A teachable spirit and critical thinking

St. John of Kronstadt, in his book, My life in Christ, paints a very intriguing image of what it means to respond to God with the kind of faith that opens ‘the key to God’s treasury’ of enlightenment. He says that this kind of faith dwells in ‘simple, kind, loving hearts’ and is a ‘spiritual mouth‘ freely (and frequently) opening to receive all that God wants to give His children. He goes on to explain that this spiritual mouth is found in the heart, the place where we ‘accept the brightness of heavenly grace.’ The image that comes to my mind is one of baby birds opening their mouths in trust to receive nourishment from their parents. Their trust is reasonable and logical because their eyes are on someone they know cares greatly for them and wants only the best for them. St. John then warns us about another kind of mouth that works against faith and enlightenment, “…do not let your lips be compressed by doubt and unbelief.”

Although St. John is talking about faith and divine knowledge and it may be somewhat of a stretch to apply his words to learning in general, I think the ‘mouths’ he is describing are also present in other learning contexts. There are learners who are teachable – with open and trusting ‘heart mouths‘, and learners who, for a variety of reasons, have tightly compressed lips of doubt and resistance. Learners are always the key decision makers in any learning situation and their decisions about whether or not the learning is worth the effort, whether or not they believe they are capable, and whether or not they decide to keep learning or to quit trying arise from their dispositional ‘mouths’. As teachers we know what a joy it is to nurture the learners with open mouths, and we know that it is an even greater joy to see a learner who is resistant and closed, begin to open and receive.

I’ve been thinking about these ‘dispositional mouths’ and wondering about their relationship to critical thinking. In our culture, the critical thinker seems to bring to mind someone who has those tightly compressed lips, that ‘convince me’ attitude, that ‘I’ve already made up my mind that you’re wrong‘ way of being. However, this isn’t critical thinking. Critical thinking actually requires openness, a willingness to let go of predispositions when enlightenment dawns or new situations arise, a willingness to be transformed in the process of coming to know. Essentially, it is a child-like way of being in the world. All learning is a risk that requires some openness, trust and willingness to embark on the journey. Lips need to be unclenched, arms need to be unfolded.

Therefore, true critical thinkers have open ‘heart-mouths’, not compressed lips of unbelief and doubt. Therefore, people who have already learned to open their ‘heart mouths’ to divine knowledge are potentially very strong critical thinkers.

But just to say that learners need to change their disposition in order to become better critical thinkers is not very helpful. Dispositions are entrenched patterns of behaviour arising from contextual situations often beyond the control of the learner. They take time, patient encouragement, invitational spaces and practical support for new paths of response to emerge. This is what good teachers do best. This is what our good God does with us.

What to do in a fiery furnace

Fiery furnaces seem to abound in education – those circumstances beyond our control, places we get thrown into whether we like it or not, either perceived or real threats we experience if we aren’t in agreement with the current thinking, system or action. And then, just when one fiery furnace is cooled, another seems to take its place – out of the fiery furnace of job action, into the fiery furnace of 30 children with so many needs, curriculum that demands coverage and measurement, and so many dysfunctional relationships. Most intense of all is the fiery furnace beyond our circumstances, the furnace of our inner burning thoughts and ego that are best at leading us where we don’t really want to go – down paths of anger, frustration with ourselves and others, doubt, impatience, righteous indignation, self-satisfying demands, ingratitude… We are always being coerced into worshiping some kind of false idol and those who coerce seem all-powerful. We are taunted by the words of Nebuchadnezzar, “Then what God is there who will deliver you from my hands?” And all seems fearful and hopeless.

What to do?

The three young men say there is no need to answer for there is a God in the heavens, whom they serve and He is able to save them. They don’t take things into their own hands, they don’t even tell God what to do. Their silence speaks volumes.

The three young men treasure their faith, putting their hearts into nothing except God, walking in his commandments, seeking His face continuously, turning towards Him and away from the things that are lifeless. Their faith is precious, practiced, transformative; and, therefore, a source of strength in weakness. They are steadfast.

The three young men pray with their eyes open, solving their riddle (in the midst of the flame) with psalmody, ‘singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.’ (Ps. 49)

The three young men overcome all temptation to resentment with gratitude and worship. Their hymn in the midst of the furnace is remarkable, exhorting every created thing in heaven and on earth to bless the Lord, to see all things and all circumstances as communion with God.

The three young men are the blessed meek, handing over their bodies to be burned. They are like innocent Susanna who said it was better to fall into the hands of evil ones than to sin against God, but who still looked to the heavens because her ‘heart trusted in the Lord’.

And then…the three young men are not destroyed! They find life, they inherit the earth. A theophany occurs! God incarnate is with them! The Angel of the Lord makes the furnace “as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it.” And then others see that the Angel of the Lord is walking with them and realize that no other God can save in this way – sharing His abundant life in the midst of a fiery furnace, participating in their suffering and transforming it, removing even the smell of the fire on their clothes and replacing it with the fragrance of God.

When we wonder what to do in the midst of a fiery furnace, may we be like the three young men. May we see God walking with us and saving us the way no other God can – sharing His life of peace and righteousness in the midst of all of our fiery furnaces. And then…may others experience the healing presence and fragrance of God through us.

