Why when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places? – Rumi

Dec, 28 2020 — I’ve been thinking about mystery recently. It has caught me by surprise and I’m not 100% sure why. Not that mystery is unimportant. Rather it is essential to many aspects of my life. So, it startles me to be thinking so much about mystery lately. I look to nature as my first teacher about mystery. As a child I remember watching birds flying on delicate feathers, tadpoles maturing into frogs, and dragonfly nymphs splitting open to allow fully formed adults to emerge. My heart, more than my head, asked, how could this be happening? What mystery was going on that I couldn’t see, yet was so evident and powerful in the formation of life? More recently, the close visual-proximity of Saturn and Jupiter has invited me to contemplate the mysterious movement of the planets, stars, and constellations. The science of astronomy has tools, theories, and mathematical formulas to describe the push and pull of cosmic forces. It knows how the immense spaces and elemental energies of the universe act in relationship to each other. Yet for all its power and knowledge, it is not science that draws me to the birds and the stars, it is wonder and awe. What is it that seems to bind the feather and the rings of Saturn into the same frame of knowing and being? Why do the vast physical differences and distances between the two contribute to their closeness? What is the knowing in mystery that rests at the edge of my mind and reason?

I have not been as close to nature as I was in past years. Other demands and commitments have warranted my attention. They act like gravitational forces diverting my intentions into new orbital patterns. The birds in my feeder and the cosmic dance of Saturn and Jupiter has reminded me to slow down and pay attention. To ponder Rumi’s question, why is it that I have fallen asleep in the prison of necessity even though the world is so big and so much more diverse and mysterious? Nature is my first teacher, but it is not my only teacher. As an educator, I’m reminded that the classroom is also central to my experience of mystery. And like my relationship to nature, I feel that recently I have not paid enough attention to it in my teaching. I know what this about. The transition from face to face to online instruction was too quick, a matter of days. My attention was focused on getting comfortable with the functional elements of Zoom and mastering a Learning Management System (LMS), while minimally advancing my goals of reflection, transformation, and transcendence.

The mystery of the classroom invites me to break free of the prison I fell asleep in, the cell made from the iron bars of instructional necessity. Mystery creates space for me to think about the possibilities, not the limitations of online education. In The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Dorthee Soelle’s goal is, “to erase the distinction between a mystical interior and a political exterior” (p. 3). As a theologian, she naturally views the “history of mysticism as a history of the love for God” (p. 2). Throughout her text she shows how a relationship with the divine—that which is greater than self and self-knowing—leads to political action that is liberating for self and others. By love she means mystery and never fully knowing the other, being open constantly to surprise, and unfulfilled longing. Love as mystery fuels curiosity, excitement, and vulnerability in teaching; all the more so in online instruction. I’m particularly intrigued by the ways my inner commitments to transformation can energize my instruction in ways visible to students. As Soelle would say, the synthesis of my interior and exterior in service of the mystery of online teaching and learning.

The social justice educator, Jay Gillen (2014), like Soelle, argues that love is key to forming student/teacher relationships that hold the possibility of liberation and freedom. In Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty he notes that transformative relationships grounded in love require work and patience. It is often the case that in their early stage, relationships can feel like they are going nowhere. He invites educators to think about student resistance to deep relationships of learning as a form of love he calls “courtship”. Gillen sees mystery in the courtship ritual of hesitancy and pushback as students try out the strength of the teacher/student relationship. He argues that relationships premised on change—learning—are formed through the “symbolic creation of an obstacle [which] acknowledges the mystery of communication between different kinds” (p. 148). In the mystical way that love operates in the classroom, rebuff and hesitancy are the first moves. Gillen invites me to see my struggles in online instruction as a normal part of true learning relationships with content, learning platforms, students, and myself.

As I approach my next series of online courses. I realize that Rumi’s question, with slight modification, speaks powerfully to me; “why when the [classroom] is so big / did [I] fall asleep in a prison / of all places?” Why have I fallen asleep to the potential of online classrooms to transform me as well as my students? Why do I so dearly and intentionally strive for mystery in face to face teaching but somehow barred it from entry into my online instruction? The key to my liberation, as Soelle and Gillen point out, is embracing the mystery of instructional love. I am now asking, how might the metaphor of courtship, the pushing away and pulling toward “communication of different kinds” inform my online teaching? In what ways do students court relationships with content and with me that I’m not seeing? How am I blind to mystery in the classroom and therefore missing the signals that indicate student love for the content we are all in relationship with?


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