How Best to Learn?

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Some people know by book-learning; others by experience. Can we compare them? Is one way better than the other? As a matter of fact, most of us know both ways, but, admittedly, some of us tend toward one more than the other.

There are those who first read the recipe book, and then prepare the meal. There are others who go straight into cooking the meal, experimenting as they go along. Which way makes the most impression on us, that is, a lasting impression? Do we better learn by “book learning”, as some describe it, or by just “doing it”?

We occasionally run into geniuses like Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college at an early stage, and strike out on their own, just as he did, and proceeded to score great success in the computer/electronic industry. There are others who are information collectors, like boys with baseball cards, hundreds of them, covering decades of great players on every team, and they can rattle off more information about a player than the rest of us.

To change an automobile tire, we can read all about it in a car’s manual stashed away in the glove compartment. Or we can go into our garage and do it ourselves, probably badly the first time or two, but gradually grow adept at it. Of course, the same would likely be true of learning about it by reading the manual.

Or we can read about the danger of boiling water, how badly it can burn us if it spills on our hand. And this can lead us to be careful. But we can also experience a burn first-hand, accidentally spilling the water while standing at the oven. Which is the better way of learning?

Experience can be likened to an art, like that of making friends. There was a well known book of several decades ago entitled: HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, by Dale Carnegie .   It was a reading approach to doing this. But, of course, there is also an experiential approach to the same task, that is, by just diving into a crowd of people at a party, introducing oneself and start talking.

A standard example of the difference in learning by book and learning by experience is swimming or riding a bicycle. Again, the experience of being thrown in the water or placed atop a bicycle seat and shoved off along the sidewalk differs considerably from learning about these ventures through instruction.

Then there is prayer. There are many books to read on how to pray. Scores of books have been written about HOW TO TALK TO GOD, OR CONVERSE AND COMMUNE WITH GOD. But there’s also the experiential approach of darting into the rear of a church and planting oneself in the presence of God. We recall the gospel story of the tax collector standing at a distance in the temple and asking God to have mercy on him, a sinner (Lk 18.9-14). We suspect this was an experience-based prayer.

Book learning takes place in the head. Experiential learning involves the whole body, almost like a chill running throughout one’s body. Forgetting is more likely to occur in the head than it is at the level of experience. Learning by experience to ride a bicycle, at a young age, surprisingly remains with a person for a long time, so that, even after thirty years of not riding a bike, one can do so again, without more ado.

We can read about the Jewish holocaust, and the skeleton-like humans found in the concentration camps at the end of WWII, and this makes a lasting impression. But the military, who first came on this scene at war’s end, experienced in a totally different way what the holocaust was like, knowing it by presence to it.

That is why so many veterans of war and military ventures are loathe to talk about it upon returning home. The experience of war has embedded itself into the sinews of their bodies in such a way that it’s basically non-communicable to those lacking that experience. Reading war episodes is fascinating, but cannot match personal presence to it.

Mothers relate to their children, especially infants, in this experiential way. They know, without being told by the baby, what is going on within the tiny confines of that body; they need not read Dr. Spock. Or similarly, there is the quality of compassion some people enjoy, whereby they can enter into the sufferings of another person and experience it as their own. They are not told of the suffering by the sufferer, but they know in a “feeling” fashion what another is going through. They experience it.

So we ask: how best do we learn: by head, or by experience?


Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

It’s music to my ears! A welcoming response to something we have heard about: MUSIC. The very word denotes something pleasant, even delightful. Or, is that always the case?

After all, there is good music, tastefully, even artistically, done (or produced), and then there’s bad music: raucous, intrusive, belligerent, maddening. Some would call it noise.

We live in a musical era, but is it of the caliber of the classical musical produced in the 16th-19th centuries, or is it the music of “the common (wo)man”? With our mobile electronic conveyors of all sorts of sound, we can, if we so wish (and it seems many of us do so wish), be awash in music of our choice on a 24/7 basis.

Some have envisioned heaven as nothing but a vast music hall where those of us who have “made it” there are incessantly immersed in celestial sound waves: an angelic experience. Do not artists often depict angels strumming on harps 24/7 (except that time is no longer a factor in heavenly bliss). Indeed, when we reflect on the history of the so-called classical period, we note how beauty (along with the good, the true and oneness) takes its place in the ranks of what was perennially cherished. Today, however, beauty receives less attention from us, among the elements contributing to what ancient peoples considered the building block of culture and civilization. But is it true that beauty is a “light weight” when it comes to the elements comprising a pleasant and desirable way of life?

