Ambleside Blog

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

Thoughts on Love

My dear children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue, but in deed and in truth. 1 John 3:18

As we choose to walk the pilgrim path to Christ and our true home, we often wonder. What is my calling? What is God’s will for my life? We may even fret and worry and become anxious, because we don’t seem to have an answer, or the answers come too slowly for our liking. We don’t ‘hear’ Him, or if we do, we’re not absolutely sure that we know what He’s telling us. We may spend much time wondering, when the answer is quite simple, really. In the wondering, and while we wait, we must love. LOVE. We must love God with our whole heart and soul and mind. In loving God and coming to understand His great love for us, we learn to love ourselves. As we love God and ourselves, we are able to love our ‘neighbor.’ In this, He mercifully gives us a work to do that is outside of ourselves, because He knows our tendencies toward selfishness. The good news and great blessing is that we can love—we have it in us--“because He first loved us.[1]” The truth is that we have the ability and power to love. If we are Christ followers, we have no alternative . . . we have no other option . . . but to love. God IS Love. We are the instruments of His Love.

Have you ever thrown a stone into the water and watched the circles about it spread? As a matter of fact, they spread to the very shores of the pond or lake or sea into which you have thrown the stone; more, they affect the land on the further side. But those distant circles become so faint that they are imperceptible, while those nearest the point where you have thrown in the stone are clearly marked.

So it is with our Love.

It is as if, in the first place, our home were the stone thrown in to move our being; and from that central point the circle of our love widens until it embraces all men.

No one, excepting our Lord Jesus Christ, ever knew how much he could love, or how much he could do for Love's sake; but the soldier who goes into the thick of the fight to rescue his comrade, at the risk of his own life; the mother who watches her sick child, and would give her life many times over to save it from suffering; the nurse who spends herself, body and soul, in ministering to the sick,––these know just a little of how much love there is in the human heart.[2]

What a beautiful picture! Imagine the ripples in the water from the stone spreading to the shores and affecting the land. Charlotte Mason points us even to love with excellence. She gives us the greater vision of the vast potential of our love. What is the effect of our loving? Her faith and love for God are vibrant in her words, and she understands that we are the vessels God uses to love the world—ultimately with the hope of embracing all men. That is the goal. That is a prize. If we ‘throw our stone’ by dwelling in love, it will transcend all. We may not have the experience of the soldier or the nurse, but most of us have experienced caring for a sick child or friend or family member. So, how do we show true love? How may we love with a ripple effect?

Love delights in the Goodness of Another—Love delights in the person who is beloved . . . and before all things in the goodness of the person beloved, and would not, for any price, make his friend less loving to all, less dutiful, less serviceable. To influence his friend towards unworthy ways would seem to Love like burning his own house about his head.

Years ago, I attended the funeral of a much older friend. As I was walking down the hall on my way out of the church, I saw that it was raining outside. I felt compelled to express my great disappointment with the rain and dreariness aloud to the first person I passed. As soon as the words left my lips, the wise response came from the older woman before me, “Well, you know dear, God sends the rain.” For a brief but profound moment, our eyes met, and her words penetrated my soul. My negative and selfish view of the world at that moment, even though seemingly harmless, had affected the atmosphere. Seeing the look in her eyes, I felt sadness for my words and their effect. This older woman reminded me that my disappointments and expression of them didn’t bring goodness. She made me aware that my “unworthy ways” had influence, and she quickly and lovingly stopped their influence from going any further! We must be conscientious and consider whether our words and our actions influence others towards worthy ways. If not, then we must be responsible to change them before we hurt someone else and cause them to stumble.

Seeks the Happiness of his Friend—Again, Love seeks the happiness of the beloved, and shrinks from causing uneasiness to his friend by fretful or sullen tempers, jealousy or mistrust.

