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The Art of Learning During Holy Week

April 30, 2013

Albert Bandura is a psychologist whose works I appreciate in part because he has a good sense of what psychology can and cannot offer. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I quote his comment, “Psychology cannot tell people how they ought to live their lives,” and I note that “something hierarchically superior and existentially deeper is required for that.” Nevertheless, Bandura asserts that psychology “can provide them with the means for effecting personal and social change.” Sometimes, what psychology offers is not something new, but added clarity about the mechanics of something that has been done for ages and knowing those mechanics can in turn make a process even more effective.

ChristblessinghthechildrenFor example, we all know something about learning. We learn through reading books, listening to others, being shown how to do something, practicing a skill, and engaging in trial and error. We also know that in attending Church, we should be learning about how to become Christians. Learning in Church takes place through the grace of God acting on a repentant heart. Part of it has to do with the teachings of Christ and the way they are presented. And part of it has to do with our way of approaching the services with childlike simplicity and a childlike desire to learn. After all, Christ has told us, “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.”

And this is where psychology has something not necessarily new, but certainly useful, to say. In 1986, Albert Bandura discovered a simple, yet until that time overlooked form of learning through which children acquire new responses simply by observing the behaviors of those around them.  In this form of learning, social models demonstrate behavior and the child processes the models’ behavior and stores it in memory for later use.  Both good and bad modeling form patterns in the child’s mind for later use and play a role in his or her development. According to Bandura, there are four stages involved in observational learning:  1) attention, 2) retention, 3) production, and 4) motivation.  The observer must be paying attention to the modeled behavior and store it in memory.  The observer must also be capable of replicating the observed action or behavior and have a desire to do so.

While the Church does not refer explicitly to observational learning, the liturgical texts are certainly quite vivid attracting the attention, the events described are emotionally powerful, insuring retention; a connection is made between the texts and the believer, encouraging production, and the hope of the resurrection is always present, providing ample motivation. In other words, every aspect of observational learning is weaved into the services for the soul who approaches those services as a little child watches towering figures doing things that are both good and bad. The Great Canon of Saint Andrew is a case in point.  A distinguishing feature of the Great Canon is its rich use of biblical imagery and subjects taken from both the Old and New Testaments.  Those who hear the Great Canon are encouraged to emulate the positive examples of holiness and repentance while at the same time reject the negative examples of sin and disobedience.

On Wednesday of Holy Week, the image of Judas is offered to us, “Impious Judas with avaricious thoughts plots against the Master, and ponders how he will betray Him.  He falls away from the light and accepts the darkness; he agrees upon the payment and sells Him that is above all price; and as the reward for his actions, in his misery he receives a hangman’s noose and death in agony.  O Christ our God, deliver us from such a fate as his, and grant remission of sins to those who celebrate with love Thy most pure Passion.”  If we pay attention to this hymn, if we retain it in our memory, it is possible that when we find ourselves becoming greedy that we will produce the opposite behavior out of a motivation to avoid the fate of Judas and be generous with others. When this takes place, observational learning has taken place and we have taken an important step towards becoming children of light.

In contrast to the betrayal of Judas, Holy Wednesday offers an image of repentance and contrition in the woman who anointed Jesus before His Passion.  “In tears the harlot cried out, compassionate one, as she fervently wiped your most pure feet with the hair of her head, and she groaned from the depths of her soul:  cast me not away, neither abhor me, my God, but receive me in my repentance and save me, for you alone are the lover of mankind.” Again, if we pay attention to this hymn, if we retain it in our memory, it is possible when we like the harlot fall into sin, that we will produce similar behavior turning to Christ in tender, humble repentance out of a desire to be received by our Savior.

One can do the same kind of analysis for every hymn in Holy Week, but what matters is not the analysis, but that learning takes place. The services of Holy Week are a precious gift, but they are meant not simply to recount dread and holy events, but to guide our lives. And that can take place only if we also learn, like little children, by observation.

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