Lincoln was a living paradox.  The ‘Party of Lincoln’ was also a living paradox.  Lincoln’s Party was both ‘Conservative’ and ‘Progressive’ just as Lincoln himself was.  In 1920 Herbert Croly wrote a piece that he titled ‘The Paradox of Lincoln’.  I recently re-read and reflected again upon Croly’s article.  This morning, Gentle Reader, I am going to share with you some of Croly’s words.  I invite you, Gentle Reader to read and reflect upon Croly’s words (you might even choose to seek out his article and spend time with Croly’s entire article). 

Croly wrote this about Lincoln:

His mind was capable of harboring and reconciling purposes, convictions and emotions so different from one another that to the majority of his fellow-countrymen they would in anybody else have seemed incompatible.  He could hesitate patiently without allowing hesitation to become infirmity of will.  He could insist without allowing insistence to become an excuse for thoughtless obstinancy. He could fight without quarreling. He could believe intensely in a war and in the necessity of seeing it through without falling a victim to its fanaticism and without permitting violence and hatred to usurp the place which faith in human nature and love of truth ordinarily occupied in his mind. When, for instance, the crisis came, and the South treated his election as a sufficient excuse for secession, he did not flinch as did Seward and other Republican leaders. He would not bribe the South to abandon secession by compromising the results of Republican victory. Neither would he, if she seceded, agree to treat secession as anything but rebellion. But although he insisted, if necessary, on fighting, he was far more considerate of the convictions and the permanent interests of the South than were the Republican leaders, who for the sake of peace were ready to yield to her demands…

It is not only, however, that he harbored purposes, convictions and feelings which were incompatible one with another in the minds of other people. He expressed and acted on these usually incompatible motives and ideas with such rare propriety and amenity that their union in his behavior and spirit passes not only without criticism but almost without comment…

…because he had charged himself high for his own life he qualified to place a high value on the life of other people. He envisaged them all, rich and poor, black and white, rebel and loyalist as human beings, whose chance of being something better than they were depended chiefly on his own personal willingness and ability to help them in taking advantage of it.

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MY MENTORS, PART IV

It was a day in May, 1992 when I entered a room and sat down across from the man who would become the fourth mentor I mentioned in ‘PART I.’ I was 48 years old.  For months I had been holding an intention that a mentor be revealed to me; I knew I had a need for one although I did not know what my need was. 

R.T. Williams.  On that day in May, R.T. introduced himself: ‘I’m R.T. Williams; in the South R.T. is a real name.’  R.T. was my mentor for the next 8 years.  In the spring of 2000 we were in the process of redefining our relationship when R.T. died suddenly; R.T. had emerged a ‘big dream’ and we had been embracing and exploring his ‘big dream’ for months. 

R.T. was an educator.  He saw potential waiting to be called forth.  R.T. called forth some gifts, talents, and abilities that lay dormant within me; he also affirmed and helped me develop more fully other gifts, talents and abilities that I possessed; they were already alive, if not blossoming.  His main method was inquiry.  He would ‘name’ if he was referring to a gift, talent, or ability that I already knew that I possessed.  He saw his ‘charge’ as two-fold: to call forth and to affirm.  One powerful way he did this was to, literally, follow me around the country (twice he followed me to England and The Netherlands).  He would register for a learning session or leadership retreat that I was guiding; he would show up and participate.  Afterwards we would spend hours together and he would ask me questions and he would affirm me.  His questions were intellectually stretching, challenging and at times intimidating.  His affirmations were clear and concise. 

I thought I asked good questions until I spent time with R.T.  ‘Why that question?’ he would ask.  ‘How did this question,’ [he would then repeat the question I had asked] ‘enable them to think more broadly or deeply?’  R.T. helped me understand the value of ‘reflection plus experience’ – that is, reflecting, via questions, upon what I had experienced.  R.T. also helped me become more aware of the ‘power’ of what he called ‘your throw-away-lines.’  This continues to be a challenge for me – to recognize the impact certain ‘spontaneous’ questions or observations or comments or examples or stories have upon the other(s). 