Happiness isn’t the pleasant-feeling kind of happiness—when it’s a sunny day and everything is going our way. This happiness that Charlotte Mason describes has the integrity of another person in mind—and proposes that we are responsible for influencing a friend or beloved either in a positive and edifying way or in a negative and degrading one. The admonishment is perhaps to consider more closely what our motives are—if they are rooted in true love and with another person’s well-being, reputation, and spirit in mind. This is a much higher and nobler kind of happiness.

Sister Mary Mercedes in A Book of Courtesy described it this way, “…Conveying your support through a sympathetic smile or a friendly touch can help a friend through a bad time. Tactful behavior springs from the heart, from the desire to put others at ease and make them comfortable, even in awkward or difficult situations . . . A strong friendship can teach the meaning of unselfishness. A healthy friendship calls for what is best in us and stimulates us to our highest endeavors . . . In order to grow, friendships need loyalty, love, mutual consideration, and willingness to see the other’s point of view.”[3]

Seeks to be Worthy.—Love seeks to be worthy of his friend; and as the goodness of his friend is his delight, so he will himself grow in goodness for the pleasure of his friend.

In the seventh grade, we read the narrative poem The Courtship of Miles Standish by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In this story we get a glimpse of this worthiness in the friendship of John Alden, when he must deliver a marriage proposal to his beloved Priscilla, but the proposal of marriage is from his friend and comrade, Captain Miles Standish. As he pens a letter for his mentor, John Alden realizes with great turmoil and sorrow that they share admiration and affection for the same woman. We learn that the captain was not afraid of bullets or the shot from the mouth of a cannon, but he was terribly afraid of a "thundering “No!” point-blank from the mouth of a woman,” and Miles Standish, having no idea of the conflict of interest, begs John Alden to deliver the marriage proposal to Priscilla. John Alden must quickly make a decision, and in that instant he chooses to sacrifice his own interests for those of his friend. Longfellow tells us,

“The name of friendship is sacred; What you demand in that name, I have not the power to deny you!” So the strong will prevailed, subduing and moulding the gentler, Friendship prevailed over love, and Alden went on his errand.[4]

John Alden proved himself a worthy friend (Spoiler Alert: In the end John gets the girl!).

Desires to Serve.—Once more, Love desires to give and serve; the gifts and the service vary with the age and standing of the friends; the child will bring the gift of obedience, the parent may have to offer the service of rebuke, but the thought of service is always present in Love. “Love not in word, neither in tongue,” says the Apostle, “but in deed and in truth; that is, perhaps, “Do not rest content with the mere expression of love, whether in word or caress, but show your love in service and in confidence”’ for the love that does not trust is either misplaced or unworthy. Love has other signs, no doubt, but these are true of all true love, whether between parent and child, friend and friend, married lovers, or between those who labour for the degraded and distressed and those for whom they labour. Let us notice the word degradation: it is literally to step from, to step down, and it is really a word of hope, for if it is possible to step down, it is also possible to step up again. All the great possibilities of Love are in every human heart, and to touch the spring, one must give Love.

During this time of Lent, when we seek God in the quiet moments, let us consider service as an act of giving Love for God and for man. We can feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned or sick. We can comfort the sorrowful, hear wrongs patiently, and forgive all injuries. Or we can make simple, quiet gestures by just saying ‘hello’ to the people we encounter on the street or at the counter in the store. Hold the door, smile, extend courtesy knowing no one may even notice or offer it in return--and, if we see someone in need, may we overcome the 'awkwardness,' and be the one to give the helping hand. May we be ever watchful for ways to be the hands and feet of Jesus and vessels from whom His love freely flows like the ripple from the stone.

 

 

 

 

[1] 1 John 4:19

[2]  Charlotte Mason, Ourselves

[3] A Book of Courtesy, Sister Mary Mercedes, O.P.

