Ambleside Blog

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 " 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)

"What a Bouquet!"

Harmony in our Efforts––Such a recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit as the Educator of mankind, in things intellectual as well as in things moral and spiritual, gives us 'new thoughts of God, new hopes of Heaven,' a sense of harmony in our efforts and of acceptance of all that we are. What stands between us and the realisation of this more blessed life? This; that we do not realise ourselves as spiritual beings invested with bodies, living, emotional, a snare to us and a joy to us, but which are, after all, the mere organs and interpreters of our spiritual intention. Once we see that we are dealing spirit with spirit with the friend at whose side we are sitting, with the people who attend to our needs, we shall be able to realise how incessant is the commerce between the divine Spirit and our human spirit. It will be to us as when one stops one's talk and one's thoughts in the springtime, to find the world full of bird-music unheard the instant before. In like manner we shall learn to make pause in our thoughts, and shall hear in our intellectual perplexities, as well as in our moral, the clear, sweet, cheering and inspiring tones of our spiritual Guide. We are not speaking here of what is commonly called the religious life, or of our definite approaches to God in prayer and praise; these things all Christian people comprehend more or less fully; we are speaking only of the intellectual life, the development of which in children is the aim of our subjects and methods of instruction.[1]

Homeschooling is challenging and requires much sacrifice to do it well. Practicing Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education at home is additionally challenging in that being faithful to this work necessitates that the parent-teacher engage with the texts and materials and actively participate alongside the children. This often occupies much of the day as well as time to prepare apart from lesson time. This work is not to be taken lightly and beckons one to such virtues as patience, fortitude, and temperance.

As followers of Christ, we know that children are a gift from God. And not only are children a gift, “they are like arrows in a warrior’s hands” . . . and one should be joyful “if his quiver is full of them.” And we are. But sometimes, in the day-to-day routine, we may need to be reminded of the preciousness of the gift of a “full quiver.”

An Ambleside homeschool mother shares a poem born out of struggle and inspired by an idea from a wise and winsome priest--a priest “who didn’t look on me in sympathy when I said I have seven daughters but instead said, “What a Bouquet!” In a moment, three simple words shed a better light on a year’s work of daily lessons and nurturing and mending relationships. In her poem, she describes each daughter as a unique flower in a beautiful bouquet, purposefully turning her thoughts from frustration to what is good, and true, and beautiful. How lovely our thoughts and actions may be when directed toward God with a simple idea of finding beauty in struggle and contentment with our lot, whatever these may be. May this be an encouragement and a reminder to “not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap . . .”[2]

*  *  *  *  *


Her petals attract the rays of sunshine that have travelled through the heavens just for her.

She moves only to be receptive to her gift from above.



She winds her way on and forward finding the smallest of homes for her tendrils.

Then she holds on tenaciously, courageously, growing in impossible places.



How extravagant she is! She holds nothing back, sharing herself completely.



She is the reward of the most patient of caretakers. She is abundant in the hands of a master

who lives to witness her blooms, her full perfection.



She is hearty and careless for herself, sacrificing herself often for the whims and cares of others.



Every petal she has is so small and delicate, forming each flower, then strung together like a river that starts

with a drop of water and eventually carves and shapes rock itself.



Purple--royal--sacrifice. She can be found in average places; always a remembrance that often

there is extraordinary in the ordinary.



She knows what it takes to push through, to grow. She knows how fragile she is but doesn't save herself

for a better time or an easier life. She will find a way.



She is simply lovely, not needing to draw attention, but able to stand as she is.

Knowing she is all she will ever need to be.



She won't take no for an answer, but persists unceasingly for a spot with her sisters.


What a bouquet!

Each is so different, a bounty of beauty in many forms.

If the rose said, "My beauty is complete." Would it diminish the beauty of the daffodil?

It could not, for beauty is not a thing to be had but a gift bestowed.

It can be appreciated, mimicked, ignored, neglected, or desired, but the purpose of beauty is always the same:

to reflect its source.


[1] Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children. London, England: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd., 1904.

[2] Galatians 6:9

Image "Violette Heymann" by Odilon Redon


Bruised Too Often

“He had perhaps been bruised too often.  The peace of the vast aloof scrub had drawn him with the beneficence of its silence.  Something in him was raw and tender.  The touch of men was hurtful upon it, but the touch of the pines was healing.  Making a living came harder there, distances were troublesome in the buying of supplies and the marketing of crops.  But the clearing was peculiarly his own.  The wild animals seemed less predatory to him than people he had known.  The forays of bear and wolf and wild-cat and panther on stock were understandable, which was more than he could say of human cruelties.”[1]

When I read this text with my students, our response for a time was silence. 

It was one of those golden moments where our souls met in wordless communion with the Holy Spirit and one another. 

It is no wonder that Penny Baxter wanted his son, Jody, to encounter nature’s beneficence too.  And encounter it he did.  The author of The Yearling, Majorie Kinnan Rawlings, details Jody’s encounters with such eloquence that the reader aches with nostalgia, despite never having been to the swamps and springs of Florida.  And these encounters leave marks long into life.  For example, after one spring day in April spent beside the water’s edge, Ms. Rawlings describes Jody:

He pictured Old Slewfoot, the great black outlaw bear with one toe missing, rearing up in his winter bed and tasting the soft air and smelling the moonlight, as he, Jody, smelled and tasted them. He went to bed in a fever and could not sleep. A mark was on him from the day’s delight, so that all his life, when April was a thin green and the flavor of rain was in his tongue, an old wound would throb and nostalgia would fill him for something he could not quite remember. A whip-poor-will called across the bright night, and suddenly he was asleep. (emphasis mine)

We have each known the bruising of which Penny Baxter speaks.  Who is not raw and tender in places?  Who of our students hasn't been bruised?  What student may come to class having recently experienced a “troublesome” part of life, or even the predatory nature of someone close?  As teachers, we cannot always know.  But how would our reverence for each subject grow knowing that the Holy Spirit knows each bruised heart and speaks through each text, sometimes in profound communion?

Would we be more earnest to not pass over the ideas in nature study, poetry, or math each day?  Would we be more attuned to the “beneficence of silence” in our response time?

“From the flower in the crannied wall to the glorious firmament on high, all the things

of Nature proclaim without ceasing, ‘Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty.’ ”[2]

God proclaims himself through each subject of our curriculum.  “Great and marvelous” is our God for the healing of the “bruised too often.”  Let us provide the space and leave room for the healing.


[1] The Yearling, p. 18

[2] Vol. 4, Book 2, p. 100

Illustration by Wyeth, N. C. (Newell Convers), 1882-1945

Loyalty to the King

There is little, if anything, that brings such sweetness to the soul of devout Christian parents as their children’s allegiance to the risen Savior King. And, few things are so harrowing as the prospect that one’s child might abandon Him, who is the Source of all life and goodness. Thus, parents possessing a vibrant devotion to Christ cannot help but ponder the means of cultivating such devotion in their children. Children are a sacred mystery and their formation a sacred duty. How precisely is this duty to be fulfilled? Consider Charlotte Mason’s conclusion to her first book, Home Education:

The Essence of Christianity is Loyalty to a Person –– Christ, our King. Here is a thought to unseal the fountains of love and loyalty, the treasures of faith and imagination, bound up in the child. The very essence of Christianity is personal loyalty, passionate loyalty to our adorable Chief. We have laid other foundations––regeneration, sacraments, justification, works, faith, the Bible––any one of which, however necessary to salvation in its due place and proportion may become a religion about Christ and without Christ. And now a time of sifting has come upon us, and thoughtful people decline to know anything about our religious systems; they write down all our orthodox beliefs as things not knowable. Perhaps this may be because, in thinking much of our salvation, we have put out of sight our King, the divine fact which no soul of man to whom it is presented can ignore. In the idea of Christ is life; let the thought of Him once get touch of the soul, and it rises up, a living power, independent of all formularies of the brain. Let us save Christianity for our children by bringing them into allegiance to Christ, the King. How? How did the old Cavaliers[1] bring up sons and daughters, in passionate loyalty and reverence for not too worthy princes? Their own hearts were full of it; their lips spake it; their acts proclaimed it; the style of their clothes, the ring of their voices, the carriage of their heads––all was one proclamation of boundless devotion to their king and his cause. That civil war, whatever else it did, or missed doing, left a parable for Christian people. If a Stuart prince could command such measure of loyalty, what shall we say of "the Chief amongst ten thousand, the altogether lovely”?

Notice the primacy placed on loyalty, something more than mere belief and mere behavior. As important as right believing and right doing are, they must flow from right devotion. One may appear perfect in doctrine and in deed; yet be principally loyal to self and thus animated by a perverse spirit. Loyalty is the embodiment of love directed toward a particular person or thing, and as the Scriptures make clear, it is the nature of our loves that matter most.[2]

And notice how such loyalty is cultivated. Most certainly not by lecture or detailed explanation. Loyalties are caught like the flu, not directly taught with many words. Cavalier loyalties were embodied by the tribe and, in due course, assimilated without question by the tribe’s children. Perhaps the clearest contemporary illustration of this phenomenon is the devotion to favored sporting teams that many fathers (and an increasing number of mothers) share with their children. How is such fanaticism cultivated? Weekends are structured around sacred rites performed on the field. Dress demonstrates loyalty. Hopes are elevated and dashed as the play unfolds. Emotions rise and fall accordingly. Cheers and outcries follow. Victories and defeats, as well as hopes for the coming week, are the subject of daily conversation. Children see, hear, share in the devotion and become fans (fanatics).

I must confess that I too am a fan with favored teams. And, I wonder, what would be the effect if our homes and schools manifest, in word and deed, the loyalty to Jesus of the most devoted fan? How would it affect the way we work, the way we talk, the way we dress, the way we celebrate, the way we grieve? And, how then would our children respond to "the Chief amongst ten thousand, the altogether lovely”?

[1] Cavaliers or Royalists were those who remained loyal to the Stuart kings, Charles I and Charles II, in England’s civil war which, between 1642 and 1651, pitted them against Oliver Cromwell and the forces of Parliament.

[2] Hosea 6:6, Matthew 22:36-40, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, to name but a few verses concerning that which is a continuous Biblical theme.


Some Reflections on Reconciliation, Redemption, and the Resurrection

God who is Love, reconciled us to himself.

Man is not the center. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake.1 ‘Thou has created all things and for  thy pleasure they are and were created.2
Love can forbear, and Love can forgive… but Love can never be reconciled to an unlovely object… He can never therefore be reconciled to your sin, because sin itself is incapable of being altered ; but He may be reconciled to your person, because that may be restored.3

The cross is Jesus’ work of redemption.       

He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.4
The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start… Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works…

We believe that the death of Christ is just the point in history at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our world… You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it…

We are told that Christ was killed for us, that his death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.5

The Resurrection is the standard of power in Christians’ lives.

That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;6

Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.7

The more we get what we call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of ‘little Christs’, all different, will still be too few to express Him fully.

I am not, in  my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call ‘me’ can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I begin to have a real personality of my own.

Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him  everything else thrown in.5

The whole point of three-dimensional life is to be played out in each of us. May this Easter bring us reconciliation to the truths of redemption and resurrection in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Bill and Maryellen St. Cyr


1C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 40.
2Revelation 4:11
3Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, 11, 30.
4 Romans 4:25.
5C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 54-55.
6Philippians 3:107
7C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 50. 
8Ibid., 225-227.
*Resurrection by Luca Giordano

Under the Influence of Entertainment

I recently met a new student who made his way to Ambleside through an unusual series of events that began at a children’s home in Latvia. His integration into the sixth grade class, growing command of the English language, and benevolence toward others were delightful to see, and I wanted to offer encouragement to him. As I spoke to him, his smile grew wide and he responded, “I am so thankful to God.” I was touched by his genuine thankfulness and humility, a lovely reminder to turn our hearts and minds outward and upward, toward our God of provision, our friends and neighbors, and away from the awareness of “me.”

Charlotte Mason inspires us in the way of humility -

There are many ways of getting away from the thought of ourselves; the love and knowledge of birds and flowers, of clouds and stones, of all that nature has to show us; pictures, books, people, anything outside of us, will help us to escape from the tyrant who attacks our hearts. One rather good plan is, when we are talking or writing to our friends, not to talk or write about 'thou and I.' There are so many interesting things in the world to discuss that it is a waste of time to talk about ourselves. All the same, it is well to be up to the ways of those tiresome selves, and that is why you are invited to read these chapters. It is very well, too, to know that Humility, who takes no thought of himself, is really at home in each of us:––

"If that in sight of God is great
     Which counts itself for small,
     We by that law humility
     The chiefest grace must call;
     Which being such, not knows itself
     To be a grace at all."

Ourselves, Book I, 129-130

We share concerns for the children, yet we fall short of true humility and thankfulness in our own lives. How do we inspire and support a sense of caring, duty, thankfulness, and sacrifice? How are the influences of our modern world misdirecting our youth? As a teacher and a parent I have to ask myself, “How am I contributing to the problem?” My awareness of just one of these influences was kindled by a recent email.

The parent of a former student reached out to me to share a memory her child still has from the year she was in my class at Ambleside (my first year of teaching first grade).  She described the day I brought in George Washington Carver’s favorite food, “corndodgers” (as noted in our history readings). I was happy to hear that I was so fondly remembered, recalling the excitement of the students that day. But then I thought, “No! No! That was so off-method!” It had fueled days of begging and disappointment. “Are we having more corndodgers? Why not? Please!” I wonder if they even remember why we had the treats.

Some might say that I was well intentioned; that I was allowing my students to more fully experience a part of Carver’s life; that I was encouraging them to participate more fully in our studies. And back then I would have agreed. But now I see that entertaining activities often have deeper implications, and the end results are less than desirable. Entertainment turns our attention toward ourselves and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to experience a peaceful consideration and enjoyment of another’s delight.

Consider this text from Little House in the Big Woods when Jack Frost comes to visit.

Ma said that Jack Frost came in the night and made the pictures, while everyone was asleep. Laura thought that Jack Frost was a little man all snowy white, wearing a glittering white pointed cap and soft white knee-boots made of deer-skin. His coat was white and his mittens were white, and he did not carry a gun on his back, but in his hands he had shining sharp tools with which he carved the pictures.

Laura and Mary were allowed to take Ma's thimble and made pretty patterns of circles in the frost on the glass. But they never spoiled the pictures that Jack Frost had made in the night.     

When they put their mouths close to the pane and blew their breath on it, the white frost melted and ran in drops down the glass. Then they could see the drifts of snow outdoors and the great trees standing bare and black, making thin blue shadows on the white snow.

With the best of intentions we might think of ways to help the children share the experiences of the Ingalls girls. We sprinkle a baking sheet with sugar and invite the children to draw in it. Or we pull out hand mirrors to breathe on. These activities, though seemingly harmless, plant seeds of self focus. We lose something far greater and more important to our development as a person when we trade entertainment for the exploration of ideas. We miss out on a practice of reflecting and imagining; on wondering about the experiences of another; on delighting in another’s delight without any thoughts of self. Using this example, we miss out on sharing the wonder and experience of that wintery morning long ago through the words of the author. Under the influence of entertainment, the attention immediately turns to thoughts of Me: “I like this! This is fun! Can I have another turn? Can we do this again?”

Isn’t this the mindset we are hoping to shed in ourselves and in our children? Don’t we want to pursue a life of humility? As followers of Christ we are called to die to self and seek to serve. Let us redirect our thoughts and hearts to a higher place where, with the inspiration of the Spirit and through the exploration of ideas, we too may experience each new day with a deep thankfulness to God. 

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,

not looking to your own interests

but each of you to the interests of the others."    

Philippians 2: 3-4



Living Ideas

As teachers at an Ambleside school, we are all familiar with the phrase “living ideas.” We know that real learning occurs when the learner wonders, asking why and how. The joy is in discovery. I imagine God rejoices with us in our discovering. He didn’t pre-program us like robots. He made us able to grow through memorable and “living” ideas. God doesn’t place pearls along the seashore, washed up where we can easily find them. He creates each unique one within the sacred shell of an oyster, deep at the bottom of the ocean. Diamonds also are hidden deep within the depths of great mountains, where miners must labor and dig to find them. One can only conclude that His joy in our discovering must be abundant. In this same way, we must search out these living ideas that come from God through His Holy Spirit.

