Teachers as Mystics: Part One

By Dr. Paul Michalec


This cross-posted blog story from Dr. Paul Michalec also appears on his blog IN:SIGHT REFLECTIONS ON EDUCATION. This blog, hosted by the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, features posts that explore the concepts of transformation through education, inviting the readers to engage with the ideas or concepts presented in the writings.

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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 asynonym 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 ofteacher-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 experiencewhich 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?

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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 ordescriptions 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.

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