Ambleside Blog

A Reflection on the Crucifixion

In The Small Crucifixion from the National Gallery, the artist invites the viewer into the horror of crucifixion, with moving realism and immediacy. The perfect and divine oblation of our Lord on the Cross radiates from the canvas. Christ’s abandonment, desolation, and poverty on the Cross is expressed through every element in the scene – form, line, color, and composition. The viewer is drawn to His emaciated body racked with marks of torture, his bloodied face, and his bowed head, all of which speak of his unbearable agony.

This is the revealed form of divine love.

Christ’s luminous body, draped in a tattered loincloth, gives evidence of the inhumanity of his tormentors, and the sin of humanity for which He willingly humbled himself, “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

But it is our Lord’s yearning and twisted fingers and his gnarled feet that rivet the eye. For in them is expressed the fullness of divine love in anguish over human alienation from God. The crossbeam strains under the weight of his wounded body, while his distressed hands, stretching heavenward, offer final words of filial abandonment, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23: 46).

Three robed figures stand in the viewer’s space while uniquely sharing in Christ’s Passion. On the left stands Mary, his Mother, bowed with the grief that now pierces her heart; on the right is the beloved disciple, John the Evangelist, praying before the mystery of the Cross. And at the foot of the Cross kneels Mary Magdelene, pondering in a contemplative gaze the meaning of human suffering, in light of His Passion.

A landscape of low green hills and rocky inclines also bear witness to this pivotal moment in the history of salvation. It is as if all of creation groans with its suffering Lord. Grünewald conveys the biblical record of the “darkness that came over the whole land,” in the eerie green-blue light that envelops the scene.

The Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Passion, death, and Resurrection have, over the centuries, inspired countless master artists. Such works reveal the artists’ skill and creative inspiration. They also invite a profound sharing in the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising, made present for us in Lenten liturgies. Such artistic masterpieces are visual reminders that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are not distant theological abstractions, but events that forever transform human history, and our own daily existence, if we allow it.

To the casual observer, Grünewald’s The Small Crucifixion evokes empathy in the face of another’s torment. Through the eyes of faith the Christian disciple is led a step further. For in pondering this image we can be moved through beauty to enter into the redemptive meaning of Christ’s suffering. For through this visual homily, Grünewald, the painter, encourages us along the Lenten journey to persevere in our own daily patterns of dying and rising to new life.

Sullivan, Jem, PhD. “The Small Crucifixion of Matthias Grunewald.” Blog, April 4, 2011.

Adjunct Professor in the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC.

Art and Education: Learning to Observe Truth

by Emily R. Bowyer

The following address was given at an art show and fundraiser for Ambleside School of Fredericksburg, Texas (a K-12 institution). Founded on the principles of British educator Charlotte Mason, Ambleside Schools International and its member schools believe a "living" education is influenced by 3 principles: atmosphere, discipline (habits), and life (texts rich in ideas).[1] Emily Bowyer is an alumna and current faculty member of the Fredericksburg school.


I would like to begin my brief remarks with a roll call, as it were, of some of the great masters of the artistic tradition: Fra Angelico, Pieter Bruegel, Winslow Homer, John James Audubon, Claude Monet and the Impressionists, Utagawa Hiroshige, Diego Velazquez, Georgia O’Keefe, Rembrandt van Rijn, J.M.W. Turner, Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Vermeer, Henri Matisse, Jacob Lawrence, and Vincent Van Gogh.

By the time Ambleside students begin high school, they will have spent three months with each of these artists, studying at least a dozen of their works with care and attention until they can happily hang each one in the gallery of their memories. We recognize, as Charlotte Mason once did, that

“the power of appreciating art and of producing to some extent an interpretation of what one sees is as universal as intelligence, imagination, [or] speech. . . But there must be some knowledge and, in the first place, not the technical knowledge of how to produce, but some reverent knowledge of what has been produced .”[2]

This is not to say that we neglect the technical side of our students’ art education. On the contrary, they are given weekly instruction in drawing or painting, and also regularly produce free-hand color illustrations in science and history lesson books and watercolor entries in nature study diaries. In addition, they complete several detailed reproductions of their favorite masterworks every year. Nonetheless, we discover that when we offer our students a relationship with the great artists of the past and present, they are more inspired to pursue excellence in their own artistic endeavors and to learn more about what it means to live, to be fully human.

Calvin Seerveld, an American art historian who studied in the Netherlands and then went on to a professorship in Canada, once wrote that “art calls to our attention in capital, cursive letters. . . what usually flits by in reality as fine print.”[3] We must summon our aesthetic capacity—our innate power to appreciate art—to watch for these “capital, cursive letters,” and even to seek them out. In other words, we must learn to open our eyes. Why? Because otherwise we might miss an opportunity to see our lives with greater clarity, insight and wisdom. Great works of art serve as parables,[4] not mere copies, of the human experience. They reveal hidden meanings by engaging our imagination and our inner eye, something that Helen Keller called “soul-sense, which sees, hears, feels, all in one.”[5]

Allow me to demonstrate: Van Gogh teaches us about loneliness by painting an old chair with a pipe and tobacco on it, the owner of the chair made conspicuous by his total absence. Vermeer shows the virtue of a milkmaid going about her daily work with strength, vitality, and fortitude, reminding us that there is dignity even amidst the seemingly menial occupations. Matisse highlights the remarkable shapes and colors present in every person, place, and thing around us, whether it is as stationary as a French window, or as dynamic as the couple having a conversation beside it. Bruegel celebrates the ingenuity and rashness of children at play. Velazquez depicts a Venus looking in a mirror; her forlorn gaze tells us, “beauty isn’t everything.” Monet transfixes us with the utter tranquility of a cluster of lilies floating on the surface of water. Turner exposes the travesty of the slave trade by depicting a single slave ship unburdening itself of unwanted human cargo during a storm. Da Vinci uncovers the scientific proportions of the human body in an ingenious way while still preserving the enigmatic mystery of a woman’s smile.

These are but a very few examples of the way in which art serves to draw our attention to ideas that we too often ignore or forget. The poet Robert Browning put it thus:

“For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love

First when we see them painted, things we have passed

Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see. . .”[6]

Why might this be the case? How can a painting, a sculpture or a drawing cause us to  love that which we have overlooked so often in reality? I would venture to say that when we see something for the first time through the lens that an artwork provides, we see its essence. Art comes to us an invitation. It invites us to know the truth of a thing. Great artists are firstly great observers. They teach us how to clearly see the details, the symbols, the wonder of everything around us. The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called this the “inscape”[7] of all created matter, its inner glory. Artists possess the gift of turning the world inside out so that the invisible truth becomes visible. We are all created to yearn for this truth, and to love it when once we find it. There are times when a piece of art depicts something less than beautiful, even grotesque, but if it tells the story of the world’s brokenness or cruelty in a truthful way, it remains an important object of our study, if not our enjoyment. Art should provoke us on our ongoing search for the Truth, and our souls will remain unsatisfied until we meet that same Truth, face to face.



[2] Mason, Charlotte. The Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6 (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1989), 214.

[3] Seerveld, Calvin. Rainbows For the Fallen World (Toronto: Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980), 27.

[4] Rookmaaker, Hans. “Images of Man in Art,” L’Abri Fellowship, Lecture, www.labri-ideas-library.org.

[5] Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904), 122.

[6] Browning, Robert. “Fra Lippo Lippi,” in  My Last Duchess and Other Poems, ed. Shane Weller (New York: Dover, 1993), 43.

[7] Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Poetry and Verse,” Hopkins: Poems and Prose, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets ed. Peter Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 123.

Image: (detail) "Children's Games" by Pieter Bruegel

 

 

Gratitude

We have seen those who possess every advantage and yet are ungrateful, anxious and generally dissatisfied with life. In contrast, we have seen those who possess few of the world’s advantages and yet are marked by gratitude, peace and joy. Like peace and joy, gratitude is a function of disposition, not situation. Those with the habit of being grateful have eyes to see and ears to hear the many gifts that are daily given – a blue sky, a friendly smile, fruitful work, good food, bright colored autumn leaves, a helping hand, an encouraging word. Yet, is there ever a day when we cannot find some excuse for ingratitude, anxiety and dissatisfaction? We can always find justifiable reasons for these, if it is our habit to do so. But, what is the fruit of this bad habit?

Not only do the grateful see and hear, but they also have a heart to appreciate. Appreciation, the pause of delight, the enjoyment of the giftedness of a thing. Appreciation discerns one who stands behind the gift and enjoys not only the gift, but also the giver. Appreciation is relational joy mediated through a manifestation of the Good, True and Beautiful. Gratitude and appreciation are mutually reinforcing; one does not last long without the other. We are made for both gratitude and appreciation, and when these are missing, the world becomes a dark, lonely and miserable place.

No other Lord of the Heart should do more to guide us into joyous and happy living than Gratitude. How good and glad it is to be grateful! The joy is not merely that we have received a favor or a little kindness which speaks of goodwill and love, but that a beautiful thing has come out of some other person's beautiful heart for us; and joy in that other's beauty of character gives more delight than any gain or pleasure which can come to us from favors. We lose this joy often enough because we are too self-absorbed to be aware of kindness, or are too self-complacent to think any kindness more than our desert. Young people are apt to take the abounding, overflowing kindnesses of their parents as matters of course; and so they come to miss the double joy they might have in a touch, a word, a look, a little arrangement for their pleasure, a thousand things over and above, so to speak, the love that is due from parent to child. A kindness is like a flower that has bloomed upon you unawares, and to be on the watch for such flowers adds very much to our joy in other people, as well as to the happy sense of being loved and cared for. You go into a shop, and the shopkeeper who knows you (I am not speaking of big stores) adds a pleasant something to your purchase which sends you cheerily on your way––some little kindness of look or word, some inquiry that shows his interest in you and yours, perhaps no more than a genial smile, but you have got into pleasant human relations with him because he has given you a kindness. There are two courses open to the receiver of this small kindness. One is to feel himself such an important person that it is to the interest of shopkeepers and the like to show him attention. The other is to go away with the springing gladness of a grateful heart, knowing that he takes with him more than he has bought.[1]

On this Thanksgiving Day, let us go beyond the benign annual ritual of the turkey-laden table, “Tell us something for which you are thankful.” And, in the quiet of our heart, let us pause to remember some good gift given by one who cares. Let us contemplate the gift and the giver until the corners of our mouth turn up in a faint smile. Then, if possible, let us communicate our gratitude and be twice blessed.


[1] Mason, Charlotte, Ourselves.

 

Making a Difference: A Practical Resource

Do you ever struggle as to whether you make a difference in the lives of your students?  “Make a Difference.”  It is the Imperative of my life.  But I struggle deeply with whether I am making a difference.  I am often anxious as to whether it is the successful Narrative of my life, and lately the struggle has been dead-centered on my teaching efforts.  After all, how can I know if I am making a difference in the lives of my students in the long run?  Anxiety and struggle represent the outcome of my dubious and abstract success metrics that try to look far into the future and deep into the heart. 

In her first experience as a teacher, prior to developing her educational philosophy and founding the House of Education, Charlotte Mason struggled with whether she was making a difference in the lives of her students. 

“Some years ago, I was accustomed to hear, ‘Habit is TEN natures,’ delivered from the pulpit on at least one Sunday out of four. I had at the time just begun to teach, and was young and enthusiastic in my work. It was to my mind a great thing to be a teacher; it was impossible but that the teacher should leave his stamp on the children. His own was the fault if anything went wrong, if any child did badly in school or out of it. There was no degree of responsibility to which youthful ardour was not equal. But, all this zeal notwithstanding, the disappointing thing was, that nothing extraordinary happened. The children were good on the whole, because they were the children of parents who had themselves been brought up with some care; but it was plain that they behaved very much as ‘’twas their nature to.’ The faults they had, they kept; the virtues they had were exercised just as fitfully as before. The good, meek little girl still told fibs. The bright, generous child was incurably idle. In lessons it was the same thing; the dawdling child went on dawdling, the dull child became no brighter. It was very disappointing. The children, no doubt, ‘got on’—a little; but each one of them had the makings in her of a noble character, of a fine mind, and where was the lever to lift each of these little worlds? Such a lever there must be. This horse-in-a-mill round of geography and French, history and sums, was no more than playing at education; for who remembers the scraps of knowledge he labored over as a child? and would not the application of a few hours in later life effect more than year’s drudgery at any one subject in childhood? If education is to secure the step-by-step progress of the individual and the race, it must mean something over and above the daily plodding at small tasks which goes by the name.[1]

Home Education (98)

Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy and method are the results of her extensive inquiry into how to effect real growth in students, to make a difference in their lives. 

As I have considered how to move away from anxiety over whether I am making a difference, I am going to engage more with a practical resource from ASI: the Reports of Growth.  The Reports of Growth measure Maturity Traits, Relationships with Content-Based Knowledge and Relationships with Skill-Based Knowledge.  They are to be completed at the end of each semester for each student.  As an introduction to the Reports of Growth, ASI states,

“Growth is the fulfillment of living things. It is what is intended for us as human persons. Physical growth is seen through height and weight differentiation; whereas, intellectual growth, spiritual growth, and relational growth are seen through changes in behavior and thinking. They result in skill development, in the ability to talk and write about a subject, and in the pursuit of further knowledge.” 

The Reports of Growth help the teacher to carefully assess changes in behavior and thinking in students based on meaningful evaluation criteria that can be seen on a daily basis and are important for each student in the long run, such as engagement with living ideas, joy in growth and relationships in the classroom, and submission to habit training. Whereas in past years I only turned my attention to the Reports at the end of the semester, I am going to become very familiar with the Reports of Growth prior to the end of each semester as a way to help guide my efforts and thoughts throughout the semester.  I encourage you to do the same.

Through faithfully applying Ms. Mason’s educational philosophy and method, and utilizing the practical resources offered by ASI, I have a sense of how to make a difference in the lives of my students – a sense of vocation beautifully expressed by one of the teachers trained under Charlotte Mason herself:

“I think none of us left without the sense of a vocation. ‘I have a life to give.’ Teaching was to be a mission carrying the breath of life to God’s children, going out ‘two and two’ with the mothers of our children to labour in God’s vineyard – not looking for results or rewards or for the praise of man but praying for our children that they ‘might increase’ even as we ‘decrease.’”[2]

 



[1] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, (98).

[2] Cholmondley, Essex. The Story of Charlotte Mason, (75).

 

Talk Less, Ask More

In my last post, I explored the idea that “thinking love”[1] is expressed in part by a habit of seeking knowledge in areas of personal ignorance in the care of a child.  At the time, I was perplexed about how to “get” my newly-thirteen-year-old son to think more deeply about ideas that confronted him from school texts and life in general.  I had begun to detect what I thought was a tendency toward a lack of care in his thinking, a negligence toward his duty to attend.  To inform my ignorance, I returned to a passage by Charlotte Mason that I have studied in past years, but that instructed - and convicted! - me in a fresh way.  In this passage, she uses the term incuria, which means a lack of care, negligence, or neglect.

But what about intellectual tendencies, or 'possibilities for evil'? One such tendency dominates many schools notwithstanding prodigious efforts on the part of the teachers to rouse slumbering minds. Indeed, the more the teacher works, the greater the incuria of the children, so the class is prodded with marks, the boys take places, the bogie of an oncoming examination is held before them. Some spasmodic effort is the result but no vital response and, though boys and girls love school, like their teachers and even their lessons, they care not at all for knowledge, for which the school should create enthusiasm. I can touch here on no more than two potent means of creating incuria in a class. One is the talky-talky of the teacher. We all know how we are bored by the person in private life who explains and expounds. What reason have we to suppose that children are not equally bored? They try to tell us that they are by wandering eyes, inanimate features, fidgeting hands and feet, by every means at their disposal; and the kindly souls among us think that they want to play or to be out of doors. But they have no use for play except at proper intervals. What they want is knowledge conveyed in literary form and the talk of the facile teacher leaves them cold.[2] (italics mine)

This text opened my eyes.  My son’s “wandering eyes, inanimate features, fidgeting hands and feet” did not indicate a lack of care.  It indicated that I was off-method.  My “talky-talky” was leaving him cold.

As identified by Charlotte Mason, there is an inverse relationship between how much the teacher works and the extent of incuria in students.  Specifically, how much the teacher works at talking. 

Talking is work.  And it can lead to feeling tired and overwhelmed, which I was feeling.  Another inform-my-ignorance book that I have read recently at the suggestion of my husband, addresses this from the angle of coaching (by a boss) in the workplace.  The title is a good summary of the topic: The Coaching Habit: How to Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. [3]  Its premise is that talking less while asking more strategic questions is usually a better way to lead because it develops individuals.  He calls this a coaching for development habit in contrast to coaching for performance.  There are many reasons to develop this habit for the sake of the one being coached.  And in school where we are definitely aimed at development and not performance, these reasons shine.  But the author also outlines three significant drawbacks for the coach for not developing this habit of talking less and asking more.  Not coaching for development creates overdependence, leads to the coach being overwhelmed, and the coach becomes disconnected from the work that matters.[4] I was starting to sense signs of overdependence and disconnection, and I was overwhelmed!

The solution: ask more strategic questions, talk less.

This sounded familiar.  After all, this is a critical part of Charlotte Mason’s method of education.  The text is on the top of the educational triangle, not the teacher…Echoes of Bill St Cyr’s voice from the Ambleside internships admonished me to stay “on method” and to “trust the method.” 

There are many areas in which I can grow “on method,” but one that I am focusing on now is how to ask open-ended questions during the response time.  One question that the coaching book calls the AWE question and claims “has magical properties” is, “And what else?”   “With seemingly no effort, it creates more – more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, more possibilities – out of thin air.”[5]  It suggests that this follow-up question be posed after asking an initial question.  I can see it playing out like this in my schoolroom:

Teacher: What relationship do you see between Uncle Tom and Mr. Shelby in these first few chapters?

Student: Uncle Tom is a slave and Mr. Shelby is his owner.

Teacher: And what else?

Student: It seems like Mr. Shelby likes Uncle Tom because he didn’t want to sell him. But I don’t understand why he sold him anyway.

Teacher to the class: Who has an idea about this?

Student 2: Maybe because he felt a lot of pressure.

Teacher: And what else? (And a conversation around the text ensues.)

Equally important for me is to not be insecure when my son doesn't express all that I thought was important in the text.  In this way, I must trust the method, which comes down to trusting the Holy Spirit to be his teacher[6] while I talk less, and ask more.



[1] Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education, Vol. 1, pp. 2-3.

[2] Mason, Charlotte.  A Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6, pp. 52-53.  http://www.amblesideschools.com/manual/Charlotte-Mason/philosophy-educat...

[3] Stanier, Michael Bungay.  The Coaching Habit: How to Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

[4] Ibid, pp. 9-10.

[5] Ibid, pp. 57-58.

[6] I wrote about this in a blog four years ago.  Yep, I am still learning. http://www.amblesideschools.com/blog/homeschool/holy-spirit-our-teacher  

 

The Science of Relations


...we have relations with what there is in the present and with what there has been in the past, with what is above us, and about us; and that fullness of living and serviceableness depend for each of us upon how far we apprehend these relationships and how many of them we lay hold of. Every child is heir to an enormous patrimony. The question is, what are the formalities necessary to put him in possession of that which is his? We do not talk about...educating him with a view to his social standing or his future calling. We take the child as we find him, a person with many healthy affinities and embryonic attachments, and we try to give him a chance to make the largest possible number of these attachments valid.

Charlotte Mason, School Education


One of Charlotte Mason’s most significant insights into the education of children is the idea of establishing a relationship between the mind of the child and the mind of the author, composer, artist, or poet he is studying.  The establishment of this direct connection creates a new and vital basis for education, which not only affects what a child learns, but how the child is then equipped to take that knowledge and apply it to his own life and growth in virtue.

I had been homeschooling my eight children for over twenty years when I attended training at an Ambleside internship in Denver.  I’m sure everyone else was wondering what I was doing there—didn’t I have it all figured out after so many years?  However, not only do I believe that we learn throughout our entire life, but also, from the perspective of many years of child-rearing and educating, I had realized my need for an educational approach that would strengthen the virtues of personal initiative and responsibility in my younger children.  I wanted to find a way of educating that resulted in my students and I being on the same team and not experiencing a situation in which I was the pushy teacher/mom and they were the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”!  I wanted a positive and supportive relationship with my children, and I wanted a method that resulted in them humbly supporting one another and not proudly competing for attention, affection, or rewards.  I wanted a method that would result in them seeing and embracing for themselves the joys of learning.  In short, I wanted a method that produced not only knowledge but a virtuous soul.

At the internship I learned it is important that education is based not on teacher- or student-directed models, but on a direct relationship with the material being studied—“the text” as the teacher. Placing the focus of education on the material has the effect of putting both the instructor and the student on the same “side”—one in which both learn and grow together. I learned why this approach was important and how to implement it by changing my instructional style. Instead of spoon-feeding information to my children, I inspired them through direct encounter with the author and his text and thoughtful questioning, which allowed them to develop their own understanding of and relationship with their lessons.  

I implemented this method at home with great eagerness and anticipation.  In the past three years, I have been so encouraged by the impact this “science of relations” has had on our lives. Following are some of the ways I have seen my children blossom as a result of the Ambleside method: 

An eagerness to learn

My younger children generally are happy to sit down and “do school”.  They are eager when approaching new material, and even older dry material that sometimes elicits a few moans and groans seems to grab their attention once we begin our work.

Taking responsibility for their own learning

On the few occasions I have been sick, I have been amazed to come out of my room to find the children working through their material just as if I was there. They understand for themselves now how to approach the material, how to read and narrate, how to ask questions of themselves and one another that address important principles/ideas presented in the reading.  They are willing and able to pursue learning and do their educational duty without needing me to be the enforcer.

An ability to engage with the material

By stepping away from trying to present my own opinions and ideas, I have created a space for my children to feel confident in engaging with the material we are studying.  Their insights are not the same as mine, but rather are their own reactions to ideas they encounter.  This is one of the greatest joys of this method—having the privilege to hear what they are thinking and getting a special insight into who they are as persons. 

Willingness to tackle difficult material

Small and steady increments of reading have resulted in my children being willing to approach more difficult reading projects in their own free time. Recently we finished To Kill a Mockingbird, and my son decided to read Go Set a Watchman.  When I asked him how he was enjoying that book, he said, “Well, I’ve just read a few chapters, but sometimes it can take almost half the book before you really get into the story!”  The virtues of patience and perseverance have been developed in him even at a young age by the Ambleside educational method.

Responsibility in other areas of life

Picking up after themselves, delighting in volunteer work, managing their own time, seeing a job that needs to be done and doing it without needing to be asked (like dishes or sweeping), practicing musical instruments faithfully, and gladly assisting a brother or sister who needs help have all been ways in which the lessons of duty and personal initiative have spilled over into everyday life for my younger children.

-Carolyn Haydu, Ambleside Home School

If you’re interested in learning more about Ambleside Schools International and attending one of our upcoming internships, visit our website at www.amblesideschools.com. Look under “Upcoming Training” and “Ambleside Events” for more information and registration. For more information on our homeschool mentor program go to “Educator Support” and click on “Homeschool” at the top of the page. Come with friends!

Waking Up to Our Duties

An annual summer tradition for our sons is to attend a family camp with their grandparents.  This was the first year that one of our sons participated in youth camp, which is for students in junior high through high school. Although I did not attend the camp, I personally felt the difference upon registration this past Sunday.

It was my task to register four kids under 6th grade, including nieces and a nephew, in addition to my seventh grader.  There were tables in a long row with signs indicating the class grade.  At each appropriate table, I provided the requested information including age, birthdate, emergency contact names, emergency contact numbers, allergies, medications, any behavioral issues, whether the child needed to be reminded to go potty, the name of the adult who would pick up the child after each session, and “any other important information” they “needed to know” about each child.  Sweating under the hot sun, I diligently provided information designed to enable the best care of each child. 

Moving down the row, I came to the youth camp table.  In a split-second, with no words spoken but with a glance at the marked lack of any registration papers on the table, I recognized that I was supposed to step back. 

I indicated to my son with my eyes that he was to step forward. 

Freeze-frame that moment. 

See mom taking a deep breath.

When have you recently had to take a deep breath as something changed?  Something important to you.  Perhaps it was an unanticipated change.  Or, as in my case, perhaps it was a change that you knew was brewing but was crystallized in a moment or an event.

