The following are tips that might help you in your teaching journey and service. Of course, it goes without saying that these tips are for people teaching Spiritual Life or Spiritual Theology.
The idea in a talk is not to cover everything. The goal is not to offer the full extent of the information available on the subject of the talk. It would be too overwhelming, counterproductive, creating indigestion and would not bear fruit. It would just give a headache to each individual in the audience. The idea instead is to find a balance between: quantity, quality and offer something adapted to your audience.
A talk by definition is limited in time. The human being’s capacity of “eating” and digesting information is limited. Wanting to say everything is not possible and is not advisable. First let us look at the fact that it is not possible to digest much. What you consider as being “everything” is only “everything” according to your personal view of the moment. However, you don’t know everything. So, it is better to focus on the real dynamics of a Talk. One needs to inform, feed, give tools for further learning, possibly briefly showing the links with other subjects.
Within the framework of preparation, we prepare, and while we are doing so, we understand some points better, we have a better global vision of our subject and we see better what to focus on. We think of the audience. Sometimes it terrorises us, because if we don’t know them an important parameter in the equation of teaching is lacking, for we are aware that we have to offer something adapted to the audience. We should always remember that we are talking to individuals and be mindful of paying attention to them as such.
Teaching is like offering a meal. You are the Chef. You prepare the meal. People come to eat, and not just to watch some immobile pieces of art in a museum and be in awe. The teaching is not only talking about a reality in our faith, but, here and now, during the talk, it is real food for them. They take from what you offer and decide whether to eat or not. In the menu of your meal (the Talk) you have, in different proportions (length of time, attention/focus needed from people) the following elements (not in a specific order):
- information, knowledge on the subject (definition, history of the subject, more recent understanding of it, etc.)
- you announce briefly your plan, the parts of your talk
- if the subject needs it (and often it does): you present the subject and different sub-subjects, showing the links between the elements and how it develops. One thing leads to the other.
- show and open different avenues regarding the subject. In this way you are not addressing them, but just alluding to them, showing that there is more.
- your personal contribution (see below)
- bibliography (further reading), references, quotes
- you summarise what you said, focusing on recalling the juicy bit.
By “your personal contribution” I mean: one (or maximum two) genius juicy points that will allow God’s Light to come through in a stronger way. Something really alive and luminous, that touches and helps people in their daily life, or in their life in general. This is something that must really nourish each individual in the audience. It originates from God, and goes through you, your experience: you witness to it in a way. But you never show off or speak about yourself (worst case very little). Let God speak through you. A certain restraint on ourselves is necessary. We are serving the Word, not the Word. Humility.
A human being can only eat a certain quantity of food each meal. Within this limitation you create your menu, your meal (nibbles/drinks, starter, main course, (in France salad and cheese), drinks, fruits, desert, digestive). Not too heavy, or you will lose them (bad digestion). Not too diluted either. Balanced, this is the art.
Personal Attitude: Deep down you are not trying to bring to them something new per se, because we have everything buried in the Church, in Jesus’ Revelation. Your function is to deepen a point and to present it because you are better prepared (experience, knowledge etc.) than your audience. Your role or function is to unravel a part of the immense depths and beauty of God’s Gift to us. To go deeper, to show the beauty, to allure, attract people toward your subject. Open new ways, show them that there is more than what they initially thought. You are not trying to be eccentric or fanciful or funny. You serve the Lord and the Church his bride. You serve the souls.
Teaching Spiritual Doctrine is a sacred moment, it is very much like giving a Sacrament. Think of Communion. Imagine you are a minister of the Eucharist: you are giving the Lord. Really. Offering the “Divine Teaching” is communicating something of utmost importance, it is a sacramental operation. Therefore, the operation of teaching Spiritual Life is sacred. This is why we need the help of the Holy Spirit, and pray. It is a prophetic action. The Words that come out of your mouth are real, divine/human words which you offer in a spirit of service.
People are too used to attending talks or lectures as if they were going to a museum: they think they are supposed to be watching the “history of” the topic. When we talk “history of” often it is lived as relating to something alien to our daily life and to our personal and spiritual life. People don’t have to relate to the topic in a personal way, not “with their guts”. The concept itself of teaching often takes for granted that this distance between the topic and the person in the audience is normal, and should remain so. It doesn’t and is not called upon to touch the life of the person! This is NOT the case in Spiritual Life. The dynamics is totally and radically different.
Remember they are adults. Treat them as adults, not adolescents. Not too “humble”, not too patronising. Try to “empower” them, i.e. place the tools into their hands and teach them how to use these.
Teaching spiritual life is not like giving a Theology Course. Remember: the Dominican contemplates and then shares with others what he or she has contemplated. On the other hand, the Carmelite or whoever teaches Spiritual Life or Spiritual Theology, tends to do something different: to contemplate and to teach others how to contemplate.
As the proverb says: don’t give them fish, but teach them how to fish.
This is why, you do not only contemplate (for yourself) but reflect mostly on the process itself of contemplation. Each time you pray (you contemplate) you try to deepen your own understanding (theoretical and practical) of “how to contemplate”; “what is the process of contemplation”; “how you contemplated”; “whether it is orthodox; “can it be transmitted to others”; “is it for everybody”; “address obstacles, difficulties” etc.?
I have always understood that teaching Spiritual Life is at mid-distance between giving a retreat and teaching at the University. It is a blend of both. Remember, in the presentation of the Solid Foundation Course I do mention a climate of prayer, silence, focus and the presence of God and of Our Lady.