Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught (and Why That’s Okay)

By Carl McColman. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019. 160 pages. $16.99/paperback or eBook.

“We need to begin with trust. And generosity. And for those of us who believe, with prayer. And most of all, with love.”

This book is as much a memoir as it is about spiritual insights, practices, or guidance. It’s a life journey that sees the beauty in grief as well as love, and how these are inherently intertwined. The first chapter unfolds the relationship Carl McColman had with his stepdaughter—who has physical and mental disabilities—and how he came to love her; to be taught by her; and, when she died too young, to grieve her.

McColman’s spiritual journey is one many Quakers can relate to. He was unchurched as a young child; his parents first took him to a Lutheran church when he was in the sixth grade. As a teenager, he tried out both the Catholic and Protestant charismatic movements and had a stunning mystical experience at a Presbyterian conference center. As a young adult, he immersed himself in modern paganism. A prolific writer, he produced more than a dozen books on Wicca, Celtic wisdom, magic, gods and goddesses, Shamanism, and Druidism before discovering that his heart belonged to Jesus. He found the forms of Christian mysticism embodied in the Catholic Church were the key to unlock his soul (and has since written nine more books, including Befriending Silence).

His religious ramble was not a series of missteps but the necessary steps for him to seek out the spiritual food that would feed his deepest longings. And each one moved him closer to God. Along the way, he discovered silence as “the screen on which the film of our lives is projected . . . the doorway to the presence of God.”

Important to his development and sustenance has been the role of silence: “Silence is the paper on which the ink of human consciousness is printed.” In silent meditation, he could make himself most nearly available to God. He makes several heartfelt (and flattering) references to Quakerism and our use of silence as an avenue to the Divine. But McColman knows silence is only a method, a tool, not an end in itself; it is a way to seek, not the thing to be found. He feels the need to balance inward meditation with outward prayers and rituals as practiced for millennia by monks, nuns, priests, and laypeople.

His quest for transformation is not limited to the traditions he has personally sampled. He asks, can we “truly and joyfully make room in our minds and hearts for the wisdom, the gifts, that can come to us from other spiritualities?” and hopes people can “balance being faithful to our sacred story . . . while also offering hospitality to the rich treasures of myth, symbol, image, vision, and practice that can be discovered in other faith contexts.” Finding this balance is a challenge for many Friends today.

McColman recognizes his shortcomings: his selfishness, ignorance, and times of spiritual blindness. The lessons referred to in the book’s title are the products of divine nudges, shoves, and body slams. When we attend to them, they can help in “the slow work of transforming self-love to God-love.” They can be times we learn to truly trust and “to be generous in our trust.” Trust, he writes, is a gift, and when we practice contemplation, “When we gaze with wordless love into the heart and mind of God, we are making ourselves available for this gift (among others).”

There is so much more to say about this book. Try it; you’ll like it.

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