Ambleside Blog

Three Gifts My Father Gave Me

My father is not generally the gift giver of the family, at least not in the sense of things that can be wrapped in a box. Usually Christmas and birthday presents arrive bearing Mom’s fingerprints. There are, however, the special exceptions. On such occasions, I open a box and find some special tool or bit of technology. Then, I know that Dad was at Home Depot or Radio Shack, and he thought to himself, “Bill would appreciate this (small flashlight built upon a flexible tripod).”

As much as I do appreciate the flashlight built upon a flexible tripod, three of dad’s gifts are much dearer. My Dad and I keeping bees

First and foremost, for fifty-five years now, I’ve watched him love my mother. Dad has always been faithful, always a hard worker, and always a strong provider. Yet, through the years, I’ve watched him become tenderer, more sensitive especially to Mom. He always emptied the dishwasher, knowing this is mom’s least favorite chore. But, the years have brought something more, awareness and delight in my mother. She is the twinkle in his eye. More than anything else, it is this love of my mother that has made his love of God a creditable witness.

Second, Dad was always willing to invest time in me. From last Easter’s trip, when he and Mom spent a week with Maryellen and I, to forty years ago working on a physics problem.

Finally, Dad is a man of few words, but when he speaks, particularly after a momentary pause, what he says is wisdom.

At twenty-two, I was home transitioning into my first adult job. Early one morning, walking into the master bedroom, I saw Dad shaving beside the bath vanity, and I posed this question. “Dad, what is your vocation? What is your mission in life?” He put down his razor, paused for a moment, turned and looking into my eyes, said, “To facilitate the ministry of my wife and children.”

What a remarkable thing for a man to say – my chief purpose is to serve my wife and children, supporting them in a more fruitful walk with God. Even more remarkable, for fifty-six years he’s done it. Very far from perfect, as he would be the first to admit, but fundamentally, he’s done it.

May we all live to serve so well.

Moms and the Power of Presence


The Power of Presence

And perhaps it is not too beautiful a thing to believe in this redeemed world, that, as the babe turns to his mother though he has no power to say her name, as the flowers turn to the sun, so the hearts of the children turn to their Savior and God with unconscious delight and trust.
Charlotte Mason

Because human persons are profoundly social and not merely self-directed, babes turn to their mothers not only for nourishment but also for comfort, security and love. This relationship is established in the early years of life, the child being shaped primarily by his or her mother. So it was with me, when yet a little child, my mother turned my heart towards God.

I cannot remember a time I did not believe in God. God was in the atmosphere of our home - it was all about me and ventilated through my mother. We did not read the Bible or say prayers at meals or before bedtime. Yet, as a young child lying awake in bed, I thought about God, his love towards me and his sacrifice for me. My mother spoke of God and about God - it seemed as though she knew Him.

The older I grew, the more significant this early thought atmosphere became. In my teens, the cultural clamored for my attention. Internally, I was entangled, but externally I remained aloof.  In my isolation, I responded to God. As I gained more knowledge, I began to acquire the sense that I was made for God. The initial shaping in childhood began to take form and continues. 

This Mother's Day, I reflect upon the power of presence in my mom.

Family Shakespeare

During my time with Ambleside Homeschool, we have had the opportunity to read several Shakespeare plays in story form.  These readings come from well-written story versions for children.  Now, my Ambleside mentor tells me, we are ready to engage in reading Shakespeare in the original.  How exciting! As our school day is full of many other engaging subjects, that I did not want to eliminate, I decided to add Shakespeare into our family time after dinner.  This new ritual has become a fount of delight.  Let me explain.

