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).