Review of Rachel Naomi Remen’s “My Grandfather’s Blessings”

Review of Rachel Naomi Remen’s “My Grandfather’s Blessings”

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 Review of Rachel Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. (New  York: Riverhead Books, 2000),

    Anyone who can read Rachel Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings without shedding a tear or two should make an appointment with a cardiologist to make sure their heart is still beating.  Few books concerning health and healing are more poignant, except perhaps Remen’s previous “Kitchen Table Wisdom”.  Few authors have more elegantly articulated the nature of the healing arts.  In “Kitchen Table Wisdom” Remen explored the liminal area where the science of medicine meets the art of medicine with meticulous sensitivity, and in so doing, she guided the reader to a place of greater wisdom and compassion.  In “My Grandfather’s Blessings” she expands even further, embracing the sacred center of life through reflecting on her own and others’ transforming life stories.  It is as if Remen has learned to see the true beauty of humanity by witnessing our suffering.  Story after story relate the courage, compassion, love, and nobility that people have revealed to her, often in the direst of  circumstances.

    “A teacher is someone who has learned how to listen to life” (248). Remen, who developed a debilitating and chronic condition called Crohn’s Disease at age sixteen, shares with the reader stories of her life as a child, a patient, a medical student and resident, a physician, and finally a healer.  Drawing from the rich fabric of her life, she shares with the reader how she has learned to listen to her soul.  “We are here to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.  Despite the countless and diverse ways we live our lives, every life is a spiritual path, and all life has a spiritual agenda” (326).

Remen’s childhood was greatly influenced by her grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, even though her parents were socialist atheists who put their trust in science to ameliorate the suffering of humanity.  The spiritual perspective her grandfather shared with her as a small child eventually became overshadowed by her family’s focus on the health sciences, and it was only in later years that Remen made the connection between her grandfather’s calling as a rabbi and her own as a physician.  “Sometimes if you stay the course long enough, divergent paths reveal themselves to have the same destination. My grandfather blessed life, and his children served life.  But, in the end, it has turned out that these may be one and the same thing” (4).  She sees the potential inherent in the health professions to be a spiritual journey.  “We restore the holiness of the world through our loving-kindness and compassion” (326).  In this way, Remen’s book reconnects health care to its sacred dimension.  She reminds the reader that to be a nurse, a psychiatrist, a doctor, indeed any health professional, is ultimately a spiritual calling inasmuch as the purpose of the health professions is to heal, to make whole.  She also illustrates with impeccable insight (and elegant prose) the ways in which we are all healers of one another.

    In the course of this book, Remen draws upon her knowledge of Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism to illustrate the sacred core of people’s stories about healing, suffering and death.  She introduces us to a host of teachers: her grandfather, father and mother, the young patients she cared for as a pediatrician, the cancer patients she now serves as a counselor, and the other health professionals she has encountered along the way.

    By the end, “My Grandfather’s Blessings” becomes so pure and profound, it is no longer about medicine or healing or even spirituality, but about life itself in all its unfathomable mystery, sorrow, and joy.  This book is highly recommended for health professionals, persons with chronic illness, their caregivers, the bereaved, the spiritual seeker, or for anyone in need of a private “spiritual retreat.”  There is no better guide than Remen over the terrain of the human condition.  Read it and weep.

“Blessing life moves us closer to each other and closer to our authentic selves.  When people are blessed they discover that their lives matter, that there is something in them worthy of blessing.  And when you bless others, you may discover this same thing is true about yourself.” (7)

Elizabeth Mackenzie, Ph.D.
Research Assistant Professor
University of Pennsylvania Health System
Division of Geriatric Medicine / Institute on Aging Ralston –
Penn Center / 3615 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA  19104-6006