“Sage on the Stage” or “Mentor in the Center”

It was in a far off world (25 years ago) close to the dawn of what we call the age of technology. I was sent by St. John’s University to attend a high-level workshop on technology and education.

I went fully expecting to learn about all kinds of new technologies. I did not! But I learned something far more important. Technology was but one part of a larger shift in the way of looking at the role of teachers.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

For the first ime I heard the expression – “Sage on the Stage” or “Mentor in the Center” I had never heard such a succinct expression of the paradigm I was trained in and for. The teacher is the “sage on the stage” who transmits his or her knowledge to students. Nor had I heard of a new trend in teaching described as “the mentor in the center”. Here the emphasis is on helping the student learn how to learn.

I came back to some degree a changed person. With varying degrees of success I began, where I thought possible, to shift from a lecture approach to an engagement approach with students in their process of discovery of wider horizons. Looking back now I see the new course I introduced, “Theological Reflection”, as an attempt to embody the mentor in the center approach. With the papers they wrote each week, the students were their own textbook for learning how to reflect.

(As I write this I realize that of the thousands of students I taught over a more than 40 year period, the ones who keep in contact with me to this day are the students from these seminars.)

Vincent’s Tuesday Conferences – Saging or Mentoring?

I have long known that Vincent’s Tuesday Conferences were at the root of his reform of the clergy in 17th century France. I have long known that Vincent was responsible for the network of seminaries that changed the face of the clergy.

What I did not know was that the Tuesday Conferences were not just weekly lectures for priests who showed promise. Recent research has highlighted two things about these conferences.

It was by invitation only that members were admitted to the Tuesday Conferences.This was in contrast to his Thursday Conferences which were open to all clergy. Those invited to the Tuesday Conferences committed themselves to a lifestyle rather than just hearing Vincent’s wisdom. It was the rare cleric who joined the Congregation.

In these conferences, Vincent rarely spoke except at the end. They were rather like round table discussions of men who shared their experiences and questions about what it meant to be a parish priest in that time,

When I realized this I realized Vincent was more of a mentor in the center than a sage on the stage. He obviously encouraged them to learn from one another rather than be awed by his eloquence.

A modern-day example 

Let me tell you a story, a true story. It is a story connecting the dots of one person’s life with the Vincentian Charism or culture. It is the story of a married woman who was interested in learning more about a group of women who called themselves Sisters of Charity. She was considering becoming a “lay associate.”

In conversation with a Sister she respected greatly, she heard the story of Vincent instructing one of the first groups of the long line of women who became known as Daughters of Charity, Sisters of Charity, or some variation. She heard the words of Vincent about how they were to have…

  • for monastery only the houses of the sick,
  • for cell a hired room,
  • for chapel the parish church,
  • for cloister the streets of the city…

It was a moment of awakening for her!, of connecting the dots of her life with this Vincentian thing. She burst into quiet tears, tears of recognition. After a few moments, she was able to explain what had happened. In those words of Vincent, she recognized the lives that she and her husband had lived for years serving the marginalized in the southwest of the United States.

And, in that moment, the Sister learned a new meaning of formation. She realized immediately that she was not “forming” this woman to become an associate but rather merely helping her to recognize or name the charism she and her husband had been living for decades.

Our approach to formation in the charism today

Here is perhaps another ‘forgotten truth’ about Vincent. He did not fill people’s heads with theory and abstractions. Vincent helped them recognize and name their gifts. He fostered exploration and exchange about what they were committed to.

Back to the original question. I have come to believe that Vincent was both sage and mentor! He was the sage on the stage but also the mentor in the center. I also believe he was at his best when he was “the mentor in the center”.

(t has also dawned on me that Vincentian Mindwalk is a place where vowed and non-vowed help each other “name and claim” experiences of walking with Vincent as a follower of Christ the Evangelzer os the Poor.)

Something to think about

As we approach growing the Vincentian movement among people in all walks of life, we are each called to be mentors to each other and more than lecturers. How do we do this?