Ambleside Blog

The Primary Thing For Them—Thanksgiving 2020

The First Thanksgiving[1]

Reflecting on the nature of the heroic, Thomas Carlyle claims, “It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s, or a nation of men’s.”  Carlyle is speaking here of something more than the mere assertion of beliefs. He further clarifies:

But a thing a man does practically believe, the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest… I say, if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is. Of a man or a nation we inquire, therefore, first of all, What religion they had?[2]    

So it is, that to understand the Pilgrims one must understand “what religion they had.” Unlike the Puritans, who were content to remain in England hoping to purify the church from within, the Pilgrims, or Separatists, saw no way forward in what they deemed a compromised church. Their Religion demanded they journey forward in faith. Arguably the greatest of their leaders, William Bradford, describes this in his journal, Of Plymouth Plantation.

They could not long continue in any peaceable condition but were hunted and persecuted on every side…. For some were taken and clapped up in prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and the most were fain to flee and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood.[3]

Moving to Holland, the Pilgrims settled in Leiden, a strange, new city to them, with unfamiliar customs, and trades, and an unknown language.

But these things did not dismay them; though they did sometimes trouble them; for their desires were set on the ways of God, and to enjoy His ordinances; but they rested on His providence, and they knew Whom they had believed.[4]

Leiden would be the Pilgrims’ home for only twelve years.  Their religion, the chief fact of them, compelled them to pursue a more suitable land to actualize their vision of a home in a vast wilderness. Led by faith, they would face the hardships of a still longer journey to a still more unknown place.  Thus, they set off for a New World. Traveling first to England, the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower. From there, one hundred two passengers began a grueling ten-week crossing of the Atlantic.

Sustained by an absolute faith in a Divine Sovereign to whom they were consecrated, the Pilgrims voyaged to the New World. Confident in Divine Presence and motivated by the desire to be intimately acquainted with their Heavenly Father, they sought Him moment by moment, not lamenting the perils, not questioning the Father’s direction, not afraid of the unknown, resisting every temptation to despair as they faced the unknown future. Their religion instructed them in the knowledge of a God whose providential care was ever present. Thus, they “set on the ways of God.”

Throughout their journey, they commended themselves to God’s Providence, perceiving His favor even in the midst of adversity.

Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation, they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor…What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say, “Our fathers were Englishman which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in the wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity,” etc.  “Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and His mercies endure forever.”[5]

Seeing God as Almighty, thankful for His mercies and his deliverances, they sought him and found refuge in Him, His presence, His kindnesses, and His enduring love. Their religion proclaimed a God omnipotent as Creator, Everlasting Love as Savior, and True Guide as Shepherd.

The Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. They then faced the most terrible of times, a harsh winter with meager supplies, and the greatest of sorrows, what became known as the Starving Time.

Mayflower passengers who survived to the first Thanksgiving (Photo: Jim Steinhart)


But that which was most sad and lamentable was that in two or three months’ time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inacommodate condition had brought upon them. So as there died sometimes two or three of a day in the foresaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce fifty remained.[6] And of these, in the time of most distress, there were but six or seven sound persons who to their great commendations, be it spoken spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them. In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered. Two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom myself and many others were much beholden in our low and sick condition. And yet the Lord so upheld these persons as in the general calamity they were not at all infected with sickness or lameness….That whilst they had health, yea, or any strength continuing, they were not wanting to any that had need of them. And I doubt not but their recompense is with the Lord.[7]

After burying the dead, the 53 surviving Pilgrims began the labor of spring planting. It would lead to a successful harvest which was celebrated, as was the English custom, in the autumn of 1621. There are two accounts of this celebration: William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation and Edward Winslow’s Mourt’s Relation. Winslow writes:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

The Pilgrims defined daily living in relationship with God; He was ever before them, the primary thing for them; their unfailing constancy in need and in provision, lives sustained in Him and through Him. May we gain daily perspective through the uncertainty of our times lived in and through Him and pause for Thanksgiving.


Follow our Pilgrim Heritage:

Pilgrim Roots in the United Kingdom  

Leiden American Pilgrim Museum

Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Mass.


[1] Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving, 1914. She was a direct descendent of Mayflower passenger, Elder Brewster.

[2] Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1904), 2-3.

[3] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016),10.

[4] Ibid.,11.

[5] Ibid., Excerpts 61-63.

[6] Of the 102 Mayflower passengers who reached Cape Cod, 4 died before she made Plymouth; and by the summer of 1621 the total deaths numbered 50. Only 12 of the original 26 heads of families and 4 of the original unattached men or boys were left; and of the women who reached Plymouth, all but a few died.

[7] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 77-78.

The Lord Directs His Steps (From Flourish Volume 7)

Twenty years ago, if you had walked through a crowded forest in the suburbs of Washington D.C., you might have noticed a mother and her four children painting tulip poplar leaves.

Winter would find them tucked cozily in their living room in front of a fire, listening to Treasure Island being read aloud by their father.

Every now and then, he would stop and say, “Matthew, can you tell that back?” and I would—eagerly.

If my mom had had her way, my three sisters (soon to be four) and I would be homeschooled using Charlotte Mason’s method until 8th grade, and maybe even through high school. However, “a man’s mind plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.”

As a seven year old, I had no concept of the future, but a trauma my family suffered that year changed the course of my life. When we were on an outing, my dad slipped down a rock face and suffered a severe brain injury.

Knowing my mom would not be able to homeschool us anymore, family friends reached out to Leslie Voorhees, founder of Ambleside School in McLean, within a week’s time. Even though the board knew our family couldn’t afford tuition, Leslie arrived Monday evening with uniforms. That night, my mom sat us down at the dining room table and said, “You’re going to school tomorrow.” I had never been to school in my life.

My first day was September 11, 2001 — we were there for one hour. A few weeks later, someone anonymously paid our full tuition, and my mom ended up becoming Head of School within two years. She has been serving faithfully there for seventeen years.

Despite many disciplinary trips to the principal’s office, I graduated from Ambleside in 8th grade, grateful for the education but excited to move on. I studied economics in college and was thinking seriously about going into wealth management. When the St. Cyrs asked me to come to an internship, I accepted, but knew that I had other plans. Even if I wanted to teach, I couldn’t in the fall because I had to fulfill an old promise: to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail with a friend.
Hiking the PCT

Halfway through the hike, I got an email saying that there would be an open position at an Ambleside School in October — the same month we were planning on finishing the journey. My mind immediately turned back to those first days of my Charlotte Mason education spent painting in the woods. I chose to accept the offer.

Five years later, I am still working at the same school. Three months ago, I married a teacher I met at my mom’s school in McLean. Frances and I now work together at the school. When I reflect back on my and my family’s unexpected journey, my ears can hear a word behind me, saying, “This is the way, walk in it.”
Matt Wilcox
Teacher, Asst. Dean of Students, Ambleside at Skylark
Read more articles from Flourish here!


