May 20, 2019—In Part One of this two part blog-post I painted in broad brush strokes the features of teaching as a mystical experience.  A connection to a calling to teach.  As in the first post I will draw from the work of Dorothee Soelle and her book, The Silent Cry.  She is a theologian and therefore for her the Divine means all the diverse ways humans describe the source of all knowing and all being.  I think that for secularly inclined educators Divine could mean relationship to the source of knowing that is greater than self, which can be internal or external.  For example, curriculum, students, deep self-awareness, or subject matter. In Part Two I will focus in on the three core elements of the mystical experience (purification, illumination, and union) with a particular goal of showing how they might materialize in the life of the classroom.

Although perhaps not equivalent to the life-long journey of a mystic there is a strong similarity in the ways that teachers become more fully aware of their inner-calling and its pull toward instructional wholeness.  By calling I mean the deep inner drive of educators to teach.  An identity that once felt by the teacher is nearly impossible to not hear or abandon for other professional pursuits.  In the language of mysticism a calling is the Divine spark to teach within the heart of the educator.  Sometimes a calling is experienced while still a child and for others it emerges much later in life.  Regardless of when the initial call appears, the first step toward fully accessing that spark and allowing it to flame fully into pedagogical life is purification.  Soelle describes purification as “being emptied of cares, ideas, and purposes”.  Through this process teachers can rediscover a childlike sense of “wonderment” and “amazement” associated with the power of teaching.  For educators this entails letting go of preconceived ideas about teaching, learning to set aside fears, and developing techniques to calm inner turmoil and doubt.  One of the biggest challenges, according to Dan Lortie, to learning to teach is the “apprenticeship of observation” that accrues over time as the future-teacher moves from Kindergarten through high school graduation.  Each educator encountered along the K-12 journey infuses, for better or worse, images and inclinations of what a teacher is and does.  Unfortunately this overburden of layered identity can often smother the true-self of the teacher to be, the birth-right gift to heal through teaching.  The uncovering of identity requires the tools of amazement and wonderment to facilitate a state of “self-forgetfulness” of the old false-self of layered impressions and the embracing of “being here, being today, being now”.  Purification for educators wipes the slate clean of preconceived notions of teacher imposed from outside as well as the unrealistic inner expectations and assumptions of what a good teacher does.

Once some level of inner calmness and clarity of purpose is achieved and sustained the next step is illumination.  Key to illumination is “transformation” where “the light of the new reality may stream in and completely enlighten and change the soul”.  In my personal experience of learning to teach and through years of coaching teachers I equate the mystical illumination with the acceptance of one’s gifts as an educator.  This is far from an easy process.  It takes time, practice, and discipline so that the “light of the new reality may stream in” and change the teacher’s heart and craft. Teachers are, it seems by nature, hesitant to accept their skills as a gift. I for one, would rather not draw attention to my accomplishments.  I’m quick to dismiss educational successes as something common place with the phrase, “I’m not that special. That is just what teachers do”.   For the teachers who do experience some element of illumination at the heart of their craft, they begin to view their teaching skills as something coming from beyond themselves; a gift moving from deep inside which becomes visible in the form of their pedagogical choices.  In the language of mysticism the “Divine spark” or calling begins to glow and shine.  An illuminated educator becomes transformed as their pedagogy moves from ego-centric and external technical expertise to inner-wisdom that flows in a natural state of being.  They experience an “un-forming” or a sense of “letting go of our false desires”.  The taken for granted world view of educator as all powerful and all-knowing is turned on its head and instead openness, vulnerability, and wholeheartedness become the source of authority in the classroom.  As Parker Palmer notes: “technique is what a teacher uses until the real teacher arrives”.  An illuminated teacher is real and fully present to their gifts and the learning interests of their students.

The third step in the mystical journey according to Soelle is “union of the soul with God”.  The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck, according to Soelle, defines union as the stage of “oneness of being itself”.  Educators approach this state of “oneness” when they are one with their gift, their calling to teach.  This is not a way of teaching that can be taught or mastered through technical expertise.  And it is not typically a constant state of being, it fluctuates in accordance with a range of contextual variables.  But at its best it feels like a union of one’s teaching with the spark of the calling to be an educator.  Some call this a state of “flow” where time seems to slow down, the space between teaching and learning collapses, and a feeling of unity between inner energy and outer practice becomes the norm.  In union there is no student, no teacher, no curriculum, just a unifying sense of integration and completeness which is often described as oneness with the subject matter.  This state of instructional bliss is experienced as a “healing” or “wholeness” where the small intellectual and ego deaths of traditional forms of teaching are transcended into life giving human flourishing.  The gifts of the teacher flow freely from their Divine calling into the classroom and are available to the hearts and minds of students.  Love for self, others, and text infuse the learning experience; the stifling elements of structure, accountability, and rigor vanish or are subsumed under something bigger for brief moments in time.

In my professional role as educator and sometimes mystic I see potential in using the stages of mysticism in the preparation and professional development of teachers.  My commitment to pursuing this framing is premised on two assumptions and one challenge, all three grounded in my personal and professional experience.  The first assumption is that all true teachers have within a Divine spark labeled “educator”.  I recognize that not everyone would agree with this point and that some educators would resist or hesitate at my use of theological language to describe this aspect of teaching. Two, given the right circumstances, rituals, and disciplined practice the Divine gift of teaching can be liberated and breathed fully into instructional brilliance.  The biggest challenge to the initiation and development of purification, illumination, and union are the norms of education which lean heavily away from the spiritual and toward structure, regimentation, and standardization.  My goal is to awaken, in a non-religious sense, teachers to the potential fullness of their calling to teach.  Mysticism for myself and others seems like a good walking companion in this task.

