When my mother moved from her house into a one-bedroom retirement suite, we sorted boxes and boxes of Bible-study books, texts collected over decades of disciplined learning as a layperson. They ranged from a seven-year collection of the Daily Word to a copy of the Qur’an, which was later donated to her congregation’s library after her death.
Mom’s passion for education — both learning and teaching — meant that she was also an active book club member to the end of her long life. Another member told me that at the time of Mom’s death, she had left them with a list of recommended books that would keep them busy for another year. Mom came from a family that valued disciplined learning. As a young child, I watched my grandfather turning the pages of The Word and the Way, the first in the United Church’s series of books known as the New Curriculum.
The editor-in-chief of that curriculum was Rev. Peter Gordon White. Very Rev. Bruce McLeod pointed to the importance of White’s lifelong practice of study in a eulogy for his friend. He spoke of what would have been lost without White: “Church adults who had never been taught about myth and metaphor — staples of biblical understanding in mainline seminaries for the past 50 years — would be left unequipped for the eventual world of Richard Dawkins, the God particle and walking on the moon.” McLeod also described how the latest books were always near White, and the oldest too. “Recently there were two on Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher. ‘I realized I didn’t know anything about him,’ said Peter. ‘I can’t die without knowing about Maimonides!’”
Such an enthusiastic approach to learning resonates with other spiritual disciplines, all of which have the power to transform our old ways into new ones. Many of the practices I’ve written about in this column could be described as “right brained” rather than “left brained”: expressive and intuitive rather than logical and analytical. And yet, scripture suggests transformation comes through “the renewing of your minds . . . so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2). I take that to mean the whole mind.
After all, as the writer to the Philippians notes, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Meditation invites us to quiet or “empty” the mind; study invites us to fill it. They’re two sides of the discipline of stretching our minds, hearts and bodies in order to be more fully transformed.
September is a good month in which to consider how we might be renewed with mindful study. To help us get started, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister offers this advice: “Find the thing that stirs your heart and make room for it.”
I no longer care about learning for academic credit, but when I found the poetry of Wendell Berry stirring my heart, I audited a university course taught by Canadian theologian and social activist Mary Jo Leddy on the theological significance of Berry’s works. It reminded me what a joy the classroom can be.
And of course, it’s not all about book learning. I’m considering a return to music lessons this year, possibly taking up a new instrument. No matter the medium, true learning requires as much discipline as any other spiritual practice.
How do you approach learning as spiritual practice?
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.
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