[4] The Courtship of Miles Standish, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

To Listen

Have you ever been in the fields on a spring day, and heard nothing at all but your own voice and the voices of your companions, and then, perhaps, suddenly you have become silent, and you find a concert going on of which you had not heard a note? At first you hear the voices of the birds; then, by degrees, you perceive high voices, low voices, and middle voices, small notes and great notes, and you begin to wish you knew who sang each of the songs you can distinguish.” [1]     

How often it is that we go through life missing the simple pleasures.  Our focus is on ourselves; our thoughts, our plans and our concerns--failing to hear the joy around us.  Here, Charlotte Mason reminds us to be fully present and to listen.

Miss Mason’s idyllic picture of being “in the fields on a spring day” is far from the reality of most 21st century lives.  Although being in the fields on a spring day, or most days for that matter, would do us all good.  Yet, I believe there is a deeper, more universal truth in her words. 

Miss Mason writes about suddenly becoming silent in order to notice the concert going on around us.  The concert to which she refers has a musical quality and in it she describes the voices of the birds-- “high voices, low voices, and middle voices, small notes and great notes…”  Too often we are so focused on our own internal voice that we fail to notice the variety and beauty of the sounds beyond ourselves.  In nature, there are the sounds of the birds, the insects, and the leaves rustling in the trees--a refreshing melody indeed; and yet, how often do we miss the concert of the children in our midst? 

Are the sounds of the children really noticed like Miss Mason is asking us to notice the voices of the birds?  Do we quiet our own voice long enough in order to “suddenly become silent” and notice?  What are the sounds of our children’s voices?  Who has the high voices, the low voices, the middle voices?  Who speaks the small notes and the great notes? 

“Do you know the footfall of everybody in the house? … Do you listen to people's voices, and can you tell by the intonation whether the people are sad or glad, pleased or displeased?” [2]

Each one of us longs to know and to be known.  As parents and educators our job is not just to hear our children, but to listen.  Who are they?  What are they really trying to say?  What makes them distinct in this world?  What sounds are uniquely theirs?  What utterances will we miss when our home or classroom is empty?

“There is a great deal of joy, again, to be had out of listening--joy which many people miss…” [3]

We all too important adults have a knack for missing the obvious.  We tend to neglect the simple joy of listening. Every day is an opportunity to “suddenly become silent” and notice.  There is a concert going on around us.  Will we listen?


[1-3] Mason, Charlotte, Ourselves (Vol. 4), pg. 29-30

"Three Children" by George Bellows (image)

"We Are Made By History"

The year our school opened, a parent of one of our eight enrolled students (yes, eight in total) came late to her January parent-teacher conference.  She apologized immediately and said with a smile that spanned the continent, “I just came from the parade!”

“Parade?” I asked.  Oblivious.

Though her mouth was still smiling, her eyes searched mine like I could not possibly be in earnest. “Dr. Martin Luther King!” she graciously reminded me.

Our school is situated in the heart of a southern town.  The scars and wounds of over 200 years of slavery followed by 100 more years of institutionalized racism, segregation, and oppression can still be seen.  Had I actually scheduled conferences on the holiday honoring Dr. King?  Why, yes, I had.  The look of obvious ignorance on my white face might have offended her, but if it did, she didn’t show it.  I have forgotten many things about that inaugural year, but I have never forgotten that exchange, how uncomfortable my ignorance was to me and, I fear, insulting to her.

I was not content to remain ignorant.  Even though I was born only 3 years after his death and raised in progressive southern California, all I knew besides his name and iconic initials, was that he was an African American civil rights activist who was assassinated.  Of course I knew assassination was a horrifying thing, but growing up did I even conceptualize the term “civil rights”?  I doubt it.  Of this great man it was not difficult to inform my ignorance; in doing so I was deeply moved, and I wanted to make sure all students in our school would have the opportunity to know and appreciate Dr. King’s service and courage.  Not in a cursory way, but in the same rich way our students honor the sacrifice and service of military veterans or the creative genius of Shakespeare.