To Know and To Love

In the fifteenth chapter of his Gospel, Luke records one of the best known of Jesus’s parables, and there is perhaps no teaching more deserving of the attention of parents and teachers.

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So, he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So, he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So, he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.  But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”[1]


Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (detail)

In this parable we find three major players, each with a different orientation toward life.

  • The younger brother who seeks to ESCAPE and INDULGE
  • The older brother who seeks to PERFORM and CONTROL
  • The father who seeks TO KNOW and TO LOVE

Throughout history, humans have changed truths into lies. Spend ten minutes listening to modern media,  you will  certainly hear the cultural lies. You should have what you want. You should do what you want. You should be what you want. These lies are permeated through media, to our families. It is not surprising that like the younger brother, we find ourselves tempted to wander in a distant land where we might ESCAPE and INDULGE. The wandering man or woman, boy or girl is a minimalist when it comes to the habits of right thinking and right actions. They put forth little effort and long to be entertained, are quickly bored and impulsive in action, and sacrifice the good of others for self’s pleasure, remaining chronically dissatisfied. Having eyes directed toward what is not, he cannot see the good that is. Lacking eyes to see the good that is present, gratitude and joy are scarce. Self-denial is an unknown habit. And, thus, he wanders, gorging where possible but without peace, without satisfaction. Parents and educators must ask, “Who will help such a one find the way home?”

There is a second great lie going around, one promulgated by almost every contemporary American institution, including the nation’s schools. It is a lie so much in the air that we can hardly imagine it not being true. It is the lie that life is a competition in which high performers are rightfully winners and low performers are rightfully losers. One asks, what could be wrong with seeking to perform? Nothing, if by perform one means for love’s sake to give one’s best effort in diligently pursuing that which is Good, True and Beautiful. Everything, if by perform one means the anxious, angry climb to the proverbial top. Losses are desperate. Victories are a vapor. The cosmos is a competition, and my neighbor is not my brother but my adversary.  Suffering from the delusion that fulness of life is found by being better and getting more than one’s adversaries, performers are lost when it comes to entering into the celebration of life, particularly when it comes to doing so with those perceived as unworthy. It has been a tempting human delusion since the time of Cain and Abel, but twenty-first century coaches, corporate consultants and elite soccer parents have elevated the performance orientation to new heights. As a people, we celebrate those who, like the older brother in the parable, make PERFORM and CONTROL the chief maxim by which they live. In so doing, we encourage far too many to wander in a distant land far from home. Parents and educators often fail to recognize this pathology. Often, they even encourage it. My student is performing well—he or she is winning. What could possibly be wrong? Only that my student is chronically anxious, frequently angry, and seems to find little joy in life.

No repentant saint believes these lies; rather, for us life is an invitation to a shared adventure, an opportunity to love and be loved, a three steps forward, two steps back journey to maturity. We want what the father in the parable has, the father who seeks TO KNOW and TO LOVE. He knows his sons and reaches out to them, undeterred by their brokenness. He does not become selfish because his sons are selfish. He does not become neurotic because his sons are neurotic. He knows with a relational knowledge.  His own grief leads not to bitterness but longing. His many tears, because they are free, hopeful but not demanding, are open to becoming tears of joy. He sees his sons, is willing to hurt with them, and is unafraid; thus, he can love and potentially lead his sons TO KNOW and TO LOVE. There is no more worthy goal to put before ourselves and our students than TO KNOW and TO LOVE.

It is in this context that we must frame all of education and indeed all of life. Fulness of life is found neither by escaping and indulging nor by performing and controlling. Rather, fulness of life is found in knowing and loving the Father in Heaven and all of His good gifts to us, gifts of friends, flowers, birds, stars, music, art, literature, math, worthy work, and joyful play—all that is Good, True and Beautiful.

To educators of a maturing heart, it is obvious that such knowing and loving is not promoted by “the parrot-like saying of lessons, the cramming of ill-digested facts for examinations” [2] which characterizes so much of today’s so-called education. Rather, it is the knowledge gained when a child recognizes the symmetry of a leaf, the courageous heart of a literary figure, the struggle for justice in a civilization, the discovery of order in multiples, all which nurture a deepening relationship between a child and her world. Furthermore, these relationships are inherently satisfying. All coming to know is a seeing of the Good, True and Beautiful relation of things (even when through recognition of the evil, false and ugly). Thus, all true knowledge leads to love and in turn love leads to deeper knowledge. There is a relational mutuality between knowing and loving. When this mutuality between love and knowledge is disrupted, things go terribly wrong and our children wander far from home to a distant land; they have exchanged the truth for a lie.


[1] Luke 15:11-32 (NRSV)

[2] Charlotte Mason, Home Education (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), 171-174.

God's Providence (From Flourish Volume 7)

We speak about God’s providence often as Christians, but what does it mean and how does it impact our lives? We believe that God is the Creator of heaven and earth and that He has a vested interest in our lives as humans.

All of us are on the journey of life, and we all will face trials and tribulations, pain and suffering and obstacles that will have to be navigated. If we don’t face our pain or obstacles, we become stuck in our journey and life can become increasingly difficult.
Hout Bay Students Hiking
This is where God’s providence comes in; God does have a vested interest in our lives individually and as a race. He cares for humankind as revealed in His plan by sending His son Jesus to earth to live among us and become the ultimate sacrifice so that no one should perish but have everlasting life.

God cares for each of us, but his providence doesn’t always come in the form we might imagine or even ask for – God is in control and He knows what’s best for us. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” 

When our faith is tested and the trials we face seem impossible to overcome, we have to believe that He will never give us more than we can handle, and we know that all things work together for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28).

This year has surprised and tested us, yet I see God’s providence. He has kept our school functioning. He has given the staff the strength and knowledge to move instruction to an online platform. We’ve kept all of our staff employed; God provided for us when all seemed lost. The team has drawn closer together and relationships have deepened, something which may not have happened outside of this crisis. Even though there has been extreme difficulty, loss and hardship, through God’s providence we have and continue to overcome.

When I cast my mind back to the time before Covid-19, I’m amazed at the hand of God on our little school here in Hout Bay. 

When I took over as principal in 2016 there were many areas of the school that were on shaky ground. We didn’t have enough staff, our building needed urgent maintenance, and finances were challenging. Through God’s providence, the right people joined our team. The finances started to improve, and we were able to not only complete the routine building maintenance but renovate the entire bathroom block. I am so grateful to God for the people He brought to Ambleside School of Hout Bay and am so grateful to those people who were obedient to God’s providence in their lives that ultimately led them to us. To God be the glory.
Gavin Smith
Principal, Ambleside Hout Bay

Click here to read more articles from Flourish!