May 5, 2019—Educators love to create categories and frameworks for learning, as if learning is solely contingent on structure and form.  The modern field of education is so focused on standards that it is almost as if human learning never occurred before the formalization of curriculum. The wider history of education, however, shows that the traditionalist approach to teaching and learning is a recent focus of education.  Karen Armstrong argues in her book The Case for God that as early as 50,000 years ago people used cave paintings and sophisticated ritual to usher young people into adulthood and full participation in the life of the tribe.  In antiquity, Greek, Roman, and Jewish communities organized learning around preparation for entry into religious communities, participation in civic life, or general intellectual enrichment.   And throughout the history of curriculum in America there were educators who argued for and actively sought to elevate holistic notions of knowing and organization of curriculum.  More recently, Parker Palmer in his well-known text Courage to Teach brings attention to the fact that: “We teach who we are”. By this he means that the inner life of the teacher has to be taken into account for any serious conversation about teaching to occur.  To not address, for instance, feelings of fear or abundance, as aspects of the inner life of educators is to risk pedagogical disaster.  Students know when a teacher is inauthentic and not showing the fullness of their humanity and if the teacher is holding back why should the learner fully invest in the learning process?

The challenge for holistic educators is less about knowing the inner-life exists but rather more about developing a language to describe this orientation to teaching.  Unlike the traditionalist model which attends to concrete phenomena like lesson plans, instructional strategies, and performance indicators anchored in observable behaviors, the inner-life of educators is less tangible and difficult to observe directly.  But as Abraham Heschel argues just because something is ineffable doesn’t mean it can’t be understood: “The ineffable, then, is a synonym for hidden meaning rather than for the absence of mean­ing”.  A case in point is Dorothee Soelle’s text, The Silent Cry (2001) in which she provides a detailed analysis of mystical experiences where the inner-life of the person finds unity with Divine Love. In quoting Jan Van Ruysbroeck, Soelle makes a good case for the connection between the inner life of teachers and their outer performance: “Self-knowledge teaches us whence we come, where we are and whither we go”.  In other words, as Palmer states: “We teach who we are” and the stronger the sense of self-knowledge the more effective and authentic teaching becomes.

Beyond this broad argument connecting the outer performance of teachers to the condition of their inner-life, Soelle provides specific language and markers that are useful for anyone interested in deepening their spiritual formation as an educator.  She begins by first arguing that all people are capable of mystical experiences, connections to and with something greater than self.  As she notes, her goal is to “democratize the mystical experience” so that all people, not just the pious few, can access the wisdom of Divine Love.  Soelle is a theologian and therefore for her the Divine means all the diverse ways humans describe God.  I think that for secularly inclined educators Divine could mean something greater than self.  I’m thinking here particularly of subject matter, the great historical narrative of an academic discipline, or a deep dedication to a student, anything that goes beyond the expected which results in personal or academic transcendence.  Furthermore, she claims that “the trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest antimystical force among us”.  For educators “trivialization” comes in the form of teacher-proof curriculum that overly structures and constrains the instructional life of educators.  For Soelle, a good way to resist the “trivialization of life” is to embrace the mystical experience which all people are capable of achieving.  For me this raises the question, what might viewing education through mysticism add to our understanding of effective forms of teaching?

According to Soelle there are two types of mystics, individuals who advocate the virtues of pure mystical experience and mystics who are more interested in teaching about the process of preparing for the mystical encounter with Divine Love.  This later group she calls the “mystagogues” who by their nature teach about the mysteries of the mystical experience.  The work of the mystagogue is tricky because mysticism by definition involves developing a relationship with something, Love, that can’t be defined, described, or delineated.  Yet the Divine can be experienced and the mystagogues have developed rituals and practices that prepare a person for the mystical experience.  The same categorization of knowing seems true for educators who experience the inner-life of teaching.  There are teacher educators who argue that the inner-life of educators can only be experienced, not taught. And there are educators who believe that it is possible to formalize the process of connecting teachers to Divine educational energies.

I belong to the latter group.  I can’t and would never want to craft a mystical experience for educators, but I can facilitate the conditions for the likelihood of a mystical experience to occur.  By mystical I mean the ability of educators to move beyond purely technical approaches to teaching; to embrace those aspects of teaching that are ineffable, transcendent, and bound to something greater than self.  I long ago claimed, or better yet have been claimed by, the identity of educator.  Teaching is the unique spark of the Divine that glows most fervently in my heart.  It is my gift, my calling, and my passion.  I have also come to realize that my deepest experiences with Love while teaching fall into the category of mysticism.  Given my mystical tendencies and mystagogical orientation to curriculum I’m frequently looking for and inclined toward models or descriptions of teaching that are organized around the acquisition of knowledge that anchor the teaching process in some notion of mystery.  Dorothee Soelle describes several key elements of the mystical experience that I think can be repurposed to the mystagogical task of structuring a learning curriculum for teachers that attends to the mystical aspects of their teaching; their inner-life.  The three stages of mysticism, “purification, illumination, and union”, presented by Soelle provide guideposts for speaking about the mystical preparation of teachers.

In my next blog-post I will define these three stages and provide personal and professional examples of what they might look like in the daily practice of educators.  In the meantime I invite you think about the ways that you experience teaching as a form of mystery, perhaps most clearly in those moments of awe and wonder in the classroom.


Copyright © 2018 University of Denver. | All rights reserved. | The University of Denver is an equal opportunity affirmative action institution
X