Sunday, November 21, 2010

Learning, Teaching & Grace

I have learned a new skill. I am very happy and satisfied.

I learned how to link this blog to the Home Page of the Holy Cross Monastery web site.

You may have noticed that there has often been a lag between when I posted the blog entry on Sunday mornings, and when the description of it on our web site matched the actual new blog. That's because I didn't know how to do it myself and someone else - either Br Bernard or Br Charles - had to do it, and it sometimes took a while for that to happen.

Over the years I've thought about doing it myself, but the last time I asked it would have required installing a piece of software on my computer and learning to use that software and no one seemed to think it was worth the effort for a 2-minute job once a week.

But a week or so ago I just got inspired to ask again. And it turns out that there have been changes in our web site that now make it possible for me to do it fairly simply.

So a couple of evenings ago I asked Bernard to teach me how to do it. It took a while because I'm a computer dunce. I know very little about how anything outside of my usual programs is done and I'm not comfortable poking around in it myself, because I've caused some disasters in the past.

Bernard was really good. He and I are both experiential learners. I don't learn things by being told how to do them. I learn by doing them. I never know how to get anywhere until I've driven there myself. You may give me clear and expert directions for any new task, but I don't learn from that; I learn by following the directions and doing it myself.

So Bernard gave me the instructions and I wrote them down as we went along, because I knew I wouldn't remember them, and then he patiently guided me through the process of following his instructions while I did them several times to make sure I knew what I was doing and why. It took a while because it involved learning several new techniques, and because he learns the same way, Bernard could see how I was doing it and he was content to follow along at my pace. When we were done I was absurdly happy. Learning this task gave me great satisfaction.

This is partly because in the past I've made the mistake of trying to learn computer stuff from people who teach essentially by lecturing, which is quite a good style, but unfortunately not of much use to people who learn like I do. This often left me in a deeper hole than I was in when we started, and the frustration, of course, slows down the whole learning process. As it turned out, I asked the right person, and now I'm really pleased. (None of this, by the way has anything to do with intelligence. Your learning style is quite a different thing from how smart you are, which is something that schools are just beginning to catch up with).

All of this has something to do with how prayer is taught, which is what I have spent much of my ministry doing. Christianity has a particular deficit in the teaching of skills useful for those who are drawn to prayer. Until recently there was, in fact, very little available to teach people who felt that they wanted to know about the ways of contemplative praying. There are a number of reasons for this, including the centuries of arguing about whether human effort was of any use at all or whether all good things came only from God. In addition, in recent times contemplative prayer has been regarded as the exclusive preserve of "specialists" - ie monks and nuns.

But in the last century a great thirst for deeper prayer began to manifest itself in our culture and Christians had a lot of catching up to do. I've been part of that process. In recent yeasr I've been involved largely in the teaching of the ways of meditation, but I've also done it with intercessory prayer and with lectio divina. I've spent much of my life discovering how to teach people to do these forms of prayer.

The success I've had has been because I paid attention to my learning style. I knew what I had to have in order to learn: I had to have a short, clear instruction and I had to practice it and then I had to ask questions about what I experienced. Any number of times I have said that one of the most valuable things about a prayer group is that I can ask the same question over and over and over in many different ways, until I finally get the answer.

But what does "teaching prayer" actually mean? It means, first of all, having as your foundation the knowledge that prayer is a relationship. It's the love relationship between you and God. That's it. You don't go anywhere without getting that straight at the beginning.

Next is knowing that I'm not "teaching" anything other that a way to be in God's presence, so that the relationship can develop. Centering Prayer is particularly good at this. Their literature describes the way of this prayer as sitting still in God's presence and consenting to the work God is doing in you. Yes, that's it. Now, how do I do that? Well, here are the guidelines........

Hey, folks, that's experiential learning. It's not a denial of grace, or a downplaying of the role of God in prayer. It's just saying that if I'm going to learn how to do this thing I need to know how. Just the instruction "sit still" is of some use, but limited. How do I sit still? That's where the learning begins - at least for me, and for a lot of other people I've encountered.

You may also have noticed that in the prayer teaching that is current in Christian circles these days, a lot of it sounds very similar to Buddhism. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, a lot of this stuff in universal. A certain amount of inner exploration is the same for everyone, whatever their religion.

Secondly, when Christians started trying the meet the great need that was being expressed for the teaching of prayer, the Buddhists were the ones with the directions at hand. And they have lots and lots of directions. They have spent centuries working out just how people are led into the ways of deeper experience. And people who went East in search of prayer came back with all this stuff, which then made its way slowly into the broader culture. It turned out that there were many useful tools there which are now used in many different contexts. And the Buddhists are smiling.

I'm smiling, too. I'm ridiculously pleased at knowing my new computer technique. I'm also pleased at the years of work I've done in coming to know the ways of prayer and in sharing that knowledge with other people. And I'm quite happy knowing that my style of learning is quite respectable. It has turned out to be useful to quite a number of people over the years. Just paying attention to how I need to learn has caused any number of people to say to me: "You explain things so well." And I smile. Because I know that it really isn't the explanation that matters. It's knowing how a person needs to learn, and making sure that's paid attention to.

Now what's the next thing I can learn about my computer?

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