Three letters from prison inmates lie on my desk awaiting reply. I receive these fairly often in response to magazine articles I write on spiritual life.
One inmate from Missouri writes that he has been studying the Scriptures constantly for three years. With 20 more years of time to serve, he wants a spiritual teacher to instruct him by correspondence. A man in Texas says he spends 23 hours a day alone in his cell reading, writing, and drawing. He used to be mean, he says, getting into fights every week. Now he is turning to God and looking for a friend to guide his spiritual progress.
I will answer their letters with as much care as I can. They are poignant examples of the desire for companionship in the spiritual journey reported on elsewhere in today's Monitor. Feeling inadequate to meet the size of this demand turns me to a comforting truth - that each of us has a teacher within.
A recent story on teen drug addiction in our local paper reinforced this idea for me. After years of unsuccessful treatments, one young woman entered a program for substance abusers in Montana.
There she was assigned the task of building a fence on a wilderness hillside - by herself. She was given tools and materials, but no instructions. She had never done anything like that before. It took her six months, but she completed that fence. She had never been so proud of anything she'd done. She returned home with the confidence that she had the ability to succeed in life, and she has stayed clean for over a year.
It impressed me that the people who ran that program must have believed this woman would succeed. They might have described the basis of their trust differently, but I think it relates to the universal concept of the teacher that is within everyone. As a Christian, I think of this teacher as the Christ. Christ is the divine consciousness we each reflect from God. Jesus referred to this consciousness when he said, "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21).
The Monitor's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, described the Christ as "Immanuel, or 'God with us,' - a divine influence ever present in human consciousness" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. xi).
The fact that we have this divine influence within us doesn't mean we don't benefit from people teaching us. In fact, I think it means that being taught - and teaching others - are constants in our lives. While I've been blessed to receive guidance from those who are spiritual teachers in the more formal sense, I'm also continually taught by encounters with people of different ages, religions, and walks of life. To me, the best teacher is the one who respects the teacher within you and encourages you to rely on it - to build your own fence, so to speak, with God's direction.
At one time, I was invited to give lectures on spiritual healing. While I tried hard to do the work well, I struggled with self-doubt for months. The day after one lecture, I sat in my office wishing that there was some wise person to guide me. In previous years I'd had two trusted friends I would consult about spiritual matters, but they were both gone. I had recognized a man in the audience the day before whom I knew by reputation as a fine spiritual teacher. I wished I could talk with him, but I didn't want to look as if I were fishing for compliments.
So I went straight to God. "Show me what to do," I prayed. "Teach me." In the Bible God promises, "When you pass through deep waters, I am with you" (Isa. 43:2, New English Bible). For a few minutes, I just tried to trust that this presence was guiding me. Then the phone rang. It was that very man I had wished to consult. He had never called me before, but that day he wanted to thank me for my lecture. Although this was only a one-time conversation, it gave me ideas and encouragement I needed at that point in my work.
That experience is an example to me that knowing God is always with everyone will result in people finding the spiritual guidance they need. It may come in the form of someone called a teacher or a friend. It may come as a Scriptural passage inspiring us in a new way. However it comes, no one can be cut off from this teaching. It is divine wisdom and ability expressing itself through us.