One of the things I have always appreciated about Ambleside® regarding school programs, is the limitation of key annual events to just three:  Veterans Day chapel, Christmas chapel, and the Shakespeare festival.  Three years after opening, our school committed to including a fourth annual program: The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. chapel, which is held the third week in January, close to the U.S. national holiday that honors him. Upon returning from Christmas break, students begin hearing about Dr. King’s early life during morning assembly. African American spirituals and songs of the civil rights movement like, “We Shall Overcome” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” are taught in music class. Relevant poetry, readings, and recitations are shared.  When the special day arrives, we gather in the parish hall, and our speaker is none other than Dr. King himself.   His dream or his view form the mountaintop is projected in fuzzy black and white images on a massive screen.  His recorded voice booms out, like a siren, both warning and warming our hearts.  Next week will mark the 8th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel held at Ambleside School of Ocala.

Service is another knightly quality which a child should be nerved for by heroic examples until he grudges to let slip an opportunity… Courage, too, should be something more than the impulse of the moment;it is a natural fire to be fed by heroic example and by the teaching that the thing to be done is always of more consequence than the doer.”[1]

In Dr. King we have just such a heroic example.  He courageously shared the truth of human persons that the rest of the world, certainly many in the United States of America, had a hard time seeing.   His service helped the world gain access to the truth, not by force, but by inspiration, grace, suffering and sacrifice.

My daughter, a high school junior, has often repeated the line: “You begin to die the day you stay silent about things that matter.”  Dr. King said that, and I’m proud to say she became interested in and acquainted with him during her formative years in an Ambleside® School.


[1] Mason, Charlotte, School Education, 111.

 

 

Courage

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien recently enchanted my youngest son.  The fact that his older brother had read the book several times made this a milestone in my son’s mind.  He eagerly wanted to discuss his newly acquired knowledge of another world: Did you know there are four kinds of hobbits, mom?! and The name of the commonplace hobbits is Harfoot.

Now that my sons’ imaginations had the delight of forming pictures based on the author’s words, we decided to watch the movie based on his book.  Though my son was very disappointed with its deviations from the book, even to the point of tears, there are some worthy scenes in the movie.  One was when Gandalf and the Lady of Lorien are discussing how to hold back evil.  Gandalf, as quoted in the book, says:

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.[1]

Bilbo, known for his love of a simple home life with no adventure, was unwittingly selected to be a key agent in fighting evil in Tolkien’s drama.

That scene captured my attention.  Earlier that day I had been reading many year-end solicitations for support from organizations whose work we love.  They each spoke of courageous deeds, such as spreading the Gospel in closed countries, providing new ways of life for former prostitutes, and educating children in war-torn lands.  Stories of good overcoming evil, light holding back the darkness.  Tears had welled up in my eyes as I absorbed the profound beauty of these stories and longed to share in the beauty born of courage.  I sat in silence with God.  Then I turned my attention to planning our next semester of home education.  I did not at that time think of any connection between what I had read and what I needed to do next--until God spoke through Gandalf to my heart. 

Me, mom and teacher, with my energy mainly spent on the care and education of my small family.  You, parent or teacher, perhaps tired and weary in your duties.  Keeping darkness at bay?  Courageous?

Charlotte Mason, I think, would answer, “Yes.”  She writes of various manifestations of courage.  As I have reflected on her writings on this topic, I realize that I have paired drama and courage so closely together that there is no courage if there is no drama.  However, it can be true that there is an inverse relationship between drama and courage, such as the Courage of Serenity, as described by Charlotte Mason:

Few of us are likely to be tried in a field of battle; but the battle-field has an advantage over the thousand battles we each have to fight in our lives, because the sympathy of numbers carries men forward.  The Courage required to lose a leg at home through a fall or an injury on the cricket field; and the form of Courage which meets pain and misfortune with calm endurance is needed by us all.  No one escapes the call for Fortitude, if it be only in the dentist’s chair.[2] 

What battlefield calls me to express the beauty of the Courage of Serenity?  The battle to partner with God in educating my sons, though I lack the “sympathy of numbers,” to spread a lavish table of living ideas instead of the incessant twaddle of our culture, to not play on the natural affections or desires of my sons but to train them in life-giving habits, to cultivate an atmosphere of respect and joy rather than misused authority.  On a daily basis I must summon Courage and Fortitude to face the many challenges with Serenity.  What battlefield calls you to express the Courage of Serenity? 

