There is a saying, alternately attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Guatama Shakyamuni and the Theosophists, that goes: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Regardless of who came up with it, I think it’s a key concept to keep in mind when talking about individual change. When you consider that change is learning and learning is change, a teacher can make the difference. It’s interesting how we can be presented repeatedly with the same content but fail to grasp many aspects until some later date. It comes down to being open for acceptance or understanding at the proper time.
Routinely we may think of this in terms of someone who is ready to learn something new and finds themselves in front of the right person to teach them. However, we may also be ready to finally act upon knowledge we gleaned months or even years ago. The teacher may be a person, but equally, may be an event or an opportunity and the lesson is not always enjoyable or easy to understand. Sometimes we do not see the teacher because the learning doesn’t match our perceived notions. We want or long to see something else.
All education, and thus change, ultimately takes place on the student side. A teacher can light and ease the way – in other words, facilitate learning – but the learner must walk the path. Coaching does not improve a player’s performance. A player improves his performance by being coached. The choice is the players. Christ does not improve my behavior, He provides the goal of salvation, the value system to mold my behavior and the motivation for me to improve my behavior. The choice is mine.
To see the teacher not only requires looking; but to look in the right direction, look in the right manner, and with a reflective mindset. I heard a statistic that only 10% of the people east of Mississippi River have seen the Milky Way. Most of the eastern half of the US has too much light pollution to see it clearly and often. However, a fair percentage of people don’t know what to look for, its rarity doesn’t make it easily recognizable. We must look for it in the right manner. On our annual family camping vacation, we enjoy the stillness and darkness of the night sky with the opportunity to look and see, on several occasions, the Milky Way.
My oldest daughter was an average student, at best, during her undergraduate college years. Her desire at that time was to pass and move on, more so than to retain insight and knowledge. However, after she matured and was attending graduate school, all that changed – she was ready for deeper learning and the teacher appeared. She received her master’s degree with a perfect 4.0 along and an incredible proficiency in the material she learned.
Mark Twain famously said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” An ironic way to recognize that he finally was the student seeing his teacher, his father’s wisdom appeared over time. I also think the saying “you can lead a horse to water; but you can’t make it drink” applies here – the horse will drink when its thirsty.
As I look back on my life, I find I have never been without teachers or coaches. So much so that I advocate for the positive experience that mentors and role models can have in life. In a large degree when I reflect on the successes in my life, I see the concept of “being called” versus “being driven.” These areas of success emerged; they were not dogged pursuits. In hindsight I can see the moments when they emerged. If I reflect deeply enough, I can also see that the teacher, in some cases the Holy Spirit, had been present for quite a while waiting on me. I have jokingly stated that after subtle tugs on the heart, the Holy Spirit needed to ‘bop me upside the head.’
In the Old Testament, Isiah notes that it is not God who was absent, but the people who no longer saw God. “I was ready to respond to those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said: Here I am! Here I am! To a nation that did not invoke my name. I have stretched out my hands all day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own designs” (Isiah 65:1-2).
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus met two apostles, Cleopas and the “other disciple.” It is speculated that Luke’s failure to identify Cleophas’ companion may be a strategy of inviting the reader to identify with that person and be making the journey as Cleophas’ companion. In an apostolic letter, Pope John Paul II says, “When minds are enlightened and hearts are enkindled, signs begin to ‘speak’.” He is referring to the two disciples having their eyes opened to recognize the Master, hidden in the ‘breaking of the bread.’
These days I am diving deeper into scripture and theology as a result of ‘being ready.’ I sometimes lament about the lack of these details and their context being taught to me when I was younger. However, I now realize that I was not ready, the teacher was always present. Jesus walks with us every day, always ready to teach. His parables from 2000 years ago are still relevant today.
There are times when God shows himself in the moment, but more often He’s “seen” or “heard” in hindsight. When I did my reflection on my life’s path, I saw His hand guiding me along the way. As the Emmaus travelers learned, we can improve our faith journey by looking for him in the past as well as the present.
We should all be striving to learn, grow and thus change. It is what makes us Christians. We need to be looking in the right manner, with an open heart, and right direction to see the teacher. We already have the teacher that will make all the difference we need.