How does beauty rank among the elements making for a desirable way of life? And, within beauty, what most significantly contributes to it: the arts, architecture, poetry, drama, dance, music? It seems music has sometimes been downplayed for its contribution to a life worth living.

Music admits of various kinds: it can be divided according to the era in which it was produced, or to the geographical place where it originated, or to the kinds of instruments available for producing sounds, such as strings, horns, percussions. Then, there is the organ.

Music is distinct from the other arts because of its appeal to the ear, rather than to the eye or the sensitivity of the body to its rhythm. Am I a person of the eye, or of the ear? If I had to choose between losing eyesight or hearing, which would I prefer? Which brings me more fulfillment, satisfaction, contentment: what I see or what I hear?   The voice of a friend, or the sight of a loved one?

When I need inspiration, energy, contentment, satisfaction, peace, excitement: what best meets my need: music or the other arts (mostly visual)? Is the human voice more significant to me than the sight of another person? If I were to encounter Christ, would I prefer to see or to hear Him? Do we not call Him the Word of God? On the other hand, did He not come down into our midst and mingle with us, to be seen? We have access to His word in the bible. Yet we also see His presence to us in the sacramental liturgy in which we share, or in the statuary and the paintings that artists of old have produced?

Music: is it the melody, the lyrics, or the rhythm, that captivates me? Is dance more reflective of melody or of rhythm?

We are a culture of music. Music is important to us. We can judge a person by the music he or she prefers. There Is music favored by the young, and that preferred by the old. Music is valued primarily for its melody, or its lyrics, or its rhythm. Loud music is often preferred over quiet/soft music (elevator music). There is music that relaxes and music that rouses and excites. There is fast and slow music, music by strings or by horn, music for dancing or music for reflecting.

Music is an important part of life. It’s obviously a God-instilled component of human experience. The prayer-life of the church centers around the psalms, the main composer of which was King David, himself a musician.   It is likely the psalms were set to music. Can we make our way to God without music?



Mowing, Monasteries and the Mind


Lawns are curious by nature. Originally created by the upper class of the renaissance and indoctrinated into the middle class spawned by the industrial revolution, the lawn serves many purposes. Lawns are an external statement of status, personally and socially. They are statements about our standards of work, lifestyle and our expectations of the neighbors. In a sense, lawns are cosmetic and unnatural however, they have the potential to serve far more than mere superficial purposes. Grooming grass requires physical presence but little mental agility. In the business world and more and more interpersonally, ideas and answers are expected to be instantaneous as the millisecond responses to high speed internet computer requests. Time to contemplate is regarded as down time and wasted or dumb. The inner sanctum of free thought finds few places to abide. The shower is too brief, the men’s or ladies room stop even shorter and random thoughts are forced out while exercising by the hip new gadget known as an Ipod. Perhaps using a lawnmower is the elevation of mind experience needed by western civilization and is exercised subliminally by those who do it regularly.


Patterns are typically followed when mowing the lawn thus liberating the full attention of the mind. . Certainly, people have various attitudes while performing lawn work. The obsessive compulsive may carefully cut on a diagonal and cross cut twice while the ‘waste no time’ folks try to cut in a continuous strip. Opportunities to think about things large and small are overlooked by not merely going slowly back and forth.


Monastic ritual, rich in patterns of prayer and behavior was widely regarded as an enlightened lifestyle of those closest to God. It seems hard to imagine how a person could be a reclusive monk just praying all day, day after day. They would still do chores, read and recreate however, their attitude set the mind free for higher reflection. Turning the mundane but necessary tasks of daily life into productive reflection brings to mind the vaunted skill currently referred to as multitasking. Thinking with a clear mind is not as easy as it sounds with all the clatter available and seemingly unavoidable almost everywhere. Alone in a desert, the distractions faded away for the biblical holy men. Jesus spent forty days in the desert fasting and praying in preparation for the fulfillment of the promise God made with his flesh and blood on Calvary.


