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  • Teaching Medieval Christian Contemplation: An Ethical Dilemma?
  • Kristine T. Utterback

By its very nature, contemplative pedagogy would seem to be a more solitary undertaking than many other forms of pedagogy. We are asking our students to go inward, producing a special kind of engagement unlike any other teaching methods I employ. For me, teaching in the only four-year state university in Wyoming, where I have never encountered anyone else who employs contemplative pedagogy, that already solitary undertaking becomes even more solitary—to the point of isolation. That was one of the reasons that having an opportunity to appear on a panel with others who use contemplative pedagogy provided a rare and treasured opportunity to discuss what I do and to learn from others. I had such an opportunity at the November 2012 American Academy of Religion (AAR) Annual Meeting. At the session titled “Contemplative Pedagogy: Pitfalls and Potentials” organized by the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, I described my contemplative pedagogy course titled Medieval Christian Contemplation in History and Practice. The panel members and the engaged audience combined to create a lively and thought-provoking discussion.

All four of the panelists, including myself, had contributed to the collection of essays edited by Judith Simmer-Brown and Fran Grace, Meditation and the Classroom,1 and we all use contemplative pedagogy in our teaching. In my case, I teach specific Christian contemplative methods to help my students gain a connection with medieval people by using some of the same practices that they did. In the discussion that followed the presentations, an audience member questioned whether these Christian contemplative methods are appropriately taught to all comers—something that would not have been deemed appropriate by the medieval teachers of these methods. I should add that the question spoke to a much larger issue than my course and the ten or fifteen students I teach in a semester, but he raised an interesting and important point, which I will discuss below. Before I address the potential dilemma my questioner elicited, and my argument that other considerations override it, let me provide context for that discussion by describing what, why, and how I teach twenty-first century students medieval contemplative practices.

When I teach medieval history, I struggle to help my students get a “feel” for a world very different from their own. The problems of understanding a world far removed from twenty-first-century Americans is obvious, since I can neither bring [End Page 53] a medieval peasant to class nor take field trips to living medieval sites, and almost every medieval assumption about the world differs radically from ours. In 1999, when I saw a call for proposals from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, for Contemplative Practice in Teaching Fellowships, I realized that contemplative practices might offer my students first-person experiences of an important dimension of medieval life: spirituality. Although I had no evidence to support this, it seemed to me that what practitioners experienced a millennium or more ago and what someone experiences today doing the same thing might have a great deal in common. When I applied for the fellowship, I had never heard of contemplative pedagogy, so I viewed my endeavor primarily as experiential learning, but as I have taught the course and learned about contemplative pedagogy, the contemplative focus has joined and to some extent subsumed the experiential one.

By the time I received the fellowship, I had already been practicing Christian Centering Prayer for several years. This is a modern contemplative practice based on the teachings of the anonymous author of a medieval classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. I was intrigued by the challenge of developing a course that combined the history of medieval Christian contemplative practice with experiential and, later, contemplative learning. Since receiving the grant, I have offered the course Medieval Christian Contemplation in History and Practice several times; it is cross-listed in both the Religious Studies and the History Departments. Pedagogically I want to allow the students to experience the Middle Ages in some small but real way. I have an additional personal hope, shared with the students but certainly not required, that they might find these practices rewarding enough...


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