It was a Wednesday evening during the third session of The Healer’s Art, the course for first year medical students I developed at UCSF’s medical school 22 years ago and still teach there every year. The topic of the evening was Allowing Awe and Mystery in Medicine and the 70 or so first year students and 13 faculty who had gathered had broken up into small groups of six and scattered into separate rooms to share and discuss their personal experiences of the topic.

I was sitting downstairs in the large living room of the Faculty Alumni House waiting for these small group discussions to end and the class to re-gather. With me on the couch was one of the donors whose generosity has made the course possible. We were chatting together, but with difficulty. The old house is wooden and the noise level was impressive. Submerged in the sound of almost 100 excited voices, we could barely hear one another speak.

Suddenly the small discussion group that was sharing the living room with us fell silent and within seconds the entire house was absolutely still. On the couch we looked at one another in shock. It was so quiet we could have been alone in the house. Instinctively I looked at my watch. Second after second went by without a sound. After four minutes 23 seconds, we heard a single voice from upstairs, clear through the wooden floor, offer a comment on the experience of Mystery. In the next breath the huge sound of almost 100 voices washed over us again. I was shaken. So was she. We stared at one another without words. Finally she spoke. “My mother used to say that when a large group of people falls silent like that, an angel is walking through the room.” I nodded. It was as good an explanation as any.

Ten minutes later I rang the bell that was the signal for everyone to return to the living room to share what they had discovered about the experience of mystery. Once they were settled I began by asking them what they had thought about the long silence. 83 pairs of eyes looked at me in confusion. Finally a student spoke up “What silence?” he asked.. No one had heard it but the two of us. If I had been alone, I might have thought that I had not heard it either.

4 minutes and 23 seconds is a long time. It made me wonder how many other things that cannot be explained pass us by, unaware. Perhaps we have all encountered far more Mystery than we have recognized or even wondered about. Pity. People who wonder rarely burn out.

So what does Mystery look like when it happens in the midst of a group of doctors? Check out this video…….