Daily acts of faith

I have been reading an inspiring book called, The Reed of God, by Carryl Houselander (2006).  I’ve just discovered her spiritual writings and I’ve been so encouraged by her contemplative and reverent approach to scripture and the Christian tradition.  She was both a writer and a carpenter – interesting pursuits for a single woman who lived in Britain during both World Wars.  Her writing often deals with issues of suffering and loss, and reveals an authentic personal struggle to have a heart that is firmly established in God and His church.  I hesitate to try to summarize any of her writing because it is difficult to remove even one word – each word is chosen so carefully and draws you more deeply into her meditations.  But I’m going to try in this post, with multiple direct quotes (in italics), because I am so intrigued with one aspect of this latest book – something she calls, ‘daily acts of faith.’  I am often in need of strengthened faith and I am hoping that practising these acts will help me and may also help my readers.  I also see these acts of faith as translating easily into the classroom and establishing a sacred space for relationships to flourish.

Houselander describes an ‘act of faith’ in the following way, “…believing something because God has told us that it is so…Faith is something immeasurably more than a sixth sense, more than intuition, more than feeling or knowledge.”  Mary is our example here through her hearing from God that Christ was being formed in her and her acceptance (fiat) of this truth.  Houselander goes on to say that Mary’s daily act of faith, believing that Christ was within her, was part of the nurturing of Christ’s growth within her.  She encourages us to perform the same daily act faith, to believe that Christ is in us – to say, “My God, I believe that you are within me.”  This is an act of faith because,  “It is quite incredible to think that God is really present in me.”   This first act of faith brings us peace, “…it silences the noise of distraction, the loud busyness of fear.  It is the stilling of waters.  It gathers our thoughts into a circle like a crown of flowers; it crowns us with peace…Christ our Lord is within us; there is no room for any other awareness; everything that we see and touch and taste and think must be related to this one fact…It not only enables us to believe in the miracles which throng our lives, but it makes our charity a thousand times more sensitiveAwareness of the presence of Christ in us draws us off from every distracting and destructive preoccupation, such as self-pity, anxiety, irritability with other people, the morbidity which leads us to dwell more upon our own sinfulness than up the beauty of God….In the wonder of the awareness we are able to accept the humiliation of being ourselves.”  It is ok to be me when Christ has entered even me.  

There is also a ‘second daily act of faith’believing that Christ is in others.  “Just as we cannot depend upon feelings to know that Christ is in ourselves, we cannot depend upon appearances to know that He is in others…”  She compares the faith we need to have that Christ is in others to the faith that we have that Christ is present in the Eucharist.  Those who have a sacramental understanding the Eucharist and come to the cup regularly, have no difficulty believing that Christ is present there – our practice has taught us this.  We can have that same reverent orientation to all persons, and we have exactly the same reason for believing in both: the word of Christ.  “Both are miracles of love which, like God’s peace, pass understanding.” Because faith isn’t about rational certainty or intuition or feelings, we are “… like blind people learning, through the touch of caressing fingers, the features of the face that we cannot see.  We discover the Face that we seek in every human face; and just because we must seek with a more sensitive medium than sight, we are not put off by the visible things:  the mutilation, bruises, sweat, dirt, and tears.  Beyond all this we discern the invisible beauty of the Man abiding in mankind...”

There is a caution given in this second daily act of faith.  There is a particular spirit that true faith provides as we seek Christ in others.  “Faith simplifies the search.  We do not have to discover in which of several people Christ is to be found:  we must look for Him in them all.  And not in an experimental spirit, to discover whether He is in them or not, but with the absolute certainty that He is...If we look for Christ only in the saints, we shall miss Him.  If we look for Him only in those people who seem to have the sort of character we personally consider to be Christian, that which we call our ‘ideal,’ we shall miss the whole meaning of His abiding in us.  If we look for Him in ourselves, in what we imagine to be the good in us, we shall being in presumption and end in despair…Our search through faith and courage and love is a great going out into darkness, a reaching out to others in darkness, believing that Christ is there in each one; but not in the way we expect, not in the way that we think He should be, not in the way that we already understand, but in the way that He chooses to be, Who is Himself the Way.”  If we seek with faith, we shall find.  How wonderful to find Christ each day in each person – with charity a thousand times more sensitive!”

Two daily acts of faith – believing Christ is within you, helping Him to be formed in you, and believing Christ is in others and then naturally responding to that image in ways that recognize the suffering of Christ being borne in each person.  The seeing of Christ cannot help but motivate daily acts of kindness and compassion and forgiveness.  And then the love you give generates even more life in you because these daily acts of faith nourish one another.  We respond to Christ in others in the same way that St. John the Baptist responded to Christ in Mary.  It is an inner movement (and then outer).  It is a movement that brings us the same joy it brought Elizabeth and Mary….”a sudden rush of sweetness of life within us.”

Christ is in us, He is in every colleague, every students, every friend, every family member, every person.  We need acts of faith to find Him where we least expect Him, to see beyond appearances and behaviour and expectations, to see Him in the tears and mutilation and suffering, to see Him even in ourselves.  He is hidden, but never absent.  The eyes of our heart just need healing.  I think daily acts of faith can help us heal.  I also think it is interesting that she didn’t suggest that a daily act of faith would be to read more scripture or pray more or become more knowledgeable about doctrine.  I’m sure she wouldn’t suggest that the latter are unimportant or unhelpful, but she seems to be reorienting us – keeping us face to face with each other and Christ, helping us know Christ, helping us experience His presence.  What could encourage our faith more?

%d bloggers like this: