Saturday, August 4, 2012

in which it appears I am breaking a little in a very good way

I remember a time when I had what I would later refer to as disciples. These were women (now; we were all girls then) a year or two younger than I was who would sometimes ask me to pray with them, who asked me questions about God and faith and discipleship, and who believed I had insight, if not answers.

I certainly thought I had answers. Never since then have I tasted the ambrosia of certainty. I no longer know the flavor. Indeed, I have spent the last many years running away from anything that smelled of even a cheap imitation of that intoxicating illusion. I can, if I like, connect my discomfort with such things as opinions and preferences and decisions with my fear that I will believe too strongly in them--that I will take them for Real and for Right and forget to respect both the trivial nature of my preferences and the viability of other peoples differing preferences.

I am reading a memoir now. Surprised by God by Danya Ruttenberg. It is a terribly difficult book for me to read. The prose is lovely and the rigor is refreshing. It stirs so many things up and I don't know how I will come to respond to the book as a whole or to the way it reframes questions and problems and ideas around which my mind already circles.

She quotes religion scholar James Carse on page 160. In this quote, he describes what a great [spiritual] teacher is and does: a great teacher is unobtrusive. She clears the path so that the student can approach the source/thing/teaching/truth and the student comes away alive with her own thoughts ringing in her head, not the words the teacher spoke. The great teacher makes it possible for the student to experience something deeper than the particular words used to clear and reveal the (or a) path.

My very first thought, after I read those words (just a few minutes ago, really), was that I had no business posturing as any kind of teacher all those years ago. I have had many occasions to regret and to repent, after a fashion, having done so. I have just learned a new lesson in how very wrong I was. Just a little below the bit I paraphrased, she quotes a 17th century Benedictine monk about what spiritual direction is: "[A spiritual] director is not to each his own way,... but to instruct his disciples how they may themselves find out the way proper for them ... he is only God's usher, and must lead souls in God's way and not his own." I only knew my way and only affirmed and held up my way. I didn't know other ways and the possibility of other ways frightened me. In my narrowness, I hurt people who were trying to discover for themselves "the way proper for them."

I am humbled and sad because I have a new way to understand the harm I did previously. I am gladdened, though, when I think of how I have come to value, without being quite aware of it, standing aside so others can learn things in ways proper for them. I am now taking this from a strictly religious context into a broader one, but the gladness and humility both still hold. I had the opportunity to learn two new skills this summer: I taught my very first class and I indexed a book for the very first time. I did these two new things simultaneously and, although this increased the pressure for a few weeks, I got to learn the same lesson from two otherwise unrelated experiences. In my class, the point wasn't to demonstrate to my students how well I could read the texts. I wasn't there to dazzle them with my brilliance, wit, incisive commentary, original interpretations, or mountains of scholarship or research. The purpose of my being there was to clear the path so that they could approach the texts and the ideas and meanings within in a way that would do justice to the discipline, the texts, their contexts, and also to the students' situations and abilities. Nothing in the class was about me or my abilities. My goal was to step aside so that my students could learn the material I taught and not just remember what I said about the material I taught. With the index I learned a very similar lesson. The index was not a text of how well I read the book. I learned a lot from the book and found it very interesting. But that wasn't the point. The point was to make it possible for other readers to find their way into the text and to learn from it according to their needs and situations.

My students did, of course, spend much more time than I would have liked trying to attend to the exact words I used and trying to reproduce them in their papers and exams. And the index, being my first, probably reflects more about me as a reader of that book than I hope future indexes will. Nevertheless, I can see now--right now--that I have finally taken to heart a lesson I didn't know, twelve years ago, that I needed to learn. I can now see, and really, deeply understand, the value in stepping aside and being an usher for others to approach something bigger than I am, whether that bigness is philosophy or God. It no longer needs to be about me and it no longer needs to be done in just my way. I still get in my own way. I still have a difficult time being flexible or being able to richly imagine the many ways other people see and feel and experience and need things. Nevertheless, I am encouraged that a part of my person that was harmful to others has broken a bit and shifted to a smaller corner, even if it might never quite be shaken out of me. For now that can be enough.

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