R.T. affirmed my ‘story-telling’ talent.  I seldom began a session thinking about a story that might help ground an idea or that might help stimulate the thinking of the participants; a story would emerge into my consciousness as the session progressed.  R.T. also called forth my ability to help others uncover and discern their gifts, talents, abilities, and potentials – he called forth more fully and deeply the ‘educator’ that I was/am called to be.  R.T. noticed my love of metaphor and he encouraged me, again via questions, as to how I might employ ‘metaphor’ in order to help ‘make a point’ or more importantly to help the participants discern the major metaphors they had integrated, perpahs a metaphor that helped frame and define their reality. 

So, Gentle Reader, have you had a mentor or two or three in your life?  If so, what did your mentor call forth and affirm that resided within you?  How did you respond to your mentor calling you forth?  When and how did you thank your mentor? 

Thank you, Larry, Stan, Lowell and R.T. – I am a better person because you were/are in my life. 

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MY MENTORS, PART III

As I recall I was ‘officially’ introduced to the concept of ‘Mentor’ when I was twenty-one.  I was a participant in a Great Books seminar (one of my favorite higher educational experiences); there were twelve of us in the seminar.  Basically, we read great books (or parts of them), reflected upon them, wrote a one page response; then we sat around for two hours and engaged in a searching conversation.  What a gift. 

We read Homer’s writings and I was introduced to the concept of ‘Mentor.’  It was a three credit course without the pressure of ‘grades’ (it was ‘Pass-Fail’) and each student had been personally invited by the professor.  He had chosen well – we were a diverse group when it came to ‘majors’ (some in science, some in the arts, some in business and some who were in the law school).  The richness of the experience continues to feed me fifty-seven years later (talk about impact).  The professor listened and guided us via questions (in two hours he might ask four questions).  His infrequent questions helped us ‘go deeper.  Throughout the 16 weeks we were together we all learned to frame more intellectually stretching and challenging questions, we learned to listen intently and receptively, and we learned to value diverse thinking.   

This morning I will briefly share with you, Gentle Reader, another of my mentors.  This mentor entered my life when I was 27 years old. I had been holding an intention for a time that a mentor appear, that I recognized him/her, and that I then had the courage (heart) to receive him/her. 

Lowell Colston.  I live in Indianapolis.  I moved here in June, 1971 (the reasons are many).  In late September, 1971 I met Lowell Colston.  A new friend of mine, Mark, invited me to attend a lecture.  The speaker was Lowell Colston; he and I met and chatted briefly that evening.  The next morning I called Lowell and asked to visit with him in his office.  As I settled in his office the following day I said: ‘I don’t know why but I think you are to be in my life.’

Lowell was a soft spoken man; a quiet man.  His gaze was warm, welcoming and intense.  He was more quietly reflective than verbal; his silence spoke volumes. His listening was invitational and affirming; it was also stretching and challenging.  During our conversation we explored a number of topics.  As we began to conclude our conversation Lowell suggested a ‘trade-off.’  I would help him and he would help me.  Thus began an eight year journey with Lowell as my mentor.

I co-led several groups with Lowell (human potential groups).  After each session we would meet and ‘debrief’ the session.  He would inquire and I would reflect and respond.  He would then inquire regarding my response and I would reflect and respond again.  This pattern would continue for an hour or so.  I learned.  I learned via his questions and via my reflections and via my responses.  One of the things I learned was that I possessed innate gifts that enabled me to guide others in searching conversations.  Lowell did not teach me.  He ‘educated me’ – ‘educare’ = to call forth.  When he served me (the other part of our bargain) the roles would be reversed.  I would inquire, he would reflect and respond.  He affirmed my innate curiosity.  He affirmed my ability to learn to ask questions that would stretch and challenge.  He called forth my innate ability to listen to all sides. 

Often he would give me a book that we would read.  I would then emerge a few ‘burning questions’ – he would do the same.  We would then meet and spend 2-3 hours talking and exploring together. In early March, 1975 he handed me a 38 page booklet to read. He had been given this booklet a year before by a colleague of his.  I cannot count the number of times I have read this essay since then; thirty times at least.  The essay – and the concepts written about – helped frame my thinking and my very being.  

In 1979 Lowell Colston announced that our ‘mentor-relationship’ was over; we remained friends and colleagues until his death.    As my mentor Lowell taught me the difference between ‘teaching’ (the expert putting stuff in) and ‘educating’ (calling forth the gifts, talents, abilities, insights, and wisdom that resides within each of us).  When asked, ‘What do you do?’ I respond: ‘I am a depth-educator; I call forth one’s voice and story’.  Thanks, Lowell. 

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