First, I purchased five full Hamlet texts, one for each of us.  Next, we set aside time in the evening, about 3-4 times per week, to read one scene per night.  Our first night, we reviewed the story of Hamlet and I printed out a Hamlet ‘family tree’ to help us keep the characters straight.  Before we began the first act, I asked, “Who wants to be Claudius?  Who wants to be Gertrude, the ghost, Horatio?”  Great enthusiasm was evoked as there was a chorus of “I do, I do”.   After we all settled on our characters for the night, I told them that they had 3 minutes to go and get any prop they wanted for their character.  My youngest daughter quickly found the ballet tiara for Gertrude, my husband seemed to form a crown for Claudius by turning my sunhat inside-out, Horatio donned a scarf from the coat closet, I was given a ski hat, apparently to endure the weather in Denmark, and the ghost, was covered in the family room throw blanket.  Even our Spaniel played the part of the Guard, a non-speaking role.  Yes, we were now ready to begin.  It was then pure delight to see this thespian experience unfold as each of us, comfortable in familial safety, fully became our character.  Lines were read with great enthusiasm and the beautiful language was accessed with ease. What joy!  After our reading and amateur acting of Act 1 Scene 1 we sat down together as a family and discussed the ideas, characters, set-up, etc.  Each family member lit up with something to say about our reading, something they noticed that touched upon their soul.  Well, it is Shakespeare after all. 

Every family Shakespeare evening since has produced more of the same delight, enthusiasm and intellectual challenge.  It continues to surprise me as to how personal this play has become to our family, the resulting dinnertime conversations and the continued enthusiasm to read and act out the next scene.  Children thrive on great literature and great ideas, just as adults, and this has been a wonderful way to bring the two together.  I attribute this to another one of the blessings that flow from a living education.

We Found a Friend

We just finished reading Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin in school.  As I read the last few paragraphs aloud, I found that I was feeling "choked up."  And I looked up to see my young boys with flushed faces and tears in their eyes as well.  We sat for a moment in the silence of the feelings and ideas that washed over us.  It was a tender moment worth every other moment of struggle we have gone through in school to get to the point of still, quiet contemplation of a well-written text.  No words were needed while we communed together in this precious shared experience.

After a time, I asked what thoughts and emotions were filling their minds.  As a tear rolled down his face, my 9-year-old said, "I want more of Benjamin."  He asked if I could find more to read about him.  My 7-year-old, through pink puffy cheeks and while biting his lips to hold back tears, said "We've been reading about him for so long.  It feels like a friend to us that we are leaving.  Like Sara Crewe, too." (A reference to Little Princess.)

From the final two paragraphs of the book:

"Long seconds after the last note had been sung, the crowd stood still.  They had journeyed so far back into America that they were a long time returning.  Slowly the sun umbrellas clicked shut.  Slowly the people walked back to their horses.  They still seemed part of the long ago and the far away.  They had struggled with the boy Benjamin, as he overcame great odds.  They had watched the boy grow until he became the father of American painting.

It was not easy for them to begin talking in their everyday voices, as if nothing had happened to them.  Something had happened to them.  They had gone a-leafing and found a page of American history."

Something had happened to us.  We had found a friend.  And when my 7-year-old asked what we would do next without Benjamin, I told him that we would find another friend - and keep Benjamin and Sara in our hearts as well.


Training Children as Ministers of Grace

Children are open to vanity as to all other evil dispositions possible to human nature. They must be educated to give and to help without any notion that to do so is goodness on their part. It is very easy to keep them in the attitude of mind natural to a child, that to serve is promotion to the person who serves for indeed he has no absolute claim to be in a position to pour benefits upon another. The child's range of sympathy must be widened, his love must go out to far and near, rich and poor; distress abroad and distress at home should appeal to him equally; and always he should give some manner of help at real cost to himself. Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, 66.
Charlotte Mason evokes several principles in her call for children to serve:
• Service is a deliberate work – they must be educated. Children must see adults serve and must be given some instructions on how to serve. What must a young person know about visiting the elderly at an assisted living home? How might they give? How might they help?
• Service widens one’s sympathy - love must go out to far and near, rich and poor; distress abroad and distress at home. Children must be informed about the persons they are visiting. What are their distresses?
• Service involves self-sacrifice - some manner of help at real cost to himself. What is the personal cost? Discomfort? Time? Work?

