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,

Liz

8 comments:

  1. I had a small experience where my 6yo said, "No, no Mom...you are telling the story of Job all wrong." She then preceded to recite with emotion and hand motions the part where Job declares that even if his flesh be destroyed with his eyes he would see God. Her dad had read parts of the story to her and they had talked about it. It was so humbling and so neat. :) Thank you for this. Such a great reminder to read the Word and not get so hung up thinking about myself, perfect elocution or whatever, or worse explaining everything... but just read it and let them absorb all that they will on their own terms and they own individual way.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your daughter's retelling of Job. Surely the Word is the most fruitful seed to sow. It is rich.

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  2. Gentian Hill was one of the first Goudge novels I ever read. This passage thrilled me when I read it. It also made me feel my own lack of imagination and love, and made me long for more sensitivity to the things of the Spirit, to set my mind on the "things above." Thank you for including it here; such a wonderful reminder of a child's capacity to experience the Divine without need of our intermediation.

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    1. And do you have distant memories of having such profound thoughts as a
      child, the kind that escape us now as wise adults?

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  3. Liz. I cried through many parts of your plenary. Thanks so much for sharing it here. I love reading your words, but hearing your voice was heart warming. Thank you for being willing to stand in front of us to share yourself. <3

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    1. Marcia,

      You were all a kind and receptive audience, so it wasn't nearly as intimidating as I had feared to get up before 300+ people. I'm glad you are enjoying it again through the weekly posts.

      Liz

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  4. Oh, this is so true. I thought and felt so much as a child, and I forget sometimes that my children must do the same. This is why the idea that "Children are born persons" speaks to me so powerfully.

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    1. It's true that we easily forget. The children have so much to teach us.

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