Monday, August 3, 2015

Vision for Children, Sixth Installment

(A portion of the plenary speech at the Charlotte Mason Institute's Annual Conference, June 20, 2015)

Like Stella, I remember puzzling over Scripture. Once I read the parable of the sheep and the goats and suffered great anxiety about which of them I was; I also remember wondering whether I was giving someone In need a cup of water, and how I would ever be able to visit a prisoner. Parables winsomely inject truths. Think of the prophet Nathan’s skillful use of that parable he told that adultering, murderer, King David to convict him. Mason says the mind only seeks to answer the questions it asks of itself. These stories raise questions in a child’s mind.

Mason thought the Bible the perfect living book because it presented characters simply, in all their struggles and failures, without evaluation or judgment, that children have measureless receptivity to the things of God and that the unadorned, straightforward narrative of Scripture suited them. Parables were included in her curriculum, accessible because they were stories, and indispensable for revealing God’s truth. For years I have used parables to justify why fiction is critical to us all, since, “without a parable, he did not teach.” She said Socrates had his favored disciples with whom he discussed truth, but our Lord told parables, fabricated stories, to great multitudes so that the words could pass lightly through some, be of interest literally to others, and to a few, reveal profound spiritual truth and mystery. We are like that farmer in His parable of the sower, planting, not knowing which seed will take hold, which will thrive.

But we need not fret about our children in this planting time. The God given gift of imagination, which Mason personified as Chief Explorer, is a grand cultivator. Imagination’s work is truly a reflection of who we are as persons, more than just physical beings, because imagination is our way of seeing what isn’t visible externally. Our own mental picture maker transports us to places we can’t go, takes words from language and breathes life into them. Mason explains that “the pictures that remain with us are those that are first conceived through the medium of words; that pictures or illustrations may at some point help us to correct some notions, but imagination does not work upon a visual presentation, we lay the phrases of a description on our pallet and make our own pictures.”

Reading exercises imagination. Our children’s “inner eye” helps them to see beyond the page of words, to see life. I still vividly see my first trip to Switzerland, up the Alm with Heidi. I got to go there with her because my “talking book machine” from the state library for the blind arrived along with a box of records. I think my Dad was more excited than I was. I had no idea what treasures the world of literature held yet. I climbed with Heidi as the story’s first page was read. With wonder I met the forbidding grandfather in his rustic hut after that long, hot, toil up the mountain. I was entranced with the idea of sleeping in a loft, snuggling in a bed of hay, seeing the sun come up through the little window, hearing the goats bleating for me to come out and play with Peter. We adults forget this magical awe and wonder of our childhood imagination. Mason says our children’s books should give them these pictures – “not flat photos, soon forgotten, but that should take them places and show them people who are as alive to them as the ones they know in every day life.” Heidi’s Switzerland is like that for me. The fact that, yes, 53 years later, I know their color, and where she hid the clothes she shed on her way up the Alm, shows the power of words to paint pictures in a child’s mind.

Through imagination, fired by superb living books, I have a gallery full of pictures, as well as a wealth of experiences. I’ll never forget either that arduous journey with Lassie across Scotland – how I suffered and feared with her; how amazed I was at the ingenuity of the Swiss family Robinson; and how shocked at the behavior of adults in Scout’s Alabama when reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Dozens of stories like these stand out like Narnian lamp-posts in my childhood shining on what is good, and noble, and lovely to see,throwing light on an otherwise unknown, incomprehensible, real world. What a gift imagination is to help our children see. They automatically see themselves in stories, which act as a mirror for them. Living books increase curiosity, strengthen their ability to think for themselves, and the accompanying emotion aroused by the narrative cements stories for future reference. The characters they meet in books become their mentors and instructors. Books guide, give them a taste for righteousness, show them all those virtues we so long for them to adopt. My own books helped me to know – that unquenchable craving within all of us - to know, and shaped, one by one, who it was I wanted to be. It isn’t the specific curriculum, but it is most definitely our cultivation of our child’s natural ability to imagine that will make the difference in their education, and influence their character. Story is the house that holds the knowledge they need, but imagination is the key that unlocks the door and lets them go in and discover the secrets to life.

The story, unlocked by imagination, literally turns the light on inside a person, digests ideas, absorbs lessons. Best of all, stories develop moral imagination. Children who make believe, relish the impossible, consider possibilities, grow in faith. Moral imagination is the training ground of faith. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the belief in things not seen.”(Heb. 11:1) Faith is a gift of God, but imagination fertilizes it.