What are these “living ideas” that Charlotte Mason tells us about? She begins by describing what living ideas are not. They are not lectures for hours on end of pre-digested information or lists of facts to memorize. If I begin to observe glassy-eyed stares in the faces of my students as they look back at me, I know I’ve gotten off track and away from what the author has to say. I’m talking too much, and the students are tuning out because of information (idea-lacking) overload. Rather, they delight in the work of thinking. When my students connect with living ideas and do the work of narrating or telling back what they know, they are engaged with the author and these living ideas that come through the text. They leave class with knowledge and are satisfied by this work of their mind. Their mind has been fed and nourished with stimulating thoughts and notions.

Charlotte Mason says that living ideas are ideas derived from living minds. I discovered that C.S. Lewis agreed with Charlotte Mason that living ideas are not just mere facts. Lewis explained that, while reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning. In other words, we do not really grasp the meaning of any words or concept until we have a clear image in our mind that we can connect with. This is part of the work of narration and digesting ideas. The students paint a picture in their mind from the words in the text.

Some barriers to living ideas, says Mason, are that children are born ignorant of the world and how to manifest the infinite possibilities with which they are born. Lewis adds that human nature gets in the way. God is the great hedonist, providing things for us to do all day long. However, we may neglect the important things, such as working and worshipping and instead, do other things, such as playing. He concludes, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex, and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

So, how do we get the children to leave their mud pies? We give them meaningful ideas to digest. Charlotte Mason says there are two ways to share living ideas. The first is a “vital spark” flashed from teacher to pupil, but this only occurs when the subject is one to which the teacher has given original thought. For example, my children love our pastor. When I asked them why, they said that she explains a concept with a story to help them understand. Since we can’t hire a dozen teachers for each subject, such as an art historian to teach about Degas or other masters, we must provide books for our students, which are rich in living ideas. Last semester, my students read Carry on Mr. Bowditch, which tells the story about Nathaniel Bowditch, the father of Maritime Navigation. By way of the vivid text full of living ideas, they went sailing with Nathaniel Bowditch, and came to know and formed a relationship with the father of Maritime Navigation.

Lewis loved reading stories as much as writing them. He said, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others . . . in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."

I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen,

not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything.

With these simple thoughts, let us illuminate our students’ minds with living ideas through which they will come to see everything else.



Presidents Day: A Reflection on Humility

One of the most damaging trends in recent history is the tendency to select dazzling, celebrity leaders.

Jim Collins, Good to Great

In his compelling book exploring the attributes of companies that made the jump “from good to great,” Jim Collins notes the profound impact of leadership. Great companies are led by Level 5 leaders. These leaders are “resolved to do whatever it takes to make the company great, no matter how big or hard the decisions,” but they “attribute success to factors other than themselves.” In contrast, Level 4 leader’s work “will always be first and foremost about what they get – fame, fortune, adulation, power, whatever – not what they build, create and contribute.”

It is tempting to reflect upon the pre and post Super Bowl performances of the brash young quarterback who took the field with a Superman logo upon his chest; in stark contrast to the humility of his veteran opponent. On another, more important front, one wonders, “What kind of a leadership will our presidential hopefuls provide?” Charlotte Mason reminds us of the necessity of humility.

For humility is absolute, not relative. It is by no means a taking of our place among our fellows according to a given scale, some being above us by many grades and others as far below. There is no reference to above or below in the humble soul, which is equally humble before an infant, a primrose, a worm, a beggar, a prince... Humility does not think much or little of itself; it does not think of itself at all. It is a negative rather than a positive quality, being an absence of self-consciousness rather than the presence of any distinctive virtue. The person who is unaware of himself is capable of all lowly service, of all suffering for others, of bright cheerfulness under all the small crosses and worries of everyday life. This is the quality that makes heroes, and this is the quality that makes saints. (Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children)

Fondly do we consider the two presidents whom we honor today. As young men, both were brash (perhaps not so unlike our young quarterback). But they allowed life to season them, and being humbled, they became humble. And, by the end, worthy of admiration. Consider their words:

Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest. (George Washington, Farewell Address)

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. (Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address)



"George Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze


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