Great things need to be conceived in the mind and thought out and planned ahead. A desert, monastery or walking along a beach provides entrée to a place of solitude. Unfortunately few people have convenient access to such as these. Reviewing the past, putting the present into perspective and anticipating ways to make tomorrow a better day are all ways to enjoy the benefits of therapeutic contemplation. Many important revelations are there for the taking by simply slowing down while mowing the lawn.

“Benedicamus Domino”

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Which is more commendable: praying while you drink, or drinking while you pray? Are these two different things, or are they the same—perhaps two sides of the same thing?

They certainly involve the same kind of actions—or do they?   Would it be helpful to describe them as my primary action, and a secondary one? If they occur simultaneously, how could I distinguish one as primary and the other as secondary? Perhaps I have to revert to my intention, that is, my initial intention. That is, maybe I initially intended to pray, but then thought it would be nice to take a drink while I’m praying. Or, on the other hand, perhaps I at first planned to relax with a drink, and then thought it would be a good thing to say a prayer while I’m drinking.

On the basis of this last example, some of us may feel that what starts off as a good and defensible action becomes vitiated by trying to insert prayer into an inappropriate setting, while others of us may judge that, if I begin by seeking some R and R, I elevate this relatively innocuous action to the level of a better action by deciding to pray while relaxing. It is possible, of course, to vitiate an action that, to all intents and purposes, seems to be a good and commendable deed, by slipping in an evil, or inappropriate, purpose or intention, like giving a gift to a politician with a view to soliciting a favor from him or her later on. Just as it is possible to ennoble an action that to all intents and purposes seem to be wrong and hurtful, like speeding through a red light, but with the intention of rushing my pregnant wife off to the hospital to give birth to a child.

Hilaire Belloc, the combative Catholic apologist, once wrote a poetic ditty to the effect that: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino.” On the basis of this verse, Belloc seems to have had no great problem in combining drink and prayer. Does this, however, throw any light on the issue of whether he enjoyed drinking while he prayed, or praying while he drank? Perhaps we had better look to Jesus Himself, especially His presence at the wedding feast of Cana, on which occasion we may wonder: did He drink while there, and, if so, did He combine His drinking with a prayer recited over the newly-weds?  Was He at Cana primarily to pray for the couple, or to celebrate with them, or both? And we can well wonder if His miraculous amplification of the water-made-wine was the result of His Mother’s prayerful concern lest the newly-weds be embarrassed, or was it compensation for over-drinking on the part of His Apostles, who were also there, and who may have been responsible for the wine shortage?

Perhaps the key to untying these knotty problems lies in a full-blown appreciation of what joy is all about: joy in drinking, joy in praying. If both of these activities could fall under some same larger appreciation, they would no longer stand in contrast with one another as irreconcilables, and be two ways of looking at the same thing. Pope Francis seems to be on to something in his recent exhortation about THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL.   After all, the gospel means GOOD NEWS. Joy is a scarce commodity in our contentious society today , unlike the era of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, who could disagree all day on Capitol Hill, but who, during the after hours, could enjoy a good drink together, while swapping jokes. Belloc seems to have had it right: “…laughter and good red wine…Benedicamus Domino.” Surely they can go together.

Heaven’s Gate


Heaven's Gate

by James Paulin (September, 2007)

Scarlet, black and green

Washed as white as snow

All that’s done is seen

Yet its you God wants to know


All nations are still desired

Every hair is accounted for

No matter what’s transpired

Open to His knock upon the door


Seek a home inside

There is a well within

Where only truths reside

The keys to let you in


From a twinkle in an eye

Everyone is meant for peace

When born we start to die

Love for all will never cease

How to Give and Receive

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Most people prefer to be known for their generosity during the course of their life, more than for their gratitude.  And yet, some of our more lovely encomiums of people are words such as graciousness, or acting with grace—words closely associated with gratitude.  Knowing how to receive a gift with graciousness is, in the opinion of many people, a better endowment than knowing how to give a gift with poise, and effortlessly.

But we often say to ourselves: it is better to give than to receive, though frequently the most pleasing expression we note on the face of another is the warm and heartfelt way in which they thank us for a gift we have given them.  And some painful memories may return to us of times when a person to whom we have just given a gift opens it, and betrays displeasure with our gift.   The cook of a meal experiences genuine gratitude, not from expressions uttered at the table, but from the empty platters and bowls found there at meal’s end.