I also need the Courage of Capacity, which Charlotte Mason describes in this way:

the courage which assures us that we can do the particular work which comes in our way, and will not lend an ear to the craven fear which reminds us of failures in the past and unfitness in the present.  It is intellectual Courage, too, which enables us to grapple with tasks of the mind with a sense of adequacy.[3]

How often do I lend a cowardly ear to the failures of my past?  How often do I question my fitness to fight these battles?  Do you?  In truth, we are fully adequate because God, our King and Saviour, is ever at hand and has apportioned our duties.

the Christian is aware of Jesus as an ever present Saviour, at hand in all his dangers and necessities; of Christ as the King whose he is and whom he serves, who rules his destinies and apportions his duties.  It is a great thing to be owned, and Jesus Christ owns us.  He is our Chief, whom we delight to honour and serve; and He is our Saviour, who delivers us, our Friend who cherishes us, our King who blesses us with His dominion.[4]

During one particularly intense battle scene in the movie, when the weary representatives of light had fought their best and were still surrounded by darkness, Gandalf urged them to “Stand your ground!”  Because it is Jesus Christ who owns us and apportions our duty, we must not yield any ground.  Not today, tomorrow, or next semester.  It is a sacred duty to bring up children.  One that requires acts of Courage in many manifestations.  May we express the profound beauty of the Courage of Serenity and of Capacity, with or without drama.


[1] The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

[2] Ourselves (113)

[3] Ourselves (117)

[4] Ourselves (201-202)

 

Oh Me! Oh Life!

Quieting ourselves enough to undertake a serious self examination, reflecting on a year ending and a new year beginning, we inevitably find ourselves lacking. Walt Whitman writes:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

             Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. [1]

Whitman was a great poet, and thus a great observer of the human condition. We are a “poor” and “plodding” lot. Thus, any honest introspection will have a certain melancholic tendency. His answer? As a humanist, with a leap of faith Whitman proclaims an unabashed optimism, “you are here… the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

Throughout the centuries, followers of Jesus have found the self to be far too fragile a foundation, one worthy of no confidence. But, rather, have proclaimed: “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him.”[2] “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”[3] And, “Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”[4]

If the coming of New Year’s Day invites us to look back and inward, examining our past and the failings of our own heart, Christmas reminds us not to linger and despair; rather to turn eyes forward and upward, looking toward Immanuel, God with us, who beckons us into a bright and holy future.

As the new year begins, may we be given the grace of reflection, holding before us both the truth of self and of God.


[1] Leaves of Grass, 1892
[2] 1 Timothy 1:12
[3] Philippians 3:14
[4] 2 Corinthians 3:18

*The Rocket by Edward Middleton Manigault

Immanuel

On a bright December afternoon, Virginia Theological seminary hosted the Washington Philharmonic Orchestra in a “Sing-Along” performance of Handel’s Messiah. The venue was Immanuel Chapel with its acoustically crisp circular nave. Conductor and soloists stood center, immediately before the alter, with orchestra behind and choir members rounding to the left and right. Rounded ceiling and rounded walls served to embrace the audience in rhythms of instrument and vocalist. We found ourselves in the midst of musical concord.

The oboes and strings create a somber mood. A young tenor begins the first vocal movement, singing the words of the prophet, Isaiah:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,
And cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished,
That her iniquity is pardoned:
For she hath received of the Lord's hand.
 
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

In melodious repetition a larger harmony comes forth, instruments and voice proclaiming the God who is God of all comfort beckoning to his people.

