Full Immersion: A Physician Contemplates Healing and Grace

by Jeffery Lott

Lourdes, France, is among the most famous religious sites in the world—a holy place for Roman Catholics who believe that, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared 18 times in a riverside grotto to an illiterate peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous.

Upon hearing of Bernadette’s visions, which spanned several months, thousands flocked to the Pyrenees mountain town. Almost immediately, some of these pilgrims began to report cures of their illnesses or disabilities—miracles associated with the Marian apparition and with water flowing from a spring that the Virgin had told Bernadette to uncover.

Today, pilgrims visit by the millions. Some are terminally ill; others suffer from chronic, debilitating illnesses. They know that Lourdes miracles are rare—the Catholic Church has recognized just 67 of them since 1858—but nonetheless they flock to this holy place for the comfort of ritual and procession, for the hope of the Lourdes waters, for the company of other seekers—and yes, for the possibility of a miracle.

For some, belief in the possibility of miracles—in spontaneous alleviation of pain or release from the grip of disease— provides hope and comfort, even if it never happens.

Dr. Clarion Johnson ’72 does not wear his faith on his sleeve. In fact, he says he’s uncomfortable talking about it. In his work as global medical director for Exxon Mobil Corporation, he travels all over the world, working to prevent disease and provide care for employees, their families, and their communities. Although he meets people from many faith traditions, he says that at work, religion “need never come up.”

Yet Johnson understands the healing power of the mind, of hope, of faith. He is a devout Catholic and a member of the Knights of Malta, the 900-year-old order of hospitallers who serve among les malades, the ill who seek solace and comfort at the shrine of Mary.

In 2010, Johnson accompanied 40 American malades to Lourdes. He monitored their medical conditions, brought them food, pushed their wheelchairs in the great processions, and prayed with them. Almost whispering, he describes his service as a life-changing experience: “It felled me, gored me, devoured me, such that I was totally depleted, reduced to barely perceptible spiritual and psychic energy. I didn’t know I had that much to give, and I didn’t know so much could be taken from me.”

A Mother's Faith

Clarion Johnson is not a Roman Catholic by birth. Black Catholics were almost unknown in his parents’ native South Carolina. His father, a small-business proprietor, had moved the family to Brooklyn, where he ran a shoe-repair shop. Johnson’s mother converted to Catholicism when Clarion was 6, in part so that he could attend parochial schools. As a teacher, she saw the many deficits of Brooklyn’s public schools, especially for blacks in the early 1960s. Thus, Johnson became one of the first black children to attend The Assumption Elementary School.

“They weren’t very happy with us there,” Johnson remembers. “The nuns didn’t know how to talk with us, how to treat us. They were angry when I got A’s. It didn’t fit their stereotype. In one school, they stopped the altar-boy classes because they didn’t want to have a black altar boy.” His mother’s religion, however, was more than one of convenience. “She’d always wanted to be a Catholic,” Johnson says. “There was something about the Catholic tradition that attracted her. She loved the heroic examples of the saints that showed how people might live their lives, how they affected others. She named all the rooms in our house after saints, so that when someone came to visit, we’d take their bags up to ‘St. Agnes.’”

A voracious reader, Johnson discovered his own saints. One important influence was Dr. Tom Dooley, a former Navy physician who established medical clinics in Laos and Vietnam in the 1950s. In his popular books, Dooley “described how he went after people and helped them,” Johnson says. He learned from Dooley that you had to cross certain cultural barriers in order to “be able to relate as a human helping another human.” He recalls walking in Brooklyn Heights the day he finished one of Dooley’s books: “I knew that day I wanted to be a doctor because it allowed you full immersion, that it would take all you had and then some.”

Graduating from high school in 1968, he went first to Brooklyn College, then received a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence.

“I’d learned in Catholic school to read, listen, and regurgitate,” he says, “so at Sarah Lawrence—just the ability to discuss ideas, to question, and to learn one on one—that was totally new. I was fascinated by how people were so involved in what they were learning, how everyone just became totally immersed.”

