Academic Exchange Quarterly
Spring 2002: Volume 6, Issue 1
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line versions.
Teaching and Learning as Spiritual Exercises.
Scholarly teaching requires active reflection and inquiry into teaching and student
learning, trying to make the learning process itself transparent. Both instructors
and students are actively engaged in questioning this teaching and learning.
Spiritual teaching and learning are also founded upon the practices of deep
questioning and reflection. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus encourages his followers,
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will
be opened for you.” Spanish soldier-turned-priest Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556),
founded of the Company or Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in part to train others in
specific methods for such spiritual questioning and searching. In his Spiritual
Exercises, he drew on Jesus’ teachings as a foundation for many practical forms of
spiritual questioning and reflection, including a “prayer of consideration” based
on Matthew 6:25-34. Prayer itself is a form of active reflection and of learning
from that reflection. In this form of prayer, the seeker deeply and carefully
considers both her real needs, her real value to God, and her “field”—her environment
and context—and how these all interact.
More famous than the prayer of consideration is Loyola’s “examen of conscience,”
which Jesuit author John A. Hardon considers to be “an essential part of the
spiritual life” for “writers of the spiritual life” in particular. Certainly,
the same rigor and consistency in spiritual self-examination is just as essential
for teachers. Indeed, this process, like all of the Spiritual Exercises, is
intended to be a transparent learning process shared with a spiritual director.
The director, though a teacher of the exercises, is also a gentle facilitator and
attentive listener rather than a lecturer. The experience of learning is led more
by the needs, maturity, and readiness of the one doing the exercises than by the
spiritual director. The process of teaching is responsive, guided by the process
Another of the spiritual exercises, lectio divina, is actually based on a much
earlier tradition, with roots in both ancient Hebrew scripture study (haggada)
and ancient Greco-Roman meditation practices (meditari). Benedict (480-547),
a Roman noble and founder of the Benedictine order originally articulated this
process of contemplative scripture reading in The Rule of Saint Benedict
(ca. 1529). Like the examen, this practice can be performed individually but
is understood to be most fruitful when practiced with a spiritual director.
Using this method of active reading, the student first reads the assigned passage
slowly, then puts the reading aside to write or reflect on words and phrases that
he particularly remembers. This process of active reflection includes asking
what those words and phrases meant for the original author and audience.
Next, the student considers what the words, phrases, and text as a whole mean
to him personally. Finally, the student actively engages God directly in prayer,
seeking specific direction for living in response to these reflections and questions.
Although many of us may not include scripture study and prayer among our teaching
tools, lectio divina may still provide a fruitful model for teaching active,
engaged reading and thinking. Certainly, asking students to slow down and think
more their reading (which may require us to assign shorter passages) could lead
them to deeper understanding of the original meaning and intentions of any author
and text, particularly with our guidance and direction. (For particularly
challenging assignments, I even provide reading guides for my students, listing
specific questions about intent, context, meaning, audience, and application for
them to consider.) While not all of us may be able or willing to ask students to
pray about their reading, we can ask them to jot down specific phrases and ideas
just after completing the reading, then to reflect on what practical connections
they can make between those ideas and their own lives. (Requiring students to
submit this in some written form, whether in class or online, helps encourage them
in this task.)
By approaching teaching and learning as spiritual exercises (whether overtly or
indirectly), students and instructors can be intentional about thinking through
their experiences of teaching and learning together and approach their subject
area in deeper, more life-changing ways as mutual learners.
Heather Ann Ackley Bean, Ph.D.
Azusa Pacific University, CA
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