God's Provision (from Flourish Volume 7)

Jehovah Jireh, My Provider, how the provision of the Lord abounds! The cascading purple petunias, the mass of white wood asters, the crystal blue to inspire. A soaking rain, an overcast sky, a sabbath day...refreshment for the earth and soul. Chili in the crock-pot, a freezer full of food, and a stocked pantry...sustenance for the body.

Could I ask for anything more?

Many years ago, as a college freshman in the genetics lab of Dr. Wesley Kloos at NC State University, I was a humble lab technician making $4.25 per hour doing the work that only a freshman lab technician would be asked to do. One day, the voice of Dr. Kloos came from behind me, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” His question caught me off guard. “I don’t know...I like plants,” I replied. His next words have stuck with me to this day. “You can have all the hobbies you want but you need to make a living. You need to be able to support yourself.” In the short term, plants were out...hobby or otherwise.

From NPS
Looking back, I’ve realized two things. First, I probably could have made a living in plants– landscape designer, horticulturist, etc. Second, Dr. Kloos was only trying to help. I did need to be able to support myself and I also needed to get busy making that happen. Therefore, I majored in biology and got an internship at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico working with plants...making $49.50 a week. Clearly, not enough to support myself. It was in Bandelier, at age 24, that the Lord Jesus’s loving call got my attention, and I became a believer in Him. Bandelier was also the place where the next steps of my life were to be laid out. When the internship was complete, I pursued a Master’s Degree in Education at George Washington University and became a teacher.

I have taught many ages in different environments. I taught science in an alternative high school, preschool through high school at my church, and 1st, 7th and 8th grade at Ambleside, McLean. God provided me with a plan to move forward in life and also with a way to support myself! My reply to Dr.Kloos, when he asked me what I wanted to do, remains with me.

At Ambleside, I am thankful that plants are a significant part of the week as we engage in nature study. Nature study provides an opportunity for intentional and focused observation, conversation and artistic representation of the world around us. Over my years of teaching, I have filled many journals of my own with these deliberate studies and have created my own self-prized Diary of an Edwardian Lady.

God, in His loving kindness, provided me an avenue to not only support myself, but the means to delight in plants as well! Thank the Lord that this delight is not only enriching to me, but provides me an opportunity to inspire and encourage others. Praise be to Him, Jehovah Jireh, My Provider!

Krise Nowak
Teacher, Ambleside McLean

Click here to read more articles from Flourish!

On Providence

It is difficult to see clearly when my people are wailing and gnashing their teeth. It is difficult to see clearly when those who are not my people are wailing and gnashing their teeth. It is difficult to know the truth when the algorithms controlling my 24/7 newsfeeds are ordered to confirm what I already believe, not to challenge it; to escalate emotional intensity, not to bring wisdom and peace.

There is a need for some critical distance, and nothing provides critical distance so well as the reading of old books. None put it better than C.S. Lewis:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook - even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth [now twenty-first] century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true, they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false, they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.[1]

Believing Lewis to be right, we at Ambleside place great importance on the reading of old books, even in the younger grades. Furthermore, we consider the abandonment of old books to be one of contemporary education’s most egregious failures.

Is it possible that this unwillingness to learn from the wisdom of old books (despite obvious flaws) has left us ill prepared to face the current civic moment?

Of late and with great satisfaction, I have been feeding on Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Considered one of the world’s greatest works of literature, The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem tracing the poet’s allegorical journey down into the depths of Hell and up to the pinnacle of highest Heaven. The epic is replete with characters drawn from the literature and history of the classical and Christian worlds. It offers an omnibus of human experience, our failures and successes, sins and virtues, intense longings, profound anguish and consummate joys. It also includes something of an exposé of the cruel vagaries of 13th and 14th centuries Italian politics.

Today’s Republicans and Democrats are rank amateurs in vitriol compared with that of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Dante was himself embroiled in the conflict, taking up arms on behalf of the Guelph faction. The defeat of the Ghibellines did nothing to end the civil strife, for the Guelphs promptly divided into two warring factions. This time Dante was on the losing side and condemned to perpetual exile. For the final nineteen years of his life, Dante was forbidden from returning to his beloved Florence. It was during his exile that Dante composed the The Divine Comedy, completing it a year before his death in 1321.

Allegorical Portrait of Dante c. 1530, public domain

Having lived it, how did Dante come to understand the pernicious vicissitudes of Florentine politics? In The Divine Comedy, halfway down the infernal descent, we are given a hint. Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, pass through the fourth circle of Hell, the province of those who “wasted all their light” by either hoarding or squandering the gifts of Lady Fortune.

Now may you see the fleeting vanity of the goods
  of Fortune for which men tear down
  all that they are, to build a mockery.
Not all the gold that is or ever was
  under the sky could buy for one of these
  exhausted souls the fraction of a pause. [2]

As the two poets continue towards the fifth circle of Hell, the region of the wrathful and the sullen, Dante inquires of his mentor as to the nature of Lady Fortune. In classical mythology, Fortune is a goddess. In The Divine Comedy, she is the personification of God’s Providence.

“Master,” I said, “tell me—now that you touch
  on this Dame Fortune—what is she, that she holds
  the good things of the world within her clutch?”
And he to me: “O credulous mankind,
  is there one error that has wooed and lost you?
  Now listen, and strike error from your mind:
That king whose perfect wisdom transcends all,
  made the heavens and posted angels on them
  to guide the eternal light that it might fall
from every sphere to every sphere the same.
  He made earth’s splendors by a like decree
  and posted as their minister this high Dame,
the Lady of Permutations. All earth’s gear
  she changes from nation to nation, from house to house,
  in changeless change through every turning year.
No mortal power may stay her spinning wheel.
  The nations rise and fall by her decree.
  None may foresee where she will set her heel:
she passes, and things pass. Man’s mortal reason
  cannot encompass her. She rules her sphere
  as the other gods rule theirs. Season by season.

In short, Virgil, personifying the best of human reason, declares that Divine Providence, Dame Fortune, who “by her decree” causes nations to rise and to fall, rules her sphere in accordance with a “perfect wisdom” that “transcends all” and yet to mortals is inscrutable. For modern man, this is a particularly hard pill to swallow. How dare Providence be in charge! In our self-deluded arrogance, we are far too confident that we know what is best and that we can or at least should be able to control outcomes. We tell ourselves the world should conform to our will, and we become embittered when it does not.

And this is she so railed at and reviled

  that even her debtors in the joys of time

  blaspheme her name. Their oaths are bitter and wild.

And yet, Divine Providence is undeterred.

but she in her beatitude does not hear.

  Among the Primal Beings of God’s joy

  she breathes her blessedness and wheels her sphere.

As Virgil concludes his discourse, the poets come to the bog swarming with souls “savage with anger, naked, slime-besmutched.”