An Ambleside teacher shares his experience with service:
Over this school year my ten and eleven year old children have been going to a local nursing home once a month.  There have been several interactions between students and residents that demonstrate the presence of God in these visits.  I would like to share one such occurrence.  The residents range in ability, some able to communicate well and others only able to utter a moan or move a few fingers. 

The first time we went I knew it would be uncomfortable for some of the students.  Most adults have trouble being genuine at these places.  Many students were shy and unwilling to touch the residents’ hands or even the game pieces they had touched.  When we got back to school after the first visit one boy asked why we went there.  “They can barely stay awake,” he said, with many other students agreeing.  As a class we discussed these things not in an attempt to win over the cynics but to actually ponder the legitimate question from the mind of a child.  ‘What a glorious question for a young mind to struggle with,’ I thought to myself.  The ‘least of these’ teachings given to us by the Savior had an application now and we read several scriptures where Jesus cared for those that were ignored by others.

However, instead of thinking that it was our class caring for the ‘least of these’ I discovered I was wrong.  A student new to our school has had some past experiences with being bullied and on random days he may withdraw from others as a defense.  Our class happened to be visiting the elderly on one of these days.  When we arrived he tried to sit in the corner of the small room away from everyone.  I called him out into the hallway where I saw his hands trembling and tears in his eyes were on the verge of spilling over.  I did my best to help him regulate himself. 

To my surprise an elderly gentleman, who must had been watching, called the boy over to sit next to him.  The man was masterful at pulling the boy out of his anxious state.  He asked for help when he did not need it, used the boy’s name like he had known him for years, and clapped wildly when my student won a round of the game. The friendliness of this stranger almost brought me to tears, especially when he looked up at me and winked, as if to say, ‘I’ll help him out, Teach!’

Near our time to leave I always allow my students to go look at the fish tank on display. As they were enjoying the fish, I went to the man and thanked him for his kindness. I found out he had been an educator in New England as a younger man.  It was clear he was passionate about the life he lived pouring support into young people.  He told me about two boys he befriended while they were in middle school and his friendship with them continues to this day. I would have enjoyed continued talking with him, but I had to shorten the conversation to get back to my students. I thanked him again and as I stood I realized that it was the residents, even the invalids, which were serving us.  I went to each person and thanked him or her for playing with the children and asked the students to do the same.  I watched as the students went around the room thanking the residents.    It was not difficult to see that it was the elderly men and women that felt they had accomplished the service that day. 

At the beginning of each visit, the students walk down the hall, find a seat next to a resident, and start playing a game, interacting, and just being with them.  In the beginning, I thought we came to shine the light on those less fortunate than us.  I pitied them for the monotonous days, lack of visitors, and having to be wheeled everywhere. But now I see how God’s ways are so different yet much more perfect than our ways.  By coming to serve, we allowed them an opportunity to serve us and in so doing their sense of worth and value shone bright upon each of their faces.  These ministers of grace, both young and old are a revelation of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

An Exercise in Contrast -Gaining Perspective

A simple exercise of taking the time to measure the length and height of a Brachiosaurus allows one to have a moment to see. What might a person consider during this moment?

  • The creature.
  • The human.
  • What distinguishes one from the other?
  • What is realized upon this recognition?

Suppose more of our lessons gave us something more to think about?




Photo Courtesy of Ambleside Homeschool family

The Gift of Love and Gladness

In the days before Christmas, anxiety about the holidays is heard in many exchanges with family, friend, and stranger. Topics vary from decorations, shopping, baking, guests, travel, to the most menacing of all  - the illusive gift for that special someone. Charlotte Mason speaks about “a shade of anxiety in the mother’s face as she plans for the holidays.”  We all have had experiences of being around persons who are anxious; no help is needed; yet all help is needed. One is in a quandary of just how to be and act in an atmosphere of anxiety.

In order to not have ourselves and our loved ones breathe in this anxiety, one must break away and come to Him.  Our hearts cry out with the children, “ Come to earth O, tiny King, take away our sadness. At your birth our hearts will sing filled with hope and gladness.”   The young children of Ambleside School of Fredericksburg sang these melodies repeatedly with increased volume as the resonance of the vowels of each word were emphasized – resounding the message of come King, take away and bring.

