Scriptural Selections: God the Teacher
Being unlimited by time, [the Supreme Lord] is the Teacher even of the most ancient ones.
– Patanjali, Yoga Sutras 1:26 (my translation – JJE)
I’d been waiting, in vain, for free time to work on a fourth installment on my series of Scriptural selections on prayer, when something else came up, and once I’d finished responding to it, I found to my surprise that I had a whole new “Scriptural selections” mailing ready to send out – on God as our Teacher. All it wanted was this covering note.
It all started with my cleaning house, and finding a printout I’d once made of the 1667 letter of Isaac Penington to his children. “Oh, this is so good!” I said to myself. “I must share it with the School Committee! It really says what Quaker education is about, better than anything else I’ve seen, and it’s from the hand of Penington himself!” Well, it was a longish letter, solemnly reproving the young Peningtons for “quarreling, and doing that which is naught, and then covering it with lies,” so I thought I’d better just take bites from the first paragraph if I wanted to claim for it the full attention of a busy 18-member school board. I try to advance the view there that what makes education Quakerly is not something called “Quaker values” but openness to the inwardly experienced guidance of God – a living God who stands at the door and knocks. I hold that the so-called Quaker values and testimonies are either the living flowers and fruit of that intimacy with the Holy One, else they are mere forms without life. (Conversely, if they prove to be full of life, they argue for their divine source even if their bearer claims to be an atheist.)
MY DEAR CHILDREN,
Two things I especially desire in reference to your learning; — one is, that ye may learn to know and hearken to the voice of God’s witness in you. There is somewhat in you, which will teach you how to do well, and how to avoid the evil, if your minds be turned to it. And the same thing will witness to you, when ye do well, — and against you, when ye do evil. Now to learn to know this, to hear this, to fear this, to obey this, that is the chief piece of learning that I desire to find you in. And your master or any one of the family that turns you to the witness, reminds you of the witness, reproves you for not hearkening to or obeying the witness, O! love them, and bless God for them in that respect: and remember this, that he that hearkens to reproof is wise, but he that hates or slights it is brutish…. Therefore mind the witness which discovers these things to you, and leads you out of them, as ye hearken to it, and come to know, fear, and love the Lord God, by his instruction and testimony.
from Isaac Penington (1617-1679), Works, v. 2, p. 487, a letter from Aylesbury Prison dated 3/10/1667, entitled “For my dear Children J.J. and M.P.” (Farmington, ME: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995)
The central thrust of this touching letter is the same as that of George Fox’s famous Tenth Epistle (1652), which urges Friends to stand still in the Light that reproves them for giving in to temptation, so that the same Light may also heal them and give them power over all temptation. The second and fourth propositions of Barclay’s Apology (1678) deal with this at great length. In our time, British Friend Rex Ambler has revived this discipline, evidently a common practice among first-generation Friends, as An Experiment with Light.
My friend the School Committee Clerk promised me an opportunity to read this excerpt aloud at the beginning of our next meeting, but also asked me whether I knew of related or parallel material from non-Quaker traditions that might help frame it for the non-Quakers on the committee. I thought about it a little and came up with a few, most of them from the Bible; but I know no writer who portrays God as our Teacher more vividly than Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J. (1675-1751), himself a teacher, so I begin with selections from his Abandonment to Divine Providence (John Beevers translation; Doubleday Image Books, 1975):
All our learning should consist of finding out what God has planned for us at each moment. Anything we read which is not chosen for us by God is harmful. We receive grace through the will of God, and this grace works within us through our reading and through everything else we do. Without God, all our theorizing and reading are useless, and, as they are without the life-giving power of God, all they do is drain the heart and fill the mind. [p. 27]
The written word of God is full of mysteries, and equally so is his word expressed in world events…. they are still the living word, teaching us of the wisdom, the power and the goodness of God. These divine attributes are made manifest by all the events of history. All things teach this truth. But alas, we cannot see it…. [pp. 42-43]
We are really well taught only by the words which God addresses especially to us. Neither books nor laborious delving into history will instruct us about the wisdom of God…. It is what happens moment by moment which enlightens us…. We can understand nothing perfectly except what experience has taught through what we have suffered and done. Our master is the Holy Spirit, who gives us these words of life, and all we say to others must come from him…. We must listen to God moment by moment to become learned in this practical theology of virtue. Take no notice of what is said to other people. Listen only to what is said to and for you. There will be enough there to strengthen your faith, for it will be exercised, purified and deepened by the very obscurity of these communications. [p. 49]
Every moment we live through is like an ambassador who declares the will of God, and our hearts always utter their acceptance. Our souls steadily advance, never halting, but sweeping along with every wind. Every current, every technique thrusts us onward in our voyage to the infinite. Everything works to this end and, without exception, helps us toward holiness. We can find all that is necessary in the present moment. We need not worry about whether to pray or be silent, whether to withdraw into retreat or mix with people, to read or write, to meditate or make our minds a receptive blank, to shun or seek out books on spirituality. Nor do poverty or riches, sickness or health, life or death matter in the least. What does matter is what each moment produces by the will of God. [pp. 50-51]
And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left. – Isaiah 30:21
And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children. – Isaiah 54:13; Jesus quotes the first half of this verse in John 6:45, adding “Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.”
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: … I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. – Jeremiah 31:31-34; this is quoted in Hebrews 8:8-11 and 10:15-17, whose writer regards Jeremiah’s prophecy as fulfilled under the new Christian covenant.
And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: That they may walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. – Ezekiel 11:19-20
That [Jesus Christ] was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world…. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. – John 1:9, 3:19-21
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. – Romans 1:18-19
Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:12
But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. – 1 Thessalonians 4:9
But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him. – 1 John 2:27
Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.
With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth.
I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches.
I will meditate in thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways.
I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word.
Deal bountifully with thy servant, that I may live, and keep thy word.
Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.
I am a stranger in the earth: hide not thy commandments from me.
My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments at all times. – Psalm 119:12-20
Dark though my sayings, those who know call me Light:
I will be your heart’s companion in the darkest night.