St. Matthew introduces the Sermon on the Mount by writing, “Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them” (Matt. 5:1-2). Matthew describes with clarity what Jesus was doing while teaching. It’s fairly easy to imagine the action of teaching. However, imagining the action of learning is more difficult.
The word “disciple” (student) comes from the Latin discere, “to learn.” It is an active verb, and therefore, a learner is involved in some sort of activity. What does active learning look like? What do attentive learners do while they learn? Modern education practitioners answer with the acronym SLANT. An attentive student in the act of learning will: Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod his head, and Track the teacher with his eyes.
By comparison the Christian “student” learns in the school of prayer, where Jesus is the Teacher. SLANT can guide us in an active prayer life.
Attentive students sit up at their desks. Body posture is important; our bodies affect our ability to learn. St. Dominic’s Nine Ways of Prayer highlight how kneeling, standing, or walking sets our minds into a receptive position. While it is certainly possible to pray while reclining on a sofa, it is not a optimal learning environment.
Attentive students listen to their teachers. How many times do we hear things without actually listening? Listen to Christ the Teacher through his actual words as given in Sacred Scripture. Through the Bible, God has a message for every human being. Carefully read familiar passages, or explore unfamiliar parts. Then pray like Samuel, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9).
Attentive students are in dialogue with their teachers. While in prayer, it is permitted to ask Jesus about anything. We often hold back, afraid of offending or of appearing ignorant or of disliking the answer. However, love permits us to ask any question of the Lord. In the Confessions, St. Augustine recognized that when confused, only God could ultimately provide the answers. “Good Father, through Christ I beg you, do not shut the door on my longing to understand these things… To whom but you shall I more profitably confess my incompetence?” In the same way, we should not be afraid to ask God for clarity and understanding.
Attentive students use nonverbal communication, such as nodding. St. Paul recognized that in prayer, more than words were necessary, “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). We don’t need the perfect words; sometimes we communicate even more through body language or a simple sigh.
Attentive students look at their teacher. The diminutive tax-collector Zacchaeus went to great lengths climbing a sycamore tree just to lay eyes on Jesus as he passed through the town of Jericho. In a similar way, we can glimpse Jesus our teacher in Eucharistic Adoration.
Certainly, the disciples gathered at the Sermon on the Mount weren’t thinking about SLANT. However, they weren’t simply passive listeners while Jesus taught. A disciple is an active learner. As modern disciples in prayer, we also should actively learn from our Teacher.