Come away from the anxious thoughts and multitude of tasks and come to the King – receive his love and joy. And in these days of Christmastime, may you be a conduit of Jesus’ gladness and love to all. Happy Christmas to You!

The Gift of Self

The Gift of Self

"He must feel it in your touch, see it in your eye, hear it in your tones, or you will never convince a child that you love him, though you labor day and night for his good and his pleasure. Perhaps this is the special lesson of Christmas-tide for parents. The Son came––for what else we need not inquire now––to reinstate men by compelling them to believe that they––the poorest shrinking and ashamed souls of them––that they live enfolded in infinite personal love, desiring with desire the response of love for love. And who, like the parent, can help forward this "wonderful redemption"? The boy who knows that his father and his mother love him with measureless patience in his faults, and love him out of them, is not slow to perceive, receive, and understand the dealings of the higher Love". Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Gospel of John

There is no greater gift we can give our children than the gift of ourselves.
May you and those you love have a blessed Christmas.

Bill and Maryellen St Cyr
Ambleside Schools International

Grace: a most important lesson

My oldest son has struggled with perfectionism since, well, birth.  I know this because it is part of his personality.  "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," so the saying goes.  And, as God would have it, He chose to place one recovering perfectionist (me) with another who is testing its promises of fulfillment and identity.  And God has put us smack dab in two of the most intensely relational situations in life: the home and the school.  

How I have longed to help my son see that perfection is not the goal, is self-defeating, is a consuming monster (too strong?  I don't think so), and is even undefinable.  I want him to be free from the trap of its noble sounding urges.  I have learned to see my role as mostly in putting my failures on full display and allowing God's grace and sufficiency to regain my conquered heart and identity (and to speak this out).  And when my son gets emotionally intense in a perfectionist battle, I have learned to give him firm hugs and whisper "there is grace being sprinkled over you right now."  

But I know that the Holy Spirit is my son's best Teacher, as Charlotte Mason has helped me to understand.  He is the very One who knit my son in my womb and who is speaking messages of endearing love and unconditional favor to my son's soul.  And I am getting to witness the overflow.

In these past few weeks, I have been privileged to witness some of the work of the Spirit in my son.  On several occasions during school when he usually would have shut down because of some missed expectation of his own, I have witnessed him choosing to speak grace over himself.  Radically, profoundly, amazingly, when once a bit of frustration would lead to a melt-down of tears and anger, he has taken to saying "no pressure, no pressure" to himself as he breathes and opens his palms.  Then he gives me a relaxed smile and moves past his frustration to tackle to matter at hand.  I can not put words to what is happening, except that I am witnessing a transformation caused by profound grace.  The Holy Spirit is his Teacher.  And grace is one of His most important lessons.

My Soul Rises

My Soul Rises

When I think about Thanksgiving I think of a people or a person whose soul rises beyond the temporal to the eternal.  The soul surveys a thousand good things from common life and ascends in praise. “How good is life, how joyous it is to go out of doors, even in the streets of a city! Surely a pleasant thing it is to see the sun! How good is health, even the small share of it allotted to the invalid! How good and congenial all the pleasant ways of home life, all family love and neighborly kindness, and the love of friends! How good it is to belong to a great country and share in all her interests and concerns! How good to belong to the world of men, aware that whatever concerns men, concerns us! How good are books and pictures and music! How delightful is knowledge! How good is the food we eat! How pleasant are the clothes we wear! How sweet is sleep, and how joyful is awaking!”

This is indeed an example of a rising soul! Yet, a rising soul is not a soul that rises only in appreciation for everything that pleases the self. The rising soul also emerges on an ascending path towards God in the midst of a world of suffering. The soul ascends in spite of the pain, in spite of the fear and in spite of the loneliness.

A heart full of thanksgiving surveys all of life. This way of being moves one on an emerging path to the presence of God – Excelsior!

  Mason, Ourselves, 192.


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