Book Review–Unteachable Lessons: Why wisdom can’t be taught (and why that’s okay) by Carl McColman

unteachable lessons review

For Carl McColman, author of the new book Unteachable Lessons, meeting his future daughter propelled him into living within unknown possibilities. A self-described introvert who is too stuck in his head, Rhiannon drew him out of his shyness with her freedom to engage him. Rhiannon lived with polycystic kidney disease and had a stroke when she was three years old. She needed daily care from Fran, Rhiannon’s mother and McColman’s wife, health care staff, and eventually McColman himself. When Fran introduced McColman to Rhiannon she said, “I’m so happy to meet you” and leaned over and tugged on his beard.

For the next twenty-two years McColman learned to stay grounded and live in the present moment as he cared for his daughter. After Rhiannon’s death at twenty-nine, McColman discovered that intertwined with his grief was gratitude for those years with Rhiannon, “I just kept feeling wave after wave of appreciation, grateful for the privilege of having been part of [her] life …. How much she taught me, about playfulness, about humor, about zest, about dignity in suffering, about letting life be imperfect, about forgiveness.”  McColman understood his life with Rhiannon lead him from narcissism to compassion, a deep interior transformation, which is an unteachable lesson, a “syllabus [which] is nothing more than our willingness to be present.”

McColman has written several books on mysticism, such as The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, The Little Book of Christian Mysticism, and books on contemplation, including Befriending Silence, and Answering the Contemplative Call. He is also a co-host of the podcast, “Encountering Silence.” McColman is well-acquainted with contemplative practices.

In Unteachable Lessons, McColman shares his experiences as someone “stuck in his head”, who confesses to struggles with his ego and to love wholeheartedly. These qualities were especially apparent in his relationship with his wife and daughter. His life with them was a continual instruction of unteachable lessons and readers are the beneficiary of his learnings. McColman describes these lessons as moments when one is changed forever. “When you learn what can never be taught, don’t try to teach anyone else, either. Maybe the best you can do is tell your story or point somebody in a direction and say, ‘this way.’” This book is McColman sharing his story and offering readers a map toward a deeper intimacy with God.

Early in the book McColman shares a transcendent moment he experienced at age sixteen. He was at a youth winter camp, singing with the other campers during a worship service when he discovered,

As I relaxed into a sense of connection with my fellow winter celebrants, I realized I was filled with a quiet joy and a serenity that seemed new to me, a feeling I had never registered before. This was not merely a fleeting moment of ecstasy—it was too grounded, too silent, too humble to be described as rapture. … Something shifted in my mind and in my heart, in my awareness and perception. Whatever it was, I could feel it in my bones …. I felt as if I had suddenly recognized that I was one with God. (35)

This experience set him on a trajectory of seeking additional experiences of union with God but without success. Years later, McColman realized that he was chasing the experience of God rather than pursuing God: “…we run the risk of making an experience of God more important to us than God is.” A consequence of pursuing experiences can create unhelpful, or even toxic, images of God which can damage our faith and our ability to “love and show mercy and forgiveness to others.”

According to McColman, the unteachable lesson in his story is “to receive God in whatever way God may come to us …. What matters is not how you find God but rather how does God find you?”

McColman writes about contemplative silence as one who is deeply rooted in silence. He recognized silence as a gift rather than something to be feared while on retreat with the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC. During the retreat the participants were invited to spend forty-five minutes in silence with one another. McColman had a joyful sense of “so this is what I’ve been looking for.”

Despite his feelings of coming home, he describes his relationship with silence as rocky:

“I would sit down for twenty minutes of meditative prayer, eager to bask in silence, only to find that I had an internal dialogue going on that simply refused to shut up.” His experience is common amongst others trying to deepen their relationship with silence. McColman suggests that silence is always present no matter our distractions and waits for us as we wrestle with our chattering ego.  The unteachable lesson is that “silence, more than anything else within us, is the doorway to the presence of God…Silence is God’s first language, and silence is the deepest language of our souls.”

McColman concludes his book with the reminder that spiritual books can never replace the importance of living into the lessons that life alone can give us. As the German poet, Ranier Marie Rilke wrote to a young poet, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer,” so McColman encourages readers to “…do the work of living, of praying, of loving, of trusting, of listening to the silence” as learning the unteachable lessons in order to grow in wisdom.

(This review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books).

Renouncing Violence: A book review

Renouncing Violence book photo

 

Mary Margaret Funk’s latest book, Renouncing Violence, was born out of the fractious discourse across the world, but particularly in the United States. She writes in the preface: “The intent of this book is to gentle down. Calmness prevents and scatters violence. When violence is tamed, we find peace of heart. A working definition of violence is ‘form or forces that cause harm’.”

Funk has written ten books, primarily on training the mind which in turn converts the heart, including Thoughts Matter, among others. In Renouncing Violence, Funk clearly articulates how she trained her mind to convert her heart away from damaging thoughts and feelings which were impacting her life. She describes her purpose: “We can do something about violence …. Through renunciation, both individually and together, we can reduce, redirect, refrain, and reprogram our instinctual propensities toward retaliation, recompense, and rage.”  (xi)

Funk is conversant with the classical monastic writings, particularly the desert ammas and abbas from the 3rd and 4th centuries, which influence her understanding of training our minds in order to convert our hearts. Additionally, her knowledge of scripture, nurtured by years of practicing lectio divina informs her approach of inner heart movement from violence to nonviolence.