They thumped at one another in that slime

  with hands and feet, and they butted, and they bit,

  as if each would tear the other limb from limb.

Just beyond the wrathful are found the sullen, who, resentful and joyless in life, refused to welcome the sweet light of the Sun (Divine Illumination). In death, they are buried forever below stinking waters, gargling the words of an endless chant in a grotesque parody of singing a hymn.

"Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun;
  in the glory of his shining our hearts poured
  a bitter smoke. Sullen were we begun;
sullen we lie forever in this ditch."
  This litany they gargle in their throats
  as if they sang but lacked the words and pitch.

Everything in the structure of The Divine Comedy is intentional. Dante set his discourse on Divine Providence between the infernal regions of those that hoard or squander the goods of this world and that of those who angrily rage or bitterly despair. Perhaps he is telling us that without confidence in the goodness of God’s providential care we are prone to a perverse relationship with the goods of this world, to a fiendish wrath or to a pernicious sullenness.

For our sake, and even more for the children’s sake, let us not be counted among those who wail and gnash their teeth, for we are on a sacred journey. Even if the path takes us through the Gates of Hell, yet we live in absolute hope. May it never be said of us, “There goes a one who lacks confidence in a benevolent Divine Providence.”

[1] C.S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius: The Incarnation of the Word of God, trans. by A Religious of C.S.M.V. (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 7.

[2] Excerpts are taken from Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, translated by John Ciardi. (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2003), 62-65.

Every Person: A Creature Of Desire

Who at that time did not praise and extol my father because, beyond the resources of his own estate, he furnished his son with everything needed for this long sojourn to be made for purposes of study?... But meanwhile this same father took no pains as to how I was growing up before you, or as to how chaste I was, as long as I was cultivated in speech, even though I was left a desert, uncultivated for you, O God, who are the one true and good Lord of that field which is my heart.


During the idleness of that sixteenth year, when, because of lack of money at home, I lived with my parents and did not attend school, the briars of unclean desires spread thick over my head, and there was no one to root them out.[1]

                                                                                                Saint Augustine (354 - 430 AD)

We, human persons, are creatures of desire. Every day we want, wish, crave, prefer, hanker for, fancy and yearn for a multitude of diverse things in a multitude of diverse ways. From Moses and Socrates to Darwin and Freud, to contemporary neuroscientists and modern marketing gurus, human desire has long been understood as a primary cause of human action. Any reflection on human behavior and its education must give rise to consideration of the nature and shaping of human desire. For parent and teacher, this is serious business. At the end of the day our children will, one way or another, live out their desires. This makes the cultivation of virtuous desires of paramount importance. In the year 400, thirty years after the fact, St. Augustine, thinking back on his experience as a sixteen-year-old, decried his father’s failure to root out “unclean desires,” a failure that would cause St. Augustine much brokenness and pain. Let us not fail our children in like manner.

Svatý Augustin, Peter Paul Rubens

We take up this challenge in the midst of a very strange and conflicted cultural milieu. Swirling about us is the bizarre but broadly held notion that a person’s desires are self-authenticating, that a man or woman’s desires constitute his or her true self, that fullness of life depends upon the satisfying of any and all desire. We see this in the politics of human sexuality, in the mother who cannot say no to her three-year-old, and in corporate marketing slogans like Burger King’s “Be your way” and Nike’s “Just do it.” Such an ethos may be good for sales, but it is very bad for souls. We have forgotten that which was, in the not too distant past, common knowledge. We have forgotten that our desires may be virtuous or vicious, and that only virtuous desires lead to life. Vicious desires lead to death.

Written for “young people of any age, from eight or nine upwards,” Charlotte Mason’s Ourselves[2] is an allegory intended to serve as a handbook for virtuous character. Not surprisingly, several chapters are devoted to the desires and their concomitant vices. Following a tradition going back to the Golden Age of ancient Greece, she distinguishes between the appetites of “the House of Body” and the desires of “the House of Mind.” The appetites of the body are ordered to the maintenance of the human body and the human race. The appetites are hunger, thirst, rest, activity[3] and chastity. That hunger, thirst and rest, rightly ordered, foster a life of flourishing is self-evident. We are perhaps less conscious of our body’s need to act. We may not long lay idle and still flourish. And the idea of chastity as the virtuous ordering of human sexuality rather than the suppression of human sexuality may be new to many (Freud is too much with us). All appetites when rightly ordered give life. But each appetite has its vicious form, a form that brings death, not life. If untended, the good of hunger may become gluttony; thirst, drunkenness; rest, sloth; activity, restlessness; and chastity, licentiousness.[4]

Charlotte Mason enumerates the desires of the “House of Mind” as the desires: for approbation, of excelling, for wealth, for power, for society and for knowledge. While each of these has the potential to become a vicious tyrant, rightly ordered these desires do much to foster human flourishing. The desire for approbation or approval supports us in pursuit of the Good, assuming those whose approval we seek are themselves seeking the Good and assuming we are not enslaved to the vulgarity of display. The desire to excel energizes us to put forth our best effort in worthy endeavors, provided our effort is indeed directed to something worthy, and it is not corrupted by a preoccupation with besting others. The desire for wealth or ownership animates us to acquire and steward those things necessary for a well-lived life, provided we are not debased by avarice, the desire to acquire ever more merely for acquisition’s sake. The desire for power when rightly ordered is the desire to be a potent force for Good. The demonic perversion is the desire for power merely to lord over others. The desire for society is the desire for a life shared with others. We all are made for, need, must have, a community. Its perversion is the substitution of clique for community, the substitution of image, gossip and exclusivity for depth, commitment and fraternal love. As to the desire for knowledge, it is to the mind what hunger is to the body. As such, it is the chief motive for learning. Created in the image of God and made to delight in the Goodness, Truth and Beauty of God’s world, if there be no delight in knowing, then something has gone terribly wrong.

Ourselves concludes with several chapters on the human soul; its capacities, desires and nurture. Only in God is the deepest of human desires met and answered.

