We have learned that allowing students to explore concepts on their own is an effective teaching method because it draws them to the subject with greater interest. And we acknowledge that the "School of Hard Knocks" imparts much highly useful knowledge. But if we overemphasize the importance of personal experience we risk neglecting one of the primary benefits of the spiritual life: wisdom through humility.
Joan Chittister, commenting on Benedict's eighth degree of humility begins by quoting a Jewish proverb: "'It is better to ask the way ten times than to take the wrong direction once.'" She continues, "The eighth degree of humility asks us to stay in the stream of life, to learn from what has been learned before us, to value the truths taught by others, to seek out wisdom and enshrine it in our hearts. The eighth degree of humility tells us to attach ourselves to teachers so that we do not make the mistake of becoming our own blind guides."
This lesson is hard to learn today for two reasons. First, we have the only too vivid experience of people who claimed to be our teachers, but who truly wanted to control us to suit their own purposes, and our culture has come to suspect religious institutions in general as particularly guilty of that fault. The second hardship is that we hear such different guidance from many multiple sources: whom do we trust? I hear many religious leaders who spout things unwise and unhelpful. Sometimes the same teacher says some things very helpful, and others quite suspect.
We do not have to blindly accept the teaching of others. We should attempt to discover whom we can trust, measuring what we are taught by what we have learned in prayer and humility. We will make mistakes often, trusting some much when we should not, and trusting others little when they can truly help us.
However, if we wish to follow the spiritual path of humble pursuit of wisdom, we must learn to ask directions so that we become lost less often. Wisdom can sometimes teach us well with our getting knocked hard. My fear is that our modern culture does not encourage being humble students as much as it should, making this a skill we must deliberately choose if we are to grow in it. To be a humble student is in a way counter-cultural because in it we admit our need when our culture wants us to be self reliant. Our culture understands knowledge, things which no reasonable people can disagree about, but our culture has much less grasp on wisdom, choosing a wise path when knowledge is imperfect.
I am small and often afraid. Life overwhelms me with some frequency. I find it hard to keep faith, to go forward taking holy risks because I can feel helpless, often disappointed or bruised by the way I have taken. Experience teaches me that I need teachers. Choosing teachers is surely a risk in itself, but one we take in order to find a way to even greater peace, joy and service of others. For me, even though there is also much to be avoided, there is also a vast treasury of wise teaching among those who have chosen to follow Jesus and his Apostles over the last 2000 years. O Lord, teach me to hear the teachers you send me and to ask directions often.