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Monday, May 31, 2010

ways we learn

In the sermon this past Sunday I spent some time talking about contemplative prayer as a way to spend time with God. This mode of prayer is about being with God, rather than asking God for things, or telling God things, or in any way expecting anything from God. I used the analogy of a human relationship, in which it is necessary, and a blessing to spend time with the other. Can we imagine growing in relationship with another person without spending time with them? Can we imagine growing in understanding of them if we do all the talking, and fail to take time to simply be present with the person, and open to what they offer? My sense is that for many of us, our relationship with the Divine can benefit from simply being quiet.

I made use in the sermon of the image of a Russian Orthodox icon, painted by Alexander (Andrei) Rubilev, painted around 1410. It depicts the Trinity, the Christian doctrine that God is “One God, Three Persons”. The image is taken from a story in the Book of Genesis in which Abraham, patriarch of the Jewish people, extends hospitality to three strangers that turn out to be angels, messengers from God.

Many people around the world pray with icons and other images. This is distinct from praying to an icon! The visual image provides a way to enter into an exercise of prayer.

Growing up in the United Church, I did not spend a lot of time praying with icons. Actually, I spent no time with icons! Most of my religious education, and experiences of worship have been either verbal (word based, as in readings, sermons and spoken prayer) or musical (singing or listening to church music or hymns). Some of the churches I have been part of make some effort to appeal to visual learning, with banners, stained glass windows, and other art, but these tend to be peripheral.

Recently, as I was researching curriculum choices for Sunday School, I came across a publisher that has drawn inspiration from the theories of a Harvard psychologist named Dr. Howard Gardner. In a book called “Frames of Mind”, Gardner proposed a theory of Multiple Intelligences. He posits that humans learn through a wide variety of “intelligences”.

The Sunday School curriculum, called “PowerXpress” sets out to appeal to different ways of learning. They suggest that Verbal learners work well with word-based material, and become frustrated without verbal stimulation. Logical learners enjoy abstract and scientific thinking, and do less well in arenas of confusion. Visual learners do well with pictures, and mental imagery, and artistic work, but are discouraged when there is too much text-based material. Physical learners like to be active, and move, and tune out if they have to sit still too long. Musical learners are bored by lectures, and thrive if the material is set to music. Social learners like group work, and thinking out loud with others, and are stifled by long periods of silent study. Independent learners are reflective, introspective, and self-aware, and group activities cause them to withdraw.

Recently, Gardner has proposed two other “intelligences”: Nature, and the Spiritual.

It seems to me that these insights can be very valuable to those of us who may be trying to plan worship. They can also be useful in our personal explorations of how to spend time with God in prayer.