'I want, am made for, and must have a God.' We have within us an infinite capacity for love, loyalty, and service; but we are deterred, checked on every hand, by limitations in the objects of our love and service. It is only to our God that we can give the whole, and only from Him can we get the love we exact; a love which is like the air, an element to live in, out of which we gasp and perish. Where, but in our God, the Maker of heaven and earth, shall we find the key to all knowledge? Where, but in Him, whose is the power, the secret of dominion? And our search and demand for goodness and beauty baffled here, disappointed there -- it is only in our God we find the whole. The Soul is for God, and God is for the Soul, as light is for the eye, and the eye is for light. And, seeing that the Soul of the poorest and most ignorant has capacity for God, and can find no way of content without Him, is it wholly true to say that man is a finite being? But words are baffling; we cannot tell what we mean by finite and infinite.[5]

The catalogue of desires provided in Ourselves is neither definitive nor exhaustive, but it is challenging. It provides a framework for a rigorous self-examination and casts a vision for repentance from vicious desire and pursuit of virtuous desire. But how is such a pursuit to be conducted? Not by will power. The will is weak, and it is impossible to will one’s self into a new desire. Neurologically, the will is downstream from the desires. As far as the brain is concerned, the desires shape the will, not the will the desires. This does not mean that we are without hope or responsibility. A few things to consider:

  1. The modern myth of the autonomous self is just that, a myth. We are profoundly social beings. Unless something has gone terribly wrong, nothing matters so much to us as belonging to a community of persons who know us and are glad to be with us in life-giving ways. To thrive, we must be part of such a people. Absent that which our hearts need most, desires will warp, twist and distort in a futile attempt to compensate. The cultivation of virtuous desires requires life-giving belonging, be it at home, school or church.
  2. Assuming no immediate threat of trauma, related to and second only to belonging is our need for joy, the sense that it is good to be me here with you. Just as we are made for belonging, so we are made for joy. If we do not know the way from sadness, anger, fear or shame back to joy, our desires will warp, twist and distort in a futile attempt to compensate. If we do not know the way back to joy, we must learn, and we learn by sharing belonging with someone who does know the way. Our homes, schools and churches must be places where we belong and go to learn the way back to joy.
  3. We catch our desires like we catch the flu. Having a people to whom we belong and who help us get back to joy, we inevitably desire what our people desire and abhor what our people abhor. This is the fundamental premise of all advertising. If our people treasure Gucci and Chanel, we will treasure Gucci and Chanel. If our people abhor Gucci and Chanel, we will abhor Gucci and Chanel. If our people desire and delight in being generous, we will delight in generosity. If our people anxiously hoard, we will anxiously hoard. If our people have the habits of sweet thoughts and appreciation, we will naturally grow in the habits of sweet thoughts and appreciation. If our people are cynical and deprecating, we will be cynical and deprecating. If our people delight in literature, mathematics, science, music and painting, so will we. Our children will not form virtuous desires unless we invite them into communities of virtuous desire. There is a reason God calls us to be a part of a people growing in Christlikeness. We cannot become whom we are meant to be unless we are a part of such a people.
  4. While the will is weak, over the long term the power to direct one’s attention is potent, particularly if supported by the people to whom one joyfully belongs. Thus, the wisdom of St. Paul’s words:

Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.[6]

Note that this admonition was not given to the Philippians as autonomous individuals, but to them as a community.

  5. Finally, it is to our Father in heaven that we belong most completely and most definitively, even if we have little experience of it. Our homes, schools and churches must        be places where we learn to enter more fully into joyful belonging with the Father. As we abide with Him, our desires are changed into the likeness of His desires. Such          is the testimony of countless saints.

As we increasingly experience ourselves as joyfully belonging to the Father and as we increasingly experience our self as joyfully belonging to a people of virtuous desire, so we will find our own desires and the desires of our children transformed.

[1] Saint Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1960), 67.

[2] Charlotte Mason, Ourselves (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989).

[3] Charlotte Mason names both the appetite of “restlessness” and the vice or “Daemon of Restlessness.” To avoid confusion, in the case of the former, I have substituted the word “activity.”

[4] To clarify Charlotte Mason’s meaning, I have substituted “licentiousness” for her word “uncleanness.”

[5] Charlotte Mason, Ourselves (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), 176.

[6] Philippians 4:8 (NRSV).

Every Person: A Web of Relations

Let us hope that every child and every adult has had the delight of watching a spider weave its web. It is one of nature’s great enchantments.

Spiders are created to build webs. They are gifted with multiple spinnerets, organs specifically designed for producing the spider’s silk thread. Most spiders make four or five kinds of silk; some make as many as seven types. Spider silk can be thick or thin, dry or sticky, beaded or smooth. It is both light and stronger than steel. It has an impressive tensile strength, which means it stretches a great deal before it snaps. Scientists have been trying for decades to decode exactly what gives spider silk both strength and elasticity, but so far, they have failed to crack the code. Spiders are endowed with an amazing planning ability, making them among God’s most skilled engineers. They possess eight legs, perfect for the intricate work of web building, also making them one of God’s most skilled craftsmen. Making webs is innate for spiders. They are born knowing how to do it, and they can’t flourish without it.

The typical orb weaver spider (the group most common to North America) begins its web by casting a thin line of silk in hopes of it attaching to a suitable secure surface, such as a branch, a window frame or a rock. When the silk catches hold, the spider tugs to ensure the silk strand is truly attached. If the attachment is secure, it pulls out new silk and attaches the strand to its perch, gathers up the snagged strand and begins pulling itself towards the object of the strand’s attachment, all the while laying behind it a new, thicker, stronger silk. In a well-constructed web, this silk will serve as the first of seven securely attached lines that will anchor the entire web. Without such a fixed foundation, the web is frail and malformed.

With a secure foundation, the spider begins to spin its web in a relatively simple and predictable way. Radial lines are laid through the center of the web, extending out to the anchor lines, establishing a strong inner core and giving strength to the entire web. Then, the spider works from the outside in, attaching threads segment by segment, creating concentric circles, called orb lines, ending with a center spiral of sticky silk that traps prey. The result is a beautiful gossamer web, providing the spider with both security and nourishment.

As the spider is made for building silk webs, so we are made for building relations with persons and things. Spiders possess spinnerets, organs specially designed for making silk. Contemporary neuroscience has established that we possess relational brains designed for and dependent upon the creation of meaningful relations with persons and things, persons being of foundational importance.[1] Just as a spider depends upon its web for flourishing, so we persons depend upon our web for flourishing. Human flourishing begins with anchor attachments, particularly attachment to mother. Like the spider casting the initial thread hoping it will land on a surface suitable for attachment, so babies cast a line of desire, receptivity, and responsiveness, hoping to find in mother a place of belonging that is secure, reliable and nurturing. Failure here results in a painful distortion of the entire web. Assuming a relatively secure attachment to mother, babies then cast for other primary relations (father, sister, brother, grandparents) which, when firmly established, anchor still more relations (friend, neighbor, clerk, pets, books, toys, flowers—an infinite variety of good things). A beautiful spiral of joyful relations is created, all connected, all informing one another. Such a spiral is resilient, able to bear the insults and fractures sure to come. Such a spiral produces a solid center, a core identity that both understands itself and lives by the touch of all its relations.