Have we ever studied the bible in the effort to ascertain whether giving or thanking emerges more prominently within its pages?  Giving, of course, receives considerable attention, starting with the love of God and neighbor: love is a supreme act of giving.  And, at the last judgment, we understand that giving will be a prominent standard whereby we will be measured: food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, a visit to the imprisoned.  But receiving also enjoys a high silhouette, as when Jesus receives on receiving no gratitude from healing nine of the ten lepers, or when He commented on the deliberate absence of hospitality shown him at the banquet given by the Pharisee, or when He obviously relished the time and attention Mary paid Him on the occasion of visiting her house, and that of Martha and Lazarus.  And in the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalms of thanksgiving and praise are in abundance, for the favors God has bestowed on His people.  So are giving and receiving equally important in the bible?

It is a pleasure to receive a gift, and equally pleasurable to show our gratitude to the gift-giver, and note his/her gratification at seeing how truly thankful we are at receiving such a gift.  Generosity in gift-giving finds its compensation in the exuberance of the recipient of the item.  The genuineness of the recipient’s response more than compensates for the given.

It is an art both to give and receive a gift.  A very valuable gift can “come across” in the wrong way to the recipient, just as the recipient’s dismissal of one’s gift can possibly assume the dimensions of a disaster.  A gift of clothing never worn or displayed is an obvious sign that the gift went unappreciated.  This leads us to wonder whether knowing how to give a gift, even a modest one, or genuinely relishing the gift given is the more significant element in the activity around a gift.

It is possible both to misconstrue what the giving of a gift really means, and to misinterpret the message given in accepting the gift.   Ideally, gifts, given or received, are not meant to generate suspicion, but a bonding together.

That is how it works between God and us.  His gifts are designed to remove barriers between us.  First,  we pray to Him, petitioning Him for favors and help, and secondly we thank Him for the answer He gives us.   Which prayer do we most often say to God: please give, or thank you?   Our grace before and after meals nicely illustrate this.  Before sitting at table we petition God to bless those providing the food before us, those whose who have provided it for us, and those in greater need of food than we.  When finished, we bow our heads in gratitude for the gift received.   In which prayer do we invest more energy?

While grace is a ritual at meal time, it also assumes a larger role.  It refers to all those gifts God bestows on us throughout the day, especially what we traditionally called sanctifying grace and actual grace.  Grace in this sense meant God’s other gifts, both major and minor ones.  It illustrates God before us as Giver.  This meaning of grace tends more toward gratitude for favors received than petition.  Grace is a giving but it is also a receiving.  So we pray “Deo gratias” meaning: “thanks be to God”.  So at one and the same time grace involves giving and receiving.  This is seen in the greatest gift, the eucharist, a Greek word meaning “thanks”.  It best of all unites giving and receiving together.  It is no longer a matter of distinguishing “to give OR to receive”, but of uniting them into “to give AND to receive.”

Inner Ear

Catsby James Lehan Paulin

Listen to the whisper of the soul

Close the door to other senses

First hear the message as a whole

For clarity drop all defenses


Hear the voice held deep within

Ignored so long it may be meek

Focus as to detect a dropped pin

Try hard if it’s the truth you seek


Respond freely with open heart

Sight and smell will be newfound

Touch and taste as a fresh start

How powerful is the quietest sound


Blue Lady


by James Lehan Paulin (November, 2010)

Humility of divine proportion

Open, constant permission

without conditions








Sanctified and glorified

Her mantle, azure hue of sky

descending to indigo of seas

 Sun aura

Crown of stars

  Moon underfoot




Almost all monastic communities, and yes the Passionist Community take a vow of poverty. In an earlier blog I referred to Sister Maureen Fiedler’s article in the National Catholic Reporter June 15 titled Traditional Vows redefined for the 21st Century. In this article she says:

“So what might a 21st-century vow look like? There are, of course, many possible answers. Someone today might embrace a “vow of sharing” (with other community members or the world at large), or a “vow to live simply” in a world overstuffed with commodities.”

Remembering that article I offer a moment of simple delight by clicking on the above Youtube video. Enjoy!