Advice from the Saints: how to learn

St. Jerome said:

Take care not to seek to become a teacher first and then a pupil, or an officer first and a soldier afterwards.

Take care not to enter a street you have never been in before if you do not have someone to show you the way.  You could get completely lost.

No art can be learnt without an expert teacher.

You will need a long time to learn what you ought to teach.  If any applaud you, don’t believe them.

Those who are industrious and wise, even if they have something yet to learn, are already teachers because they ask questions with sagacity.

My one-word summary of this is: humility.  To be a good student or disciple, Jerome advises us to put first things first: be a pupil before trying to be a teacher, like how soldiers rise through the ranks, not seeking to skip the lowly positions.  Traveling with a guide, and seeking an expert to teach you also are ways to avoid the presumption of thinking we can skip the hard work of learning and becoming skilled and knowledgeable immediately.  ‘If any applaud you’ too early in the process, don’t let it get to your head; keep learning.

And after all that, a good learner makes for a good teacher!  The quest for knowledge and skill that marks a good student is precisely what a teacher needs to share with students.

Similarly, St. Cyprian said:

The one who learns what is better day by day is the one who will teach in the best way.

Again, the idea of constant growth in learning and skill (rather than cramming for an exam, or waiting for a sudden epiphany to make everything fall into place) is not only better for a student, but also for a teacher.

In my own experience, I have found that I am prone to giving an “information dump” – throwing a huge pile of information at someone all at once.  This is not good teaching, because it does not make for good learning.  Effective teaching is done bit by bit over a period of time so that the learner has time to process the information or skill.

These quotes about learning apply also to spirituality: it is better to grow “day by day” and not presume to become an “officer” without first becoming a “soldier.”  It is through the practice of daily spiritual disciplines that a Christian matures in faith and grows in the knowledge and love of God.  Sudden spiritual awakenings (like at a retreat, revival, or other big event) are great when they happen, but too easily they are like an “information dump.”  Too much hits you all at once, and so while the excitement is high and experience is profound, the end result is minimal life change or growth, because there was no time to take it all in.

Also, “no art can be learned without an expert teacher,” so be sure to pray and read the Bible not alone, according to your own whims, but alongside other more experienced Christians who can help you learn how to pray, and how to read.  Otherwise it’s as if you’re on a “street you have never been in before” and “you could get completely lost.”

All quotes are taken from the Early Christian anthology, Liber Scintillarum.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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