Handel makes skillful use of “word painting,” a technique by which the music reflects the literal meaning of a song. A second tenor sings:

Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low:
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough places plain.

"Valley" is sung at a low pitch. "Exalted" is a rising figure, and "mountain" forms a peak in the melody. "Hill" requires a declining pitch, and "low" returns another low note. "Crooked" is sung as a rapid figuring of four different notes, while "straight" is sung maintaining a single note. "The rough places" are illustrated musically by short, separate notes; whereas, the final word "plain" extends over several measures in a series of long notes. Listen to the following link, Ev’ry valley shall be exalted. The music becomes both personal and transcendent, touching the deep wells of the heart.

The temporal world certainly provides its distressing circumstances. This is true in our day, as it was Isaiah’s; from the tragedy of mass violence to the tyranny of the mundane – “When will my to-do list be finished?” “If only things were different.”  And still, God speaks to his people, “Comfort ye.” Handel reminds us of the offer of divine consolation. He prepares a way, raising valleys, bringing mountains low, and making rough places plain. And, the way is the way to Himself, a real presence, Immanuel, God with us, potent as Handel’s music is potent, if we only have ears to hear and refuse to settle for a lesser god.

The first chorus announces the revelation of God’s glory:
And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

Singing chorus after chorus, attention was turned from futile ways to a child who was born, to a Son who was given. His name shall be called "Wonderful", "Counselor", "The Mighty God", "The Everlasting Father", "The Prince – of Peace." (Listen at And His Name)

Igor Stravinsky proclaimed, “The profound meaning of music and its essential aim is to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellow man and with the Supreme Being.”  Take some time this Christmas to experience Messiah with friends and family. I recommend MIT Concert Choir with William Cutter directing.

Merry Christmas!

Maryellen St. Cyr

 

 

 

Transcendence in Thanksgiving

Recently, I came across a definition of God suggested by the nineteenth century theologian, Adam Clarke. Of all things, it moved  me to  think about  Thanksgiving.

Many attempts have been made to define the term God.  As to the word itself, it is pure Anglo-Saxon, and among our ancestors signified, not only the divine Being, now commonly designated by the word, but also good; as in their apprehensions it appeared that God and good were correlative terms; and when they thought or spoke of him they were doubtless led from the word itself to consider him as THE GOOD BEING, a Fountain of infinite benevolence and beneficence toward his creatures.

A general definition of this great First Cause, as far as human words dare attempt one, may be thus given: The eternal, independent, and self-existent Being: the Being whose purposes and actions spring from himself, without foreign motive or influence: he who is absolute in dominion; the most pure, the most simple, and most spiritual of all essences; infinitely benevolent, beneficent, true, and holy: the cause of all being, the upholder of all things; infinitely happy, because infinitely perfect; and eternally self-sufficient, needing nothing that he has made; illimitable in his immensity, inconceivable in his mode of existence, and indescribable in his essence; known fully only to himself, because an infinite mind can be fully apprehended only by itself -- in a word, a Being who, from his infinite wisdom, can not err or be deceived; and who, from his infinite goodness, can do nothing but what is eternally just, right, and kind. [1]

I paused. And read again, and again, and was struck with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. Through misty eyes and a full heart, I attempted to express appreciation for the GOOD Being, God.

Throughout recorded history, humankind has sought ways to give offerings of thanksgiving and gratitude to God, expressed in praise, song, dance and feast days. These expressions bind us in the reciprocity of gift and Giver. The biblical writings, church fathers, catechisms and prayers, as well as the upcoming national holiday, Thanksgiving, all recognize the essential role of remembering with gratitude. Such gratefulness is essential to life-giving relationship with God, our Creator, our Savior, our Sustainer in life everyday – the giver of every good and perfect gift.

