Teachers, Gurus, Guides, and Mentors

If you spend any time at all reading religious texts, you very quickly encounter the idea that in the religious life you need a teacher, guide, guru, or spiritual mentor of some sort. This is probably mostly true. It can certainly be helpful to have the assistance and guidance of someone who has some depth of experience in your chosen religious tradition. It is especially true if you would like to pursue the religious life in some depth. I know that there is a school of thought that posits that the only teacher you need is yourself, since, according to them, all the religious knowledge is contained within yourself. However, I don’t buy into that argument. It makes religion the only skill which we do not learn from others. And since we know we learn love and empathy from our parents, I am sceptical that we just intuitively know how to live a religious life. Yes, we may be born with some intuitive religious spark, but transforming that spark into the focused flame of love and faith that can “move mountains,” takes training and guidance. In short, it requires a teacher.

The teacher is important because they help you look at yourself. Of course every encounter, every experience, pleasant or unpleasant, presents an opportunity to see into your own mind. Every little personal hurt is, in theory, an opportunity to deepen our love and compassion. Most of us, though, respond, quite naturally, to pain and hurt with blame and anger. The teacher, however, acts as a mirror. Not only do they give us intellectual knowledge, teach us various religious practices, and strive to set an example of how to live a religious life, they allow us to see our own pettiness, our own insecurity and fear, our own anger and hatred. The teacher is, of course, not perfect. However, this is besides the point as long as they are living a noble and moral life. We accept the teacher as reflecting the highest light of our tradition. Their imperfections and foibles are just another opportunity to deepen our own love, compassion, and forgiveness, which is, after all, the whole point of the religious life.

Personally, I have been very fortunate to study with some amazing teachers, mostly Buddhists. Though I have also been deeply influenced by a handful of Christian leaders as well as a few yogis. I am not a particularly good student, being a bit rebellious, independent, and little full of myself. So for much of my early life I tended to move around quite a lot, studying with different teachers, for various amounts of times and at different levels of intensity.

However, as I have matured, or aged, my religious life has become more stable. My faith has deepened and I have become deeply aware of the long term nature of religious transformation. Perseverance has become the ballast of my religious life, keeping me upright, counterbalancing unexpected emotional squalls, and generally keeping me on track.

Thus, in October, I had the good fortune to join with my local religious community for a period of retreat with the Head of our Religious Order, who has also been my Religious teacher for close to 10 years. It was a wonderful experience, filled with much fellowship and a deep sharing of the religious life. Most importantly, at least for me personally, was the opportunity to renew ties with my teacher, the person I rely upon to help me continue to grow and mature in the religious life.

Peace, Paul

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