She describes her process of writing this book in three phases: first phase was listening and hearing that something new was happening these recent years: “The new normal [in our culture] was anxiety from within and fear from without.” (xi)

The second phase was listening to her own “disquietude.” After the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, “I realized that I was saturated with the affliction of anger.” A few months later Funk went on a weeklong retreat with a nun who “prayed out my anger.” But, Funk realized that she needed to guard her heart of anger returning “bringing seven more demons stronger than the first.” (xii)

Funk’s third phase was waiting on the Spirit to direct her to something that she should do about this new normal as “We are in a global bad mood.” She believes Jesus reversed violence through his death and resurrection and that there is “no anger in Jesus, only love.” Additionally, Funk is confident there is no wrath in God and the church was commissioned to extend God’s reign of love, peace, and shalom. From this foundation she wrote Renouncing Violence.
In the first chapter, Funk explores both the word “renunciation” and how to live a life of renunciation. She tells of her experience of choosing a vowed life in a Benedictine order. She had to renunciate her previous life in order to become a nun, she yields to the other members of her community, and devoting her life to God. “Renunciation is also a way to focus energies,” she writes.

Renunciation is also an opportunity to go beyond oneself for the sake of others. It is sweet to take on responsibilities that ensure other people’s desires are fulfilled, maybe even at some sacrifice.” (3)

But, she warns, “renunciation, in and of itself, will seem to have a missing piece if, indeed, there isn’t an overarching and underpinning belief.” (3)

For Funk, this “overarching and underpinning belief” is rooted in Jesus, whom she identifies as “the way out of violence.” She surveys 22 pericopes from all four gospels of Jesus as healer from which she concludes that,

Jesus’ healings show that he is the presence of God in the world enabling humanity to live a new life. Those healed by Jesus become free to become who they are meant to be, part of a community that lives in gratitude and praise, extending God’s work of restoration and healing to the world. (17-18)

She delves into the question if Jesus was ever angry stating “If Jesus was angry and did harm intentionally, then this narrative runs counter to all episodes where Jesus supported, healed, and restored life.” (18)

Furthermore, Funk reminds readers that none of the gospel accounts describe Jesus as angry but they do describe the priests and scribes as angry. The John account of Jesus clearing out the synagogue was an example of nonviolent prophetic action in the tradition of the prophetic witness displayed throughout the Old Testament: Jesus frees the birds, drives out the large animals, turns the tables, and strikes no one.

She summarizes the theme in the chapter “About the Practice of Renouncing Violence” of moving from violence to nonviolence; however, the structure of the chapter itself is a question and answer format rather than exposition. The content in the answers is excellent but the questions appear awkward, stilted, and ultimately off-putting. Nevertheless, Funk provides useful answers based on teachings from the early monastic tradition. She writes:

The training of the monastic way of life has an inner goal: shifting from self-consciousness to an immersion into a mystical consciousness, a knowing and experience of God acting from within, rather than the self acting toward the self. This shift is to have the self in service of God rather than God in service of the self.  (73)

Ultimately, Funk says, the early monastic practices are designed to “root out the affliction” of our anger and violent compulsions.

She concludes the book with three appendices: “Holy Water Prayer”, “Prayers in Time of Trouble”, “What I’ve Learned from Those Who’ve Been Harmed by Violence”; and a helpful bibliography for additional resources regarding nonviolence.

Renouncing Violence is an accessible, straight-forward book that could be used in small groups, Sunday school classes, or weekend retreats for study for those wanting to turn away from “disquietude” in contemporary culture and toward a loving, compassionate, nonviolent approach to all of life.

This review appeared May 17, 2019 on the Englewood Review of Books website.

Life Transitions

 return slowly

(The Hermitage sign along the driveway for departing guests).

 

Greetings from Three Rivers, Michigan! My husband and I moved here almost a month ago—sold our home, sorted, packed, donated (and donated, and donated), and moved to join the residential community of The Hermitage, a contemplative retreat center.

At one point we seriously considered joining the residential community but it never seemed the right time. During a conversation with the Hermitage board someone asked Kevin is he was finished his library career and he realized there was more he wanted to explore. Within the past two years he sensed an inner restlessness and began to discern that he was ready to move on from library work. After pondering and praying we approached The Hermitage about joining the residential community. And here we are.

We are settling into our new home, new work, new schedule, new life. We are learning what it is to pray together as a community six days a week which includes weekly celebrating the Eucharist with one another. We are learning to work together which involves explaining and absorbing details such as which towels and sheets go into which guest room. Working together involves discussing and challenging and yielding and releasing of “my way.”

As Benedict stated in his rules for monastic life: Ora et labora. The literal translation is “Prayer and work.” It can also be translated as “Our work is our prayer; our prayer is our work.”

I discovered this prayer from the Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals which describes my inner restlessness and reflection these past several months:

Prayer for Major Life Transition

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity.

Lord, teach me to listen to my heart, teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it.

Lord, I give you these stirrings inside of me. I give you my discontent, I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longing I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.