A learning heart

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

I recently contributed to a conference exploring the Church’s ministry to those with learning difficulties or other additional needs in our church communities. The delegates included medical, educational and social work professionals. My role was to introduce and enable discussion about spirituality in those with learning difficulties or other `hidden needs’. My main resource for this was my own experience and the work of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities. As the day unfolded, it dawned on me that the Christian view of humanity possesses concepts and language that enable far more practical and pastoral engagement with the subject of the conference than those drawn from any other medical, social or educational perspective.

We can talk about each person ‘made in the image and likeness of God.’ In the light of the Incarnation we can see new depths and perspectives in the mystery and purpose of being human and being loved by God. In addition to this the Catholic Christian, in seeing the Church as a first fruit of the New Creation born of the water of baptism, and sustained by the heavenly food of Holy Communion, has an understanding and trust in the grace of God at work sacramentally that is totally inclusive and knows of no boundaries it cannot cross or needs that cannot be met.

In subsequent reflection on the encounters and conversations of that conference I found myself praying again the collect for Pentecost with its reminder that the Lord sent the ‘Holy Spirit to teach the hearts of thy faithful people.’ It struck me that most spiritual direction involves discerning and responding to ‘learning difficulties of the heart.’ This has opened up a new seam of thought to mine about life in the spirit. One learning difficulty in the spiritual life is to place too much emphasis on thought and thinking (the process that Vanier calls ‘sky thinking’) and too little emphasis on the senses, and on intuition (which Vanier calls ‘earth thought’ and St Paul `the bowels or guts’).

In schools those with learning difficulties of different kinds have IEPs: Individual Education Plans. Spiritual directors and prayer guides have the role of developing IEPs with those who have spiritual learning difficulties of the heart. In education, IEPs often involve repeated exercises to address specific areas; this can be paralleled by spiritual exercises. Let me give one example. In the case where a directee seems dependent on spiritual reading for inspiration and sustenance, why not encourage them to write something, or to read only very short sections of carefully selected authors? Or, in the case where someone is always cerebral in their prayer, encourage them to take a ‘prayer walk’ outside, paying close attention to each physical sense?

Some ‘learning difficulties’ can be overcome only in partnership with others; some with a change of setting; others can be met by support over a long period of time. The truth is we all have some form of learning difficulties of the heart and that is why the Lord has given us his Spirit to teach, that we may ‘attain everlasting life.