Like the spider, it is innate for persons to build a web, although this web is not naturally a beautiful, resilient and nourishing web. Our brains are so relational that they cannot develop in a healthy manner apart from secure, relational attachment with others who possess knowledge and skills which we lack. Before we learn to read a book or to write our name, we must learn something about what is worth having and not having, doing and not doing. We must learn how and when to be joyful or sad, afraid or angry and how to recover from sadness, fear or anger, how to get back to joy. We must learn what’s not worth our time, what’s worth our attention, and how to sustain that attention. We must learn what we ought to do and how to compel ourselves to do what we ought. We come into life with great powers of heart, but we need teachers to help us mature those powers. In like manner, we come into life with great powers of mind, a hunger and a thirst for the treasures of the knowledge of heaven and earth. Yet, we need a guide to point and say: “Look. What do you see? What do you hear? Isn’t it lovely or interesting or curious or hard or scary?” In other words, we need teachers. Mother needs to be the first, establishing the primary anchor line. Ideally, father will be second, but there must be other teachers who will frame a rich relational life, each providing a part that others cannot. Unlike spiders, children must be educated. Thus, we maintain that “Education is the science of relations.” 

In Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason provides a lovely description of an idealized web, a child’s life rich in relations to persons and things, a life that is both flourishing and formative.

We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby's needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered 'fusion of classes' is so effective as a child's intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education; care and guidance are needed, of course, lest admiring friends should make fools of them, but no compounded 'environment' could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.[2]

Such an image, drawn from a century ago, may seem foreign. But there is something beautiful about it, something attractive and thick. We live in a time of ever thinning relations, and we long for something richer, thicker. Too often, our technologically mediated and utilitarian relations are about as thick as the layer of pixels on a flat screen TV. Our hearts and minds, even our bodies, suffer because of it. Connecting on Zoom is no replacement for being face-to-face. Watching a baseball game on a screen pales in comparison to being at the ballpark or playing pitch-and-catch with friends. Seeing a favorite character on a sitcom is a poor substitute for sharing a joke with a live person. Seeing a rare African spider on the Discovery Channel is nothing so rich as attentively observing with one’s own eyes the most common of backyard spiders. And indeed, blackberries pulled from the hedges with one’s own hands are far sweeter than any to be purchased at the local supermarket. Unless so jaded as to despair of it, all persons long for thick attachments with the real, the real always being good and satisfying.

The spider makes a web. The web provides the spider security and a means of capturing food, but the web does not make the spider. While it is true that the way we direct our attention shapes our relational webs, it is an often-ignored truth that our relational webs create us far more potently than we create them. As our relations with persons and things grow thin, we grow thin. As our relations with persons and things grow thick, we grow thick.

Let us pause today and every day, to give some time to our continuing education by thickening a relation with some real person and some real thing. Education is the science of relations.


[1] See Alan Shore’s book, Affect Regulation and the Formation of the Self, as a seminal work of neuroscience on the effect of primary relations on brain development.

[2] Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), 96.


Persons: Strange and Glorious Amphibians

Anyone who is both honest and paying attention cannot fail to recognize that we humans are strange creatures, often mysteries to ourselves and to others. There is something unfathomable about each of us, a depth which we find difficult, even impossible, to plumb. The generally kind and loving mother loses herself in a fit of verbal outrage. The generally selfish adolescent male does some act of manly service for a younger sibling or a stranger. The always confident leader loses himself in a wave of self-doubt, insecurity and narcissistic self-preoccupation. The entrepreneurial manager, so consistently sure of where he is going and how he is going to get there, awakens one morning wondering why he is taking the trip at all. The millennial teacher heroically gives to a group of struggling students, offering a depth of love which heretofore had lain unrecognized and dormant. We frequently are a surprise to ourselves. In a moment of need and distress, we respond with such preternatural grace that it leaves us wondering “who was that masked person?” Or, in a flash, faster than consciousness, we find ourselves in a highly distressed brain state, and from unwanted depths there arises the dreaded beast within.

We can recognize self as possessing a more or less definite character, to which we generally conform, and which generally adheres to certain community norms. But, what of the ways we act out of character, at times more virtuously than expected and at times uncharacteristically vicious? And what of those quiet, inner, even spiritual promptings which suggest that some of our personal and community norms are somehow off the mark? At times we find ourselves asking of self: Who is that man, that woman? What did I just do, and why did I just do it? In good and in ill, we find people to be mysteries, and none more mysterious than self. Walker Percy begins Lost in the Cosmos, with an engaging reflection on the manners and psyche of modern man, with the following questions:

Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are beyond doubt the strangest? Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life?[1]

While Percy’s questions are offered tongue-in-cheek, they point to the sacred truth that we humans are a profound mystery. It is this mystery of persons that makes history, literature, drama, poetry, art, music, philosophy, all of the humane letters to be so very interesting. Yet, if education is something more than communicating factoids of history or skills in mathematics, if as we believe, education is, among other things, the formation of character, then the educator, parent or teacher must have a clear understanding of why persons do what they do. Only then can the educator understand how to support growth.

To understand why persons do what they do, we must have some understanding of what persons are. To understand what persons are, we must come to some conclusion regarding the relationship between matter and spirit, body and soul, brain and mind. Over the course of the last 2,500 years, the western tradition has proposed three basic models for understanding the relationship between body and soul. Perhaps, humans are mere matter, only a body, mind a mere epiphenomenon of brain. Or, perhaps there are distinct material and spiritual realities, humans are a body with a soul, and mind drives the body, like one might drive a car, the brain being the steering wheel. Finally, perhaps there is one reality that is both material and spiritual. Perhaps, like amphibians who inhabit both water and land, humans inhabit the one material-spiritual reality, as a body-spirit unity possessing a mind that is coextensive with both brain and spirit.

That humans are mere matter, only a body, is an idea as old as the ancient Greek atomist, Democritus (460-370 BC), and as modern as the twenty-first century’s “four horsemen of atheism.”[2] Adherents of this view believe that humans, like all components of the cosmos, are the product of a complex web of natural cause and effect that can be explained by the equations of physics. Humans are nothing more than a complex machine that can be understood and programmed like a computer. Such is the dominant view among secular scientists, including social scientists (which includes faculty in education departments). So, it is not surprising that much of contemporary educational practice is built upon materialist assumptions. Design the right educational inputs and one will get the right educational outputs. So, the materialist educator believes. Pity the children so seemingly educated. We forget that as he treats a child like a material thing, he begins to feel himself a material thing,  and then he begins to act like a material thing.

The belief that matter and spirit, body and soul are distinct realities is at least as old as the earliest major Christian heresy, Gnosticism. Originating in the first century AD, Gnostics held that matter and spirit were radically different substances. Gnostics distinguished between a supreme, hidden God of spirit and a malevolent lesser divinity (sometimes associated with the Yahweh of the Old Testament) who created matter. Material realities were understood as evil.  Spiritual realities were understood as good. For two thousand years, gnostic ways of thinking have been a temptation to Christians. Matter and body have too frequently been seen as the source of evil, while mind, soul and spirit have been seen as the source of good. The body has been rejected and the self overly spiritualized. Rather than seeing the body as integral to all spiritual pursuits, it has been seen at best as irrelevant and at worst as a hindrance. There is a reason that St. Paul exhorts the church at Rome “by the mercies of God, to present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”[3] As we shall see, there is no formation of character apart from an embodied transformation.