Doctor's Orders

In college, Johnson says, he wanted to be a writer. But he followed his father’s advice (“he said he knew a lot of cab drivers who wanted to be writers”) and pursued his interest in medicine, attending Yale Medical School.

When it came time to specialize, Johnson opted for cardiology, but during an Army fellowship at the Walter Reed Medical Center outside Washington, DC, he began to question the whole concept of being paid for his services. “I tended to always be on the side of the patient—what the patient really needed,” he says. It bothered him when other doctors said, “‘I’ve gotta do a case of this, I’ve gotta do a case of that.’ It really wasn’t a case; it was Mr. Jones, Mr. James, or Mrs. Eubanks. I didn’t buy the concept of practicing medicine for money. And most of my life has been—even the reading I’ve done, even the poetry—[an effort] to find the harmonics that allowed me to tune in to a patient. And now, in a global arena, to tune in to whole populations.”

During more than 35 years in medicine, Johnson has never been in private practice. “I think I’d lose my mind if I knew that somebody didn’t come to see me because they couldn’t afford it,” he says. Instead, he spent two years as a postdoctoral student at the Army Institute of Research, then worked as a medical educator and administrator at Howard University School of Medicine, Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

This career path offered Johnson a predictable schedule that allowed him to participate fully in the young lives of his son (now 30) and daughter (28). “It was a family decision,” he told Yale Medicine in 2010. His wife, Heather Mitchell Johnson, whom he met at Yale, is an OB/GYN. “We knew she would be on call a lot. We had two small children, and it was important to us to have one parent at home. I moonlighted as a cardiologist for a local HMO when my wife was not on call, and I immersed myself in enjoying my children’s lives.”

He joined Exxon Mobil in 1988. There, he is responsible for assessing and responding to threats to the health and safety of more than 80,000 employees worldwide. He carries two cell phones and is on call 24/7. Caring for that many “patients” is demanding; it takes Johnson away from his Washington, DC, home more than 40 weeks each year. He says he looks at each locality to determine the quality of the hospitals and government health efforts, as well as what diseases are present, “all so management understands what they face in country X versus country Y.”

Lean and fit at 61, Johnson is a swimmer, marathon runner, and black-belt martial artist—but at times, he says, he can do absolutely nothing.

“My wife is amazed at the fact that I can sit and do nothing on a plane,” he says. “Not even look at a movie, just zone out.” One suspects that with his wide interests (which also include music, theatre, and cooking), zoning out is not a regular option.

Obligation and Grace

As human beings, we find it both too easy and too hard to contemplate the miraculous. We use the word too casually, almost negating its true meaning.

Three years ago, when Johnson was invited to join the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, he took on a new, more spiritual avocation, one that reconnected him with Mr. Jones, Mr. James, and Mrs. Eubanks— with patients who are more than “cases,” more than their disease or disability. He says that combining compassionate medicine with religious faith “fits my personality—the energy needed, the acuteness.”

Joining the Knights of Malta isn’t something you do by filling out a membership form. The order was founded in 1113, during the First Crusade, by Pope Pascal II—and although organized from the first upon medieval military lines (the supreme leader is still called the Grand Master), its central mission has always been the care of the sick, poor, and displaced. As the Order of St. John, the knights built a hospital in Jerusalem during the First Crusade to care for the wounded and the sick without regard to their religion. Today the order operates in more than 120 countries, providing medical and humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and support for refugees regardless of race, origin, or faith. It is recognized not only by the Vatican, but also in more than 100 countries as a sovereign order with diplomatic rank.

To become a Knight of Magistral Grace (the title conferred on Johnson) requires a two-year “formation” period during which candidates participate in service projects and attend spiritual retreats. The formation period culminates in a colorful investiture ceremony with the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington presiding. The new knights and dames (there are also many lay women in the order) vow to maintain exemplary Christian behavior in their private and public lives, to contribute to the maintenance of the Order’s traditions, and to serve the sick, poor, and disadvantaged. Johnson says he was attracted by the combination of Catholic pomp and “the moral imperative at its base.”

