Spiritual Teachers

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I scribbled this quote by Lao Tzu in my journal when barely 21. Writing down words of wisdom to be further pondered has always been a notable past-time for me. Remembering that pivotal decade, I was exiled from college classes by circumstances beyond my control. Having just moved from Minnesota, where I was enrolled at the University in Minneapolis/St. Paul, to Southern California, I had to wait a year to establish residency in order to attend college without paying the exorbitant out-of-state fees. At first, I was full of trepidation and longing since education was the love of my life. But the words of Lao Tzu spoke hope to me and on some level, I realized that despite not being enrolled in college classes, I could attend the “school of life” if I shifted my narrow attitude and learned to see everyone and everything as a teacher.

This period of self-education was like being a child again and included close observation of my new surroundings, listening to nature, and looking for more than what was superficially present. I took random jobs that came my way–from secretary in a small company to teaching little ones at a preschool. I procured a library card and read books by the armful on a wide variety of topics, including world religions, which had always been an object of fascination. I also became interested in political nonfiction, art history, and poetry; I read novels on the side for the sheer love of stories and to escape into fantasy worlds. Through it all, teachers appeared in the unlikeliest places, from characters in beloved novels to grandmothers in my neighborhood to butterflies lingering over succulent blossoms. I began to appreciate the many ways curiosity beckons us over thresholds to new ways of knowing and being.

Eventually, I returned to college and finished both graduate and then post-graduate degrees, learning so much from a wide variety of sources as I worshipped at the altar of higher education. However, when it came to an end, I felt strangely hollow and hungry for spiritual wisdom. It seemed there was a big gap in my life’s education that needed attention. So, I returned to the religion of my roots (Catholicism) and sought spiritual enlightenment in earnest through coursework, degrees, certifications, and teaching others the ways of faith formation. Through it all, more than anything else, I pined away and was on the lookout for a wisdom elder who could teach me the depths of spiritual practice. In addition to authors on the pages of books, I needed to “put skin on God” and prayed continually for someone to walk with me. Fortunately, these cries of the heart were always heard.

Spiritual teachers came and went constantly, some with a minute amount to impart and others with vast imprints of truth. Some left quietly and obscurely, others left loudly in the wake of misconduct, a select few are still walking with me. All contributed to my spiritual formation, many in spite of themselves. I learned the hard way that authentic spiritual teachers are often hard to find, despite their degrees, collars, veils, and other outer signs of dedication to the Holy One. The “guru syndrome,” clinging to one embodied spiritual teacher, rarely has a healthy outcome. Human beings have human frailties despite giftedness in writing or speaking on enlightened topics. Yet all of them had some richness to contribute; all of them pointed to the Beauty and Truth that surrounded me, coached me in”God consciousness,” and filled my soul with new awakenings to “things seen and unseen.” For this is the essence of developing a spiritual life: to enlarge the heart, to embrace everything, everyone, as a spiritual teacher with no dualistic separation of secular and spiritual.

After decades of retreat work, teaching hundreds of seekers on many theological topics, I have come to accept that a teacher is essentially a perpetual student in the classroom of life, especially when it comes to the Divine. As long as we can breathe, the Spirit is humming and imparting wisdom in grains of sand and rays of sunlight gleaming on the water. Readiness is simply awareness and the teacher forever hidden in plain sight.

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