Although he considered himself to be a devout Catholic, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, like the ancient Gnostics, was a dualist. He conceived of matter and spirit, body and soul, brain and mind as being radically different substances. British philosopher Gilbert Ryle described Descartes’s view as the "ghost in the machine." Man’s soul or mind was understood to direct the body through the pineal gland, a tiny structure in the brain. If, as Descartes suggests, the ghost drives the machine —autonomous mind directs the body—then one can think himself and will himself into right action. But Descartes was wrong. While it is an alluring fantasy, no human can think and will himself into right acting. We all have our perduring sins, those sin patterns that have troubled us for years, if not decades. We know the sin to be wrong, and will ourselves to be different, but like St. Paul we cry out, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”[4] We cannot think and will ourselves to right acting.

Descartes’s error can best be illustrated by the story of Phineas Gage. On September 13, 1848, Gage was leading a work crew who were blasting rock while preparing the roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad south of the town of Cavendish, Vermont. Setting a blast involved boring a hole deep into an outcropping of rock; adding blasting powder, a fuse and sand; then, compacting this charge into the hole using a tamping iron. Gage was doing this when the iron sparked against the rock and the powder exploded. Rocketing from the hole, the tamping iron (three feet seven inches long and 1 1/4 inches in diameter) entered on the left side of Gage's face, passing back of the left eye and out at the top of the head. After Gage's accident, his employers considered the change in his mind so drastic that they could not give him his job back. It was said of Phineas Gage that:

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was "no longer Gage."[5]

Suffering from traumatic brain injury, he was, to his friends, no longer Gage. Damage to his brain meant significant damage to his mind. Since then, 150 years of neuroscience has revealed how intimate the connection between mind and brain is. The adult brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons, each with an average of 10,000 connections directly linked to other neurons, but at birth, the brain is the most disorganized of all the structures of the human body. Any human change requires a brain change. Any human change results in a brain change. The development of a child’s mind is coextensive with the development of the child’s brain. All human thinking, desiring and acting is mediated through the brain.  All education and all character formation require brain change. The human brain is the biological anchor of all our mental and psychological experience, but it is not the sole determinant of our psychological experience.

One might ask, what does all this have to do with education? The answer: it is fundamental. Contrary to both the materialist and the dualist and in accord with modern neuroscience, we join Charlotte Mason in echoing a New Testament understanding of human nature. Persons are not just bodies, nor are persons a body with a soul. Persons are a body-soul unity.

We take Children as Persons. In the first place, we take children seriously as persons like ourselves, only more so; the first question that comes before us is––what do we understand by a person? We believe the thinking, invisible soul and acting, visible body to be one in so intimate a union that "nor soul helps flesh more now than flesh helps soul."

If the doctrine of the Resurrection had not been revealed to us, it would be a necessity, in however unimagined a form, to our conception of a person. The countenance of our friend with the thousand delicate changes which express every nuance of feeling; the refinement, purpose, perception, power, revealed in his hand, the dear familiar carriage, these are all inseparable from our conception of the person. Whatever is advanced by the physiologist and the rational psychologist as to the functions of that most marvelous brain cortex, the seat of consciousness, as furnishing us with images and impulses, of the motor nerves as originating action, of the brain as the seat of habit; of the possibility of educating a child in all becoming habits of act, in all sweet habits of thought, by taking measures to secure that these habits become, as it were, a memory of the brain to be awakened by due stimuli, all these things we believe and receive; and we believe further that the possibility of a rational education rests upon this physiological basis, only fully discovered to us within the present generation.

For the rest, we believe the person wills and thinks and feels; is always present, though not always aware of himself; is without parts or faculties; whatever he does, he does, all of him, whether he take a walk or write a book. It is so much the habit to think of the person as a dual being, flesh and spirit, when he is, in truth, one, that it is necessary to clear our minds on this subject. The person is one and not several, and he is no more compact of ideas on the one hand than he is of nervous and muscular tissues on the other. That he requires nutriment of two kinds is no proof that he is two individuals. Pleasant and well-cooked food makes man of a cheerful countenance, and wine gladdens the heart of man, and we all know the spiritual refreshment of a needed meal. On the other hand, we all know the lack-luster eye and pallid countenance of the well-fed who receive none of that other nutriment which we call ideas; quick and living thought is as necessary for the full and happy development of the body as it is for that of the soul.[6]

When we think of our bodies and of the wonderful powers they possess, we say, under our breath, "Great and marvelous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty." Now, let us consider that still more wonderful Self which we cannot see and touch as we can our bodies, but which thinks and loves and prays to God, which is happy or sad, good or not good. This inner self is, as we have said, like a vast country much of which is not yet explored, or like a great house, built as a maze, in which you cannot find your way about. People usually talk of 'Ourselves' as made up of Body, Mind, Heart and Soul; and we will do the same, because it is a convenient way to describe us … Everybody appears to know about his own heart and soul and mind; though, perhaps, the truth is that there is no division into parts, but that the whole of each of us has many different powers and does many different things at different times.[7]

We persons are amphibians, material-spiritual, body-soul, brain-mind unities, wonderfully made, often strange and mysterious even to ourselves but glorious.


[1]Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos. New York, New York: Picador, 1983.

[2] On 30 September 2007, four prominent atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett) met at Hitchens' residence in Washington, D.C., for a private two-hour unmoderated discussion. The event was videotaped and titled "The Four Horsemen".

[3] Romans 12:1 (NRSV)

[4] Romans 7:15-19 (NRSV)

[5] Harlow, John M. “Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar Through the Head” in Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society, v. 2 n. 3 (1868).

[6] Mason, Charlotte. School Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 63-65.

[7] Mason, Charlotte.  Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989.  33, 34.



Children Are Born Persons Part 1

This is the first of a series of blogs on the pivotal foundational truth of Ambleside Schools International’s philosophy of education. In the words of Charlotte Mason:

The first article of a valid educational creed – “children are born persons” – is of a revolutionary character; for what is a revolution but a complete reversal of attitude?[1]

Ambleside of Hout Bay

Nothing is more central to our views on education than our understanding of what it means to be human. Some theory of man is implicit in every parent’s parenting and every teacher’s teaching, be it consciously recognized or not. When we pause to ask, What does it mean to educate? We find ourselves unable to answer without first reflecting upon the more fundamental question, What does it mean to be a man or a woman? The world has its answers, impoverished though they be.