Giving thanks to God has a transcendent aspect. It begins as an expression of what was experienced in  the earthly realm usually for a material, earthly good. Yet it should take on an effect, that transcends the gift to the Giver with a forgetfulness of self and a knowledge of God. And here lies the challenge for you and for me.

In our modern world, we are continually bombarded with messages of the sufficiency of the autonomous self. Marketers of modernity tell us that gifts and the identities of the gifted are acquired through  abilities, efforts, and wisdom, not at the hands of a Benevolent Benefactor. Thus, our “thank you” becomes a perfunctory courtesy, rather than a sign of true appreciation that increases humility and intimacy between creature and Creator.

If we are to sustain gratitude for every good and perfect gift from above, we must be reconciled to our experience of loss,  pain, and disparity. We embrace the Giver through the delightful gifts He gives, and we must learn to embrace Him through loss and pain. A recent reading of C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity have furthered a realignment with these challenging ideas.

But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away "blindly" so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ's and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters. Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever 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.[2]

In looking for Christ, one will begin to experience what Adam Clarke attempted in his thirty plus descriptors of  God, the idea of  transcendent - beyond what is ordinary. We might begin with considering God in thanksgiving as “the eternal, independent, and self-existent Being: the Being whose purposes and actions spring from himself …


[1] Clarke, Adam, Christian Theology, 66-67.
[2] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, 226-227.
* Nina Reznichenko, Prayer

 

Building in Reality

I recently watched young kids build a dam in a stream that was dumping into the ocean.  They kept at it for at least an hour – stopping rogue leaks, expanding the mouth, raising the levels.  There was no particular reason for or meaning in building the dam that tranquil day: it was just “child’s play.” Or, so I thought.  Its significance took on deeper meaning by the fact that I happened to also be reading about the building of the Hoover Dam in The Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko.  The following passage prompted me to think more deeply:

“To subdue a river such as the Colorado – not simply to whip it into submission for a season or two, but to break and yoke the thing by taming its rampages, vanquishing its moods, and converting its kinetics into energy that serves human beings – such a task is not only a colossal technical undertaking but, perhaps even more significant, a monumental act of audacity.  The challenge requires more than merely superb competency and monstrous ambition; it also demands a level of hubris that was unimaginable to the world of Cardenas, an undertaking that lay far beyond even the boldest dreams of the Renaissance and the ages of exploration and discovery that followed.  It required the kind of ruthless, steely certainty that humans only began to touch for the first time, perhaps, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This was the age of iron and steel – not only in terms of materials but also in the way the world was understood: a place whose laws were rigid and immutable, but also now capable of yielding to the even stronger forces of man’s intellect and will.”

Audacity.  Superb competency.  Monstrous ambition.  Hubris.  These traits were playing out on a micro-scale at the beach that day. 

The author does not seem to think highly of such traits, and his opinion is well taken.  These traits without regard to Authority result in undertakings reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.  However, these traits have often been put to the service of creation and our Creator in awesome ways.  Even on that day at the beach, albeit in a small way.  It took hubris, not of the self-inflated pride variety, but as in a child’s belief in his ability to accomplish a task that he thinks is worthwhile but almost beyond him.  Almost.

When the dam was finished, I had taken for granted the children’s ability to build it out of found materials.  But then a boy of about 8 years old came upon the finished dam and exclaimed, “How did you guys build this?”  None of the builders heard the question – they had moved on to exploring deeper into the stream.  So the boy yelled his question again and again as he enthusiastically examined the dam more closely.  Finally, one of the builders heard the question and replied, “We just brought logs and stones and filled in the cracks with sand.”  The other boy said, “I could never build such a thing. Never. I can only build in Minecraft.”

My heart sank.  And I recalled a comment that my 9-year old had made the day before when talking about how many kids around him “only play video games.”  He said, “Mom, will they still have a word for ‘friends’ when I am older?”

And I ask, will there still be a word for ‘hubris’ when my son is older?  As in, belief in one’s ability to build a real-life dam.  Maybe even with a friend.

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