Children fed on living books, learn wisdom and knowledge naturally, learn far more than we can ever teach them. C. S. Lewis, a rather imaginative man himself, said “When I am reading great literature, I
become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poems, I see with “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.” Stories, he also said, don’t make us retreat from reality, but make reality more real.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, July 27, 2015

Vision for Children, Fifth Installment

(A portion of the plenary speech at the Charlotte Mason Institute's international conference, June 20, 2015)

When I read Mason’s thoughts on a child’s sensitivity to the Bible, it reminds me of a passage from Gentian Hill by Elizabeth Goudge, one of the favorite stories of my whole life, of 12-year-old Stella’s inner thoughts during her adoptive family’s nightly Bible reading:

“When supper was finished, Mother Sprigg, Madge, and Stella quickly removed the dishes while Father Sprigg sepulchrally cleared his throat, walked with heavy deliberate tread to the dresser, took the Book from inside the willow-pattern soup turine that was never used except to hold The Book, carried it back to the table, and laid it down carefully before his chair. There he seated himself, took off his spectacles, polished them on his scarlet handkerchief, readjusted them on his beak of a nose, wetted his finger, and slowly turned the pages until he found the pressed carnation that marked the place. Mother Sprigg, Madge and Stella reseated themselves about the table with hands reverently folded in their laps and Sol in his chimney corner cupped his right ear In his hand.
The only books at the farm were the Bible and the family prayer book, and Father Sprigg read one chapter of the Bible aloud to his household every evening. He worked solidly through from Genesis to Revelations, taking the difficult words with the same courage with which he took a five-barred gate in the hunting field, and charging as fast and furious as his own bull through the more indelicate passages of the Old Testament, happy in the New Testament with the parables of sowing and reaping and harvesting and with the shepherds in the field, but making his way through the last chapters of the Gospels with stumbling tongue, his ears scarlet with distress, humiliated with his inability to read such a story as it should be read, but shirking nothing whatever from the first page of the book until the last.
What his wife and Madge and Sol made of it all, what he made of it himself, it would have been difficult to say. Perhaps to them it was mainly a soporific before bedtime, to him, one of those duties which from generation to generation fall to the master of the house and must be performed with constant patience.
But to Stella, this nightly reading was glory, enchantment, and anguish. Sitting there so demurely, her eyes cast down, her hands folded, she gave no outward sign of her excitement, but the blood drummed in her ears at the old tales of adventure, of battle and
murder and sudden death. She was one of the trumpeters who blew their trumpets about the walls of Jericho, she stood with the watchmen on the tower and saw the cloud of dust whirl up in the distance and heard them cry aloud the dreadful tidings, ‘the driving is as the driving of Jehu, the son of Nimshi; for he driveth furiously.” She held her breath while that splendid, wicked woman Jezebel painted her face, attired her head, and looked out of the window to greet her murderer. She mourned with David over Absalom, "would God that I had died for thee, My son, my son.” She listened with Elijah to the still small voice that came from the whirlwind and the fire, she gazed upon the mighty seraphim with Isaiah, she was with Daniel in the lion’s den, and she wept with Ruth in the harvest fields far from home.
The New Testament she could hardly bear, so great was her rage at what they did to Him. She could scarcely enjoy the Baby in the manger, the wisemen with their gifts, the little children coming to be blessed, and the sick folk to be healed, because of what was coming. This King, crowned with thorns instead of gold, and helpless on a gallows, had a kind of royalty and power that she dared not as yet even try to comprehend; she was just sickened and infuriated. She was not much cheered by the Resurrection stories; to her they were ghost stories and they scared her. She had a feeling, now and then, that part of the Bible which now so frightened her would one day come to mean more than all the rest of the Book put together, but that time was still a long way off. She recovered herself in the Acts and Epistles, though that was about all she did do, the story telling there being upon the meager side, but in the Book of Revelations, she was at home again, a child once more in this fairyland of magical beasts and a city built all of jewels.
But all through the Book, even in the dreadful parts, the language would now and then suddenly affect her like an enchantment. The peculiarities of Father Sprigg’s delivery worried her not at all. It was as though his gruff voice tossed the words roughly into the air, separate particles of no great value, and immediately they fell again transmuted, like the music of a peal of bells or raindrops shot through with sunshine, and vista upon vista of unobtainable beauty opened before her mind. It was a mystery to Stella that mere words could make this happen. She supposed the makers of these phrases had fashioned them to hold their visions as one makes a box to hold one’s treasure, and Father Sprigg’s voice was the key grating in the lock, so that the box could open and set them free. But this metaphor did not take her very far, that transmutation in the air still remained as unexplainable as the sudden change in herself, when at the moment of the magical fall, her mind became suddenly sparkling with wonder, and her spirit leaped up inside her like a bird. She wondered sometimes if the others felt the same. She had never looked to see if their faces changed when the brightness fell from the air, but she did not suppose they did, nor hers either. And they did not say anything, but then neither did she.  This was probably one of those many queer experiences that human beings could not speak of to each other, because though words could be formed into a casket to hold the visions, and could be at the same time the power that liberated them, they seemed of very little use when one tried to use them to explain to another person what it was they had set free. Words were queer things, Stella decided, to be at once so powerful and so weak.
For the last ten days Father Sprigg had been wading through Deuteronomy and Mother Sprigg and Madge had dozed a bit, but not Stella. There had been Og the King of Bashan, the last of the giants, and his vast bedstead. And then there had been the Ammonites who dwelt in the mountains and came out against you and chased you, as bees do, and you returned and wept before the Lord. Og had stalked through Stella’s imagination, and the Ammonites had buzzed through it for days, and now tonight, in the eleventh chapter, the tossed words sparkled and fell and the brightness was with her again, “it is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water of the rain of heaven. A land which the Lord thy God careth for, the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year, even unto the end of the year.”
This passage sheds some light for us as parents and teachers, doesn’t it? We remember keeping our thoughts to ourselves as children, but sometimes now forget that they think about more than they verbalize. Here again, Mason instructs us that our part is to “Deposit, so to speak, within reach of the soul of the child, some fruitful idea of God…the living word reaches, touches their life,” (Home Education, pg 344) and “it is better for a child to receive a few vital ideas that the soul may grow on, than much indefinite teaching in literature,” (Home Education, pg 346) “Children have an urgent, incessant, irrepressible need of the infinite,” (Toward a Philosophy of Education, pg 64) and that we despise them when we do not consider their natural openness and readiness in relation to God.