I felt like someone waking up to a new reality.

Or, as an employee might feel when she suspects that “something is up” after working 12 years at her job.  Then one day her boss comes and changes her job description--not so much that there is a new title, but enough that she feels she is not prepared for the new tasks. 

To Charlotte Mason, the mother’s job description is no less than the superintending and regulating of the unfolding of a human being in body and mind.  This job, as any other, requires preparation.

Is it, then, that the unfolding of a human being in body and mind is so comparatively simple a process that any one may superintend and regulate it with no preparation whatever? If not––if the process is, with one exception, more complex than any in Nature, and the task of ministering to it one of the surpassing difficulty––is it not madness to make no provision for such a task!?[1]

I am not fully prepared for this next stage of development in my son’s life.  I find myself with a lot of the same feelings of inadequacy that I had when anticipating labor, then nursing, then early habit training, then decisions about first foods, then early education decisions.  These feelings have been brewing this past year and intensifying.  I recognize that I need to grow in a range of new relational skills.  I also need to grow in knowledge that will help me make wise decisions about my son’s education and guide his growth in relationship with God, himself and others.  I am ignorant.

The good news is, according to Charlotte Mason, that my office qualifies me.  But how can I be ignorant, yet qualified?  An analogy comes to mind.  The Apostle Paul says of all believers that we are “blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”[2]  The Apostle Peter says that we have been “granted all things that pertain to life and godliness.”[3]  The Apostle John says that God has given us His Spirit.[4]  These things are true of us, whether we act on them or feel them, by virtue of our identity as children of God.  They are also the foundational provision available to us as parents and teachers.

But occupying the office is not enough.  Staying ignorant is shirking duty at any age in life.[5]  Indeed, Charlotte Mason spells out the duty that comes with the office of motherhood:

Mothers owe a 'thinking love' to their Children.––"The mother is qualified," says Pestalozzi, "and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; ... and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love ... God has given to the child all the faculties of our nature, but the grand point remains undecided––how shall this heart, this head, these hands be employed? to whose service shall they be dedicated? A question the answer to which involves a futurity of happiness or misery to a life so dear to thee. Maternal love is the first agent in education."

We are waking up to our duties and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will doubtless feel the more strongly that the education of their children during the first six years of life is an undertaking hardly to be entrusted to any hands but their own. And they will take it up as their profession––that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours.

That the mother may know what she is about, may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child's nature upon which such theory rests.[6]

Do you have thinking love?  Do you have a habit of seeking knowledge when you identify an area of your own ignorance in your care of a child?  What would this habit look like in your life?  Whether you are a parent or a teacher, or both, to whom or what do you turn when you need to be informed?  What provision are you making for the task currently facing you?  Perhaps a few new books and articles are in order, or a return to a sage favorite, such as the writings of Charlotte Mason.  Or, how about an in-depth discussion with your mentor or principal?  Whom do you need to come alongside you?  Is an Ambleside internship in order?  Have you spent time in God’s word seeking provision?  Have you submitted the task at hand to consistent prayer?  These are questions I am pondering as I prepare for this stage of my son’s growth as a person.  “Is it not madness to make no provision for such a task?”[7]

 



[1] Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education, Vol. 1, p. 3.

[2] Ephesians 1:3

[3] 2 Peter 1:3

[4] I John 4:13

[5] Mason, Charlotte. A Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6, p. 238.  Charlotte Mason speaks of children as “weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and who weakness we must support.”  Experience teaches that ignorance and weakness are common throughout life.

[6] Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education, Vol. 1, pp. 2-3.

[7] Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education, Vol. 1, p. 3.

 

The Weight of Chance Desires

Lately my mind has been rather occupied with the weighty role feelings seem to play in daily American life. It appears that how and what one feels, desires, or prefers is powerfully and increasingly not only at the fore of our experience, but even at the core of our identity. Perhaps this progression is owing, at least in part, to the fact that "...as the American economy began to shift from a focus on industrial production to one of mass consumption in the early decades of the twentieth century, the psychological and ethical requirements placed upon an individual began to change as well. With growing abundance, more emphasis could be placed upon accumulation, leisure, and the cultivation of personal preferences” (emphasis mine).[1] Virtue is made out of necessity: the closer one lives to basic survival, less attention, time, and energy is given to “I want” and more is given to “I must.” Even in the wake of the recent recession, was it survival that was at stake or the capacity to satisfy our preferences for larger houses, newer cars, vacations, and eating out? It seems we live in a time of catering to what Wordsworth described as, “chance desires.”[2]

Someone has said, "We're all kings now," which I take to mean that we all have, in a sense, the access, power, and privilege, in short, the right of kings. We claim the right to get what we want. I want to go snow skiing in Colorado. I want my fries hot and salty. I want Chip and Joanna Gaines to renovate my house. I want a new car because my “old” car is a 2010. I want my kids to love Jesus and reading and always be safe and healthy. Not all of these are chance desires, or even harmful. Depending on the condition of my heart, these may be benign or they might actually qualify as greed, “which is idolatry” according to Paul (Colossians 3:5).