Statue“Magistral Grace” is a confounding combination of words, yet it goes to the heart of the obligations that Johnson has taken on himself. “Magistral,” an older form of “magisterial,” implies both dignity and authority, including the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, known as the Magisterium.

In an ecclesiastical context, “grace” is divine grace—the unmerited assistance of God for our regeneration or sanctification. As such, God’s grace can be seen as approaching the miraculous. But grace exists in other forms, in the everyday actions of humans. It’s not necessarily a divine act, and one doesn’t have to believe in God to experience it. We all have moments of grace in our lives—something that happens unexpectedly and unbidden, usually through the agency of another, but also through personal reflection—and these moments lift us up. They help us overcome an obstacle, move to another plane, or merely find the strength to go forward. While believers thank God for these moments, seeing the divine hand at work, others see them as serendipitous, simple gifts from life itself.

Moments of grace can be as ordinary as the hand of a father touching his son. Clarion Johnson recalls just such a moment—one of his earliest memories. He was about 3, wearing a little blue suit, walking to church with his father: “Hand in hand, just the two of us, and later coming home, seeing my sister just about to sit up—she’s 11 months younger than I am—sitting on a newspaper, eating bacon.” A father’s hand, a little blue suit, a slice of bacon. Moments of grace, often mundane, make pictures that can be carried with us for a lifetime.

But what about miracles? As human beings, we find it both too easy and too hard to contemplate the miraculous. We use the word too casually, almost negating its true meaning. When we think that something’s unlikely, we might say, “That would take a miracle.” When something positive transpires against the odds, we say, “It’s a miracle.” And we accept life’s simple gifts with optimism that “miracles happen every day.”

Yet les malades, people facing life-threatening illness or suffering from chronic disability, don’t throw the word around quite so lightly. Though they rely on medical science for all it can do, they often explore other avenues to healing, including the spiritual. They know there’s more to them than a body that’s sick or injured. There’s the human spirit and all that it can bring to the existential party. For some, belief in the possibility of miracles—in spontaneous alleviation of pain or release from the grip of disease—provides hope and comfort, even if it never happens.

Does Johnson believe in miracles? He won’t say—but he knows the transformative effect Lourdes can have, not only for les malades but also for those who assist them. “The secret,” he says, “is that you only have a certain amount of energy in your life. It’s all about the energy, tapping the energy of the sick to give them your own energy, or showing them that they have energy.”

He makes a connection to his practice of martial arts: “There’s chaos, but in that chaos, you can bring order by using the energy that someone else throws at you. Even if the most difficult opponent runs at you with everything he has, you need only step to the side an inch and put your hand straight out. You need, as in prayer, to disengage yourself, to go to a place where you can tap into other resources.”

“It felled me, gored me, devoured me, such that I was totally depleted, reduced to barely perceptible spiritual and psychic energy. I didn’t know I had that much to give, and I didn’t know so much could be taken from me.”

“Is that what happens at Lourdes?” I ask.

“That’s what I tried to do. I tried to engage [les malades’] harmonic frequency, where they are, in a most selfless manner. You cannot bring prejudice. You cannot bring anything. The ill are there in front of you for a reason. The onus was on me to make the contact, and then, in turn, to show them what they can do.”

Thus, the transformative power of the “mind-body conundrum,” as Johnson calls it, may be found in les malades themselves. He says he believes unequivocally that forces within our minds can control what happens in our physical bodies, especially if a believer is taken—either in spirit or, as with Lourdes, in body and spirit—to a place where compassion and hope abound.

The irony is that for the millions who flock to Lourdes, even a miracle cure won’t prevent death. Even when we are cured of a disease, even if a miracle happens, all of us will die. Even the 67 people whose miracle cures have been recognized by the church did not escape our common fate. Healing, then, is a relative experience—more of a respite than a reversal.

Perhaps the real miracle is found in life itself— in simple gifts of acceptance, compassion, and hope that people like Clarion Johnson provide.

Jeffrey Lott, a writer in Yorklyn, Delaware, just finished reading The Invisible Bridge, a novel by Julie Orringer, which was among five books recommended by Clarion Johnson during their 90-minute interview.