(To be continued)

For the joy of reading,


Monday, July 20, 2015

Vision for Children, Fourth Installment

(A portion of the plenary speech given at the Charlotte Mason Institute, June 20, 2015)

One powerful example of this I recall is the memory I have of lying on the carpet in our living room, staring at the sun streaks across the floor, listening intently to a Scottish lady reading a story on the radio. I think I must have been sick, because it was a Sunday morning and we were regular church-goers, but I always wished thereafter that I could stay home on Sundays and listen to this program. That day, it was the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. I had never heard it before.  This memory is still filled with a touch of the wonder I felt that morning, a vividly lit-up moment out of the forgotten hours of childhood. I remember thinking it wasn’t fair that Joseph was spoiled and his brothers didn’t have such a special coat. I felt sorry for them. But then they were wicked to him, and my allegiance immediately transferred to poor Joseph, his coat gone, and feeling his terror myself at being kidnapped, while I lay there on the floor, rigid with attention, desperate to know how it would work out. I truly remember pretending the bars of sunlight on the floor were the bars of my own jail cell. Then his dream came true, and all was a thrilling ending with his father and brothers coming to him, food in famine given, forgiveness and reconciliation – not that I knew those concepts then, but I sensed the satisfying relief of knowing that relationships were restored.

That story delighted me. I remember sitting up when it ended, looking out the front window at the sunshine and thinking that God is like that, shining on Joseph in his dark times, taking care of us wherever we are. I was three or four years old. This idea came back to me repeatedly, that God works for good even when we don’t know why things are happening. A seed was planted that long-ago morning, a seed that has been fed and watered throughout my life. With the perspective of years, I now see that it was even more crucial for another idea – that the Bible is supremely appealing and unique. Every time afterward that the Bible was referenced, I was all ears, specially attentive.

Mason understood how this happens. She had strong convictions about reading the Bible to children: "I think we make a mistake in the burying of the text under our endless comments and applications. Also, I doubt if the picking out of individual verses and grinding these into the child until they cease to have any meaning with him, is anything but a hindrance to the spiritual life. The word is full of vital force, capable of applying itself. A seed, light as thistledown, wafted into the child’s soul will take root downwards and bear fruit upwards. What is required of us is that we should implant a love of the word; that the most delightful moments of a child’s day should be those in which his mother reads for him…beautiful stories of the bible.”(Home Education, pg 349) Elsewhere she says, “By degrees, they will see that the world is a stage whereon the goodness of God is continually striving with the willfulness of man…they will take sides without much exhortation or thought or talk of spiritual experience.” (Home Education, pg 249)

And she also wrote: [“The child] should not be able to recall a time before the sweet stories of old filled his imagination; he should have heard the voice of the Lord God calling in the garden in the cool of the evening; should have been a spectator when the angels ascended and descended upon Jacob’s stony pillow; should have followed Christ through the cornfield on the Sabbath day and sat in the rows of the huge multitude so long ago, that such sacred scenes form the unconscious background of his thoughts. All things are possible to the little child, and the touch of the spiritual upon our material world, the difficult problems, the hard sayings, which give offense to his elders, present no difficulty to the child’s all-embracing faith.” (Parents and Children, pg 108-109) She knew that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” and that the “living and active” word of God works uniquely within us.

(To be continued)

For the joy of reading,