Not all desires are so benign. We know the struggle of living in a culture, even “Christian” culture. of “I want” or “I feel” while earnestly seeking a Kingdom whose unrelenting requirement is, “I must.”

Charlotte Mason was indeed wise with the following advice and admonishment:

But the first duty of the parent is to teach children the meaning of must; and the reason why some persons in authority fail to obtain prompt and cheerful obedience from their children is that they do not recognize “must” in their own lives. They elect to do this and that, choose to go here and there, have kindly instincts and benevolent emotions, but are unaware of the constraining must, which should direct their speech and control their actions. They allow themselves to do what they choose; there may be little harm in what they do; the harm is that they feel free to allow themselves to do as they wish, without careful thought about what is good and right, highest and best. Again, true liberty is having the personal wisdom and power to do the right and good thing, not simply doing whatever you want (catering to chance desire). [3]

In the young years teaching the “meaning of must” is no easy task; however, it is the easiest time of life in which to do it. Oops. Is there hope for those of us who missed the boat on this “first duty”? Those of us who, perhaps even despite valiant effort, failed to obtain “prompt and cheerful obedience” during our children’s young years? Those of us whose sons and daughters struggle mightily to keep their rooms clean, whose teens hem and haw when it’s time to read or pray yet take to their phones with an avidity we jealously wished belonged to Christ alone?

Yes, there is hope for those of us who, along with our children, have been carried along on the cultural current of catering to chance desires. It is simple actually, and I hope it strikes you like the good news (or reminder) that it is: The Kingdom of God is here. This is the vision that Jesus himself had and imparted to his early followers and all his followers through the ages, many of whom are our favorite teachers, like Charlotte Mason, as well as ordinary folks like you and me. The Kingdom vision in a nutshell is that life is actually better, so good in fact, it becomes indestructible, when I subordinate my kingdom, my life, my feelings, my desires to His. (He, who though King of kings, invites me to address him with the intimate term, “Abba”!) Because “his divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness,”[4] I learn to subordinate my kingdom in big and small ways without waiting “to feel like it.” I practice a “long obedience in the same direction.”[5] I learn the meaning of must.

I must not have the second or third helping of pudding.

I must forgive and move towards _____ who has wronged and hurt me deeply (or slightly!)

I must ask forgiveness for my selfish response to _____.

I must not indulge in “anger fantasies” where I imagine how I might “put someone in their place” who has annoyed or offended me.

That person who votes (worships, etc.) differently than I do, I must regard as the Divine image-bearer that he or she is.

I must put my device away, look my children in the eyes and give them my full attention.

I must not buy the new car because I can’t afford it.

I must not make an idol of my house and landscaping.

By the grace of God energizing me from within and Jesus’ bursting-with-Life Kingdom available right here and now (“at hand”), I willingly succumb to these little self-deaths and a thousand others, regardless of how I feel. In so doing, I learn that feelings were actually meant to serve, not master, me. I taste and see that the Lord is good. I become a participant of the divine (as opposed to merely human) nature.

His Divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. II Peter 1:3-4



[1] James Davidson Hunter, The Death of Character

[2] William Wordsworth, “Ode to Duty”

[3] From Charlotte Mason’s “Concerning Children as Persons”; the text and language are largely hers, but I have freely paraphrased.

[4] 2 Peter 1:3

[5] Eugene Peterson wrote a book by this title

Image: "Cardinal and Theological Virtues" (detail), Raphael

Summer - A Time of Opportunity and Liberty


It is enough for the present if they have shown us in what manner children attach themselves to their proper affinities, given opportunity and liberty. Our part is to drop occasion freely in the way, whether in school or at home. Children should have relations with earth and water, should run and leap, ride and swim, should establish the relations of maker to material in as many kinds as my be; should have dear and intimate relations with persons, through present intercourse, through tale or poem, picture or statue; through flint arrow-head or modern motor-car: beast and bird, herb and tree, they must have familiar acquaintance with. Other peoples and their languages must not be strange to them. Above all they should find that most intimate and highest of Relationships, - the fulfillment of their being.

Charlotte, Mason, School Education, 209

The summer season seems different today than it was when I was a child. We still enjoy a change in routine, a break from school, and celebrate the long days with late sunsets. We look forward to seeing family in far off towns and getting away for a vacation. But some things are quite different. Today, even the children ask one another what they are “doing” over the summer. I recently heard a child tell of a summer that is filled with plans that have been thoughtfully choreographed. Very few days, much less weeks, are left unscheduled.

I used to look forward to having (almost) nothing to do all summer.

I spent many summer days running freely about with siblings and neighbor friends, building forts, riding bikes, catching fireflies. We spent time sitting around talking, doing nothing much at all. We liked to sit on the big hill at Ben Warner’s house and watch cars go by. Sometimes a person we knew drove by, and that was enough to keep us watching – for hours. We followed the paperboy around without him knowing it. We drank out of the hose and nobody thought twice about it. We loved the big maple tree in my neighbor’s yard - it was a ship and we played in it for days at a time. The bamboo forest was our “fort,” we took turns manning the lookouts. We arrived home worn out and filthy from a hard day of play.

