Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught (and Why That’s Okay)

Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught (and Why That’s Okay) February 26, 2019

My dear friends, it’s time to announce a new book that’s coming out this fall.

It’s called Unteachable Lessons: Why Spirituality Can’t Be Taught… And Why That’s Okay.

It will be published in September. To order it now, click here.

I’m very excited about this book for several reasons.

Unlike my last few books, each of which focused on historical Christian spirituality — looking at the wisdom of the ancient Celtic saints or the great mystics — this book is all about today.

I love the mystics, of course — and sure, some of them, like Julian of Norwich, still make “cameo” appearances in this book. But when I was developing the initial ideas for this book, I was motivated by a very simple question:

What does it mean to explore contemplative or mystical spirituality today?

No, this is not a book on “how to be a mystic.” I don’t think it’s possible to write such a book — at least not with integrity and authenticity.

Which brings us closer to what Unteachable Lessons is about.

This is a book about how you don’t become a mystic (or a contemplative) from reading a book. Because the lessons of the spiritual life simply can’t be taught.

You can’t learn them from a book, or from a weekend workshop, or by sitting at the feet of a master. You learn the lessons of the spiritual life… well, directly from the Holy Spirit.

I’m not saying that the lessons of the spiritual life are “un-learn-able.” Yes, you can learn them. But no one can teach you.

There’s a saying that has been attributed to Mark Twain (like so many “sayings” on the Internet, I’ve never been able to find a reliable source for this quote, so it’s probably apocryphal):

A person who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.

Well, no matter who said it first, boy is it true.

The spiritual life is a lot like that cat. If you want to learn the lessons it has for you, you’ve got to grab it by the tail. And then prepare to learn.

Does this mean that spiritual teachers are useless? Or that books by mystics (or for that matter, by writers like me) are a waste of time?

Well, I hope not! I certainly still think there’s lots of wisdom to gleaned from the great mystics, and from living spiritual teachers like Martin Laird or Mary Margaret Funk or Michael Casey or Cynthia Bourgeault.

And of course, I hope that’s true of my writing as well. We read spiritual books because they inspire us, or help us see things from a new perspective, or give us insight into the way other people live the spiritual life.

In fact, many of my favorite mystics — from Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton to Teresa of Ávila — speak to me because they share so much insight from their own lives.

Life is the best way to learn the spiritual path. With that in mind, I organized Unteachable Lessons around some of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years.

This is not a memoir — but the stories in the book are drawn largely from my own life.

  • I talk about my first extraordinary encounter with the Mystery-with-a-capital-M, that inspired me to become a student of the contemplative/mystical path.
  • I talk about learning to listen to my heart — and how to calibrate my life toward trust (that’s actually a lesson I’m still learning!).
  • I talk about my journey accompanying my wife and my daughter while my daughter battled with polycystic kidney disease, which eventually claimed her life at age 29.
  • I talk about my exploration of non-Christian spirituality — especially Neo paganism— and what happened when I decided to return to Christianity.

Those are just a few of the stories I tell, not to focus on me or my experiences — but each time I tell a story, I try to share a thing or two that I learned along the way.

Of course, the point is not about me. The point is that all of us are invited to “learn a thing or two” from the Holy Spirit, through life, through our relationships and adventures that are unique to each and every one of us.

So that’s the basic idea for the book. The tagline that the publisher is using in the catalog is simply this:

Why Christian spirituality must be “caught” rather than “taught.”

So I make no promises to teach you anything in this book. I’m just telling a few stories. And my hope is simple: that as you read my stories, they will resonate with your heart, and your stories — and all the ways you are invited to “catch” the mystery of life in the Spirit.

Also — I’m humbled and honored to announce that Brian D. McLaren has written the foreword for the book.

The book will come out in September.

I will eventually include links to independent booksellers and to e-book formats as they become available.

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