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The Contemplative Teacher

These are not easy times to be an educator: the pandemic has forced all of us involved in the work of Christian teaching and learning to adapt to new forms of virtual learning, address a burgeoning mental health epidemic among our students, and confront worrisome new trends in our broader society. As a teacher myself, I know that I often feel like I am just treading water. It can feel difficult enough to get through the required course content and grade yet another stack of essays; broader conversations about “the integration of faith and learning” can seem as distant and useless as the bottom of the sea.

And yet, the calling for Christian educators remains. Christ tells us that he came that we might have life—true, abundant, complete life—here and now, even in our present circumstances (John 10:10). It is through this quality of life that we long for our students to taste and to see, as we have, that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8). It is a life in which we are reminded that we will have our portion of hardship and suffering, and yet it is in precisely those things that we will find true joy and communion with Christ (1 Pet 4:12–13). It is, moreover, a life in which we can become like trees planted by streams of water, yielding the fruit of loving God and loving our neighbor for the healing of the world (Ps 1:3; Rev 22:2).

This, then, is the life to which we endeavor to invite our students, even as we are very much in the process of figuring this out for ourselves. If anything, the present trials and tribulations of our world should only heighten the urgency with which we seek, for ourselves and for our students, the life that Christ brings. But how? How could we become the kinds of rooted, non-anxious, confident men and women who incarnate Christ to our students in this convulsed age?

We must, especially in times such as this, recover the church’s teaching on contemplative spirituality as the engine that will empower our own spiritual growth such that our faith, hope, and love will overflow into the lives of our students. Here the wisdom of the church fathers has much to teach us. In this regard, I have found Gregory the Great (d. 604) to be a particularly helpful guide. In his Book of Pastoral Rule, Gregory suggests that those of us who are in positions of spiritual authority (which would include all of us as teachers) must examine, align, and balance our interior (spiritual) and exterior (physical) lives.

This process, he insists, can proceed only from the messy and uncomfortable process of self-examination. The work of a teacher, like that of other helping professions, presents a wealth of emotionally charged moments that threaten to inflame unhealed wounds. By tending to our own spiritual and emotional health, we will be better able to deal with inevitable things like conflict and tension both inside and outside the classroom, gradually becoming transformed into the kinds of people that we would want our students to emulate. Growing in our own self-awareness first necessitates cultivating spaces where we can listen to our emotions, hopes, and fears, and bring them before the presence of God. It is, in fact, those of us engaging in active ministries in the world, living busy lives, who are perhaps most in need of the classic contemplative spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude.

What if, then, what we need most to become better teachers is not another workshop or another degree but a conscious decision to make space to cultivate our own life with God? What if the best thing we could do for our students is to invest in our own spiritual lives, to become the kinds of spiritually and emotionally healthy people who can give to our students from the overflow of our own intimacy with Christ? In so doing, we may just find that our motives and our actions are increasingly being brought into conformity with the gospel that we want to point our students to each day in our classroom.

This blog post is excerpted and adapted from Kyle R. Hughes’ Teaching for Spiritual Formation: A Patristic Approach to Christian Education in a Convulsed Age (Cascade, 2022). For more on cultivating practices of contemplative spirituality and self-examination, see chapter 2, “Who Are We as Teachers? Gregory the Great and Contemplative Spirituality.” The book is available now.


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