The summer relations I enjoyed as a child took time to build – free, unhurried time. Very few children today can safely run about as we did. So how do we afford our children the time and opportunity to forge proper relations with earth and water, birds and sky? It takes mindfulness to naturally “drop occasion freely in the way.” At Ambleside schools, times of nature study, outdoor life, and picnic lunches (to name a few) afford students the opportunity to observe and enjoy the natural world. Sometimes we sit silently for a few minutes to listen.  A student might ask, “What are we listening for?” and the wise teacher replies, “Just listen.” Then we have an enjoyable time of sharing what was heard. Nothing too organized, nothing too orchestrated by the adult. Wordsworth called this “wise passiveness.” Charlotte Mason called it “masterly inactivity.”

Developing the practice of masterly inactivity requires awareness and tact.  As teachers and parents, we desire to share in the discovery, but we may rob the children of the joy of their own discoveries as we over-facilitate an outing. I had to practice masterly inactivity, to get out of the way of my children’s budding affinities. I practiced awareness and self-restraint – practiced - and I wasn’t always perfect.

The appreciation of nature is one of the affinities embraced by my own family. And these family affinities are catching – they are in the air. I caught my love of earth and sky from my own mother, who, to this day, loves to look at the sky and take pictures of the clouds. The ease of the summer schedule allows more time for reading and writing, tending a garden, hiking through creeks, cooking together, photography, and so on. Let’s be mindful during this season of opportunities and liberty to take time to nurture these affinities. 

Love of Approbation in Devoted Parents

My son asked me what I am writing about for this blog and I answered, “the duty of parents.”  He replied, “Oh! To feed their kids well!  But add a few more details!”

Yes, there are a few more details, aren’t there?  But where to start?  We could start at the duty to provide a physically and mentally safe home and move on to the duty to model love of God and neighbor and round out the aerial view with the duty to educate.  Along the way, we may miss one duty that is a bit prickly: the duty to not seek approval from your child.  Being your child’s best friend is an extreme yet common form of abdication of this duty (of failure to fulfill).  This duty is hard to swallow in our culture where moms wear clothes from the “teen section” and dads chum it up over video games.  It is hard because the fulfillment of this duty lies squarely on the character of the parent, and not on an external “check the box” like providing good food.  But perhaps it is especially hard to fulfill this duty because being your child’s best friend can feel like the loving thing to be.  But Charlotte Mason asserts that we abdicate our role as parents when we position ourselves as persons needing approval from our children.

Causes which lead to the Abdication of Parents––

Here is indicated a rock upon which the heads of families sometimes make shipwreck. They regard parental authority as inherent in them, a property which may lie dormant, but is not to be separated from the state of parenthood. They may allow their children from infancy upwards to do what is right in their own eyes; and then, Lear turns and makes his plaint to the winds, and cries––

'sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child!'

But Lear has been all the time divesting himself of the honour and authority that belong to him, and giving his rights to his children. Here he tells us why; the biting anguish is the 'thankless' child. He has been laying himself out for the thanks of his children. That they should think him a fond father has been more to him than the duty he owes them; and in proportion as he omits his duty are they oblivious of theirs. Possibly the unregulated love of approbation in devoted parents has more share in the undoing of families than any other single cause. A writer of today represents a mother as saying––

"'But you are not afraid of me, Bessie?"

"No indeed; who could be afraid of a dear, sweet, soft, little mother like you?"'

And such praise is sweet in the ears of many a fond mother hungering for the love and liking of her children, and not perceiving that words like these in the mouth of a child are as treasonable as words of defiance.1

We regard words of rebellion, of poor attitude, of contempt for authority as “treasonable as words of defiance.”  But do we equally regard words of praise by our children that come on the heels of getting the coveted toy-of-the-week, of being told they can stay up past bedtime, of being given permission to eat the forbidden candy, of being allowed to wear the questionable outfit?  Webster’s simple definition of treason is “the crime of trying to overthrow your country's government.”  These “sweet in the ears” words are treasonable because they come from a heart of misplaced loyalty.  To the praise-wielding child, the government rests on herself and it lies with her to approve or disapprove of her parent.  The parent, driven by the desire for praise and approval, plays by the government’s rules.  Such a government is ultimately tenuous and rests too heavily on a child; and so it crumbles.  And the devoted parent is left saying, “But I sacrificed to give her everything she wanted!  All I wanted in return was her approval.” 

Perhaps to the parent who says, “I have satisfied every law of parenthood, I have given to my child more than I felt comfortable, I have met her every desire, I have sacrificed all I have, what more shall I do to be a good parent?”  Charlotte Mason answers: Seek first to be the authority, because “the unregulated love of approbation in devoted parents has more share in the undoing of families than any other single cause.”  


1Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, Volume 2, Chapter 2

(image) Mary Cassatt, Portrait of Alexander J. Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso Cassatt (1885)

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