  • Some educators see man as a complex machine. These hold that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile. Knowledge is merely brain-processed sensation. Knowledge is relevant if it facilitates the human machine’s working “successfully,” both as an individual and in a network of other machines. Knowledge is the data and the algorithms that allow one to get the “right” answer. A right answer is one that “works.” Education is the successful download of data and algorithms that work. Such a download is verified by examination. Most of us received this kind of education.
  • Other educators, opposing the view that man is a machine, see humans as autonomous, self-actualizing beings, demi-gods constantly creating and recreating their own reality. Knowledge is “my truth.” Education is my self-exploration, my self-creation, my self-actualization, my meaning created. Consider the student who, when asked to write a critical analysis of Moby Dick, decided to be as outlandish as she possibly could. To that end, she proposed that the great white whale represented the country of Ireland. The truly unhinged professor, failing to see the obvious, was effusive in his praise.
  • Still other educators see humans as a cog in the wheel of the historical struggle for the equitable redistribution of power. Something is terribly wrong, and something must be done about them. The problem is them and we must be done with them. The only truth worthy of the name is truth that empowers change. In the words of Karl Marx, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[2] All knowledge is propaganda. It is true if it is useful in advancing the struggle. It is false if it hinders the struggle. The purpose of education is to raise consciousness of the struggle and equip for service in the struggle.

We propose more for man. We propose that man and woman are more than machines, more even than autonomous, self-creating demi-gods, and certainly more than cogs in the revolutionary wheel. We propose that every man and every woman is a person and that every person is a gift in time and space from beyond time and space. Every person’s unique existence is by Divine Providence, not by meaningless chance. In an act of profound, incomprehensible love, our Creator authored each into being. Not an accident, not a product of chance, each of us imagined in the Divine Mind prior to the creation of the world. In due time, each of us formed in our mothers’ womb according to a Divine plan. If we only have eyes to see, this alone changes everything. In Charlotte Mason’s words:

This concept, of the mystery of a person, is very wholesome and necessary for us in these days; if we even attempted to realize it, we should not blunder as we do in our efforts at social reform, at education, at international relations … The mystery of a person is indeed divine, and the extraordinary fascination of history lies in the fact that this divine mystery continually surprises us in unexpected places.  Like Jacob, we cry, before the sympathy of the savage, the courtesy of the boor: “Behold, God is in this place and I knew it not.”  We attempt to define a person, the most commonplace person we know, but he will not submit to bounds; some unexpected beauty of nature breaks out; we find he is not what we thought, and begin to suspect that every person exceeds our power of measurement.[3]

Modern science (and with it the modern world) has been built on measurement. We measure; we problem-solve to manage outcomes. By so doing, we have split atoms, sent the Voyager spacecraft ten billion miles from earth, mapped the human genome, and created the internet. Given the success of science, it is not surprising that the modern educator seeks to utilize the same methods when working with students. But dare we treat a student as an object to be measured and labeled, a problem to be solved, a computer to be programmed, or a product to be managed?

In tens of thousands of classrooms every day, well-meaning teachers underestimate and devalue the spiritual and intellectual capacities of children. We label – ADHD, dyslexic; spectrum disorder, math child, artsy, first born, middle child, extrovert, shy, etc. We define the child and thus, our expectations accordingly. The problem is not in the descriptions of behavioral and/or cognitive weakness; this is an essential part of facilitating growth. The problem is in the labelling, defining and limiting.  Children and  adults alike  identify and act as a result of our labels, definitions and perceived limitations. We make accommodations and endeavor to help our children get by, but do we help them grow? Too frequently, we treat them with benevolent contempt.

We remember the divine warning, ‘See that ye despise not one of these little ones’; but the words convey little definite meaning to us.  What we call ‘science’ is too much with us.  We must either reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings, who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offense.[4]

It is a common failing of adults to lose sight of the sacred mystery that is each child. Whenever one sees a child primarily in terms of a few, relatively narrow performance metrics (i.e. test scores) or specific personality traits (i.e. extrovert), one loses sight of the Imago Dei, the divine image. Poets, such as William Wordsworth and Thomas Traherne, can help us see beyond our limited perceptions.

Wordsworth had glimmerings of the truth:  poets mean, not less, but a great deal more than they say; and when the poet says [speaking of a child], “Thou best philosopher,” “Thou eye among the blind,” “haunted forever by the eternal mind,” “Prophet, Seer blest,” and so on – phrases that we all know by heart, but how many of us realize? – we may rest assured that he is not using poetical verbiage, but is making what was in his eyes a vain endeavor to express the immensity of a person, and the greater immensity of the little child.[5]


Consider the poet Thomas Traherne’s meditation upon his experience as a child:

How like an angel I came down!
          How bright are all things here!
When first among His works I did appear,
          Oh how their Glory me did crown!
The world resembled His Eternity
          In which my soul did walk;
And everything that I did see
          Did with me talk.
The skies in their magnificence,
          The lively, lovely air;
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
          The stars did entertain my sense,
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,
          So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure
          In my esteem.
The streets were paved with golden stones,
          The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
          The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appeared to me,
          And everything which here I found,
Which like an angel I did see,
          Adorned the ground.[6]

Not all of us have such romantic memories of childhood, and our vision may be impoverished by the lack. Too many of us either never knew of or have forgotten the glories of childhood. Great indeed is the dignity of persons, and vast is their inheritance. We must be careful not to injure their dignity nor rob them of their inheritance. Each is a bearer of the Imago Dei and must be honored accordingly.

If all of this is true, if each of us is gloriously created by the loving hand of our Heavenly Father, it is very good news. And it is also challenging news. It is good news because our lives are inherently imbued with fullness of meaning, glory and purpose. Our Creator meant something in our creation, and He meant something very good. Our Creator intends something for our lives, and He intends something very good. We may not know the precise details of this divine purpose. We will likely never know entirely, but with the right education, we can know sufficiently. More importantly, He knows and is quite capable of accomplishing His purposes in us, through us and with us. This is inspirational!

But, to the modern mind, this is also a challenge; a challenge because if created with Divine meaning, than no person is free to assign meaning to himself. If created for a Divine purpose, then no person may give himself to his own purposes. If created by God, we belong to God. If we belong to God, we are not our own. The importance of this truth cannot be overstated it is to be written on our hearts and on the hearts of our children.

Fearfully and wonderfully made, each one glorious, the very image of God. Each of such innate giftedness as to defy our capacity for measurement. Yet, not our own. It is the fulness of each person’s glory, that aware or unaware, she or he belongs to God. Personhood is the pivotal truth upon which an Ambleside education is built.


[1] Mason, Charlotte. "Children As ‘Persons’." The Story of Charlotte Mason. Petersfield: Child Light, 2000. 221.

[3] Mason, Charlotte. "Children As ‘Persons’." The Story of Charlotte Mason. Petersfield: Child Light, 2000. 221.

[4] Ibid. 223.

[5] Ibid. 222.

[6] Ibid. 223.


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