Ambleside Blog

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.

Nurturing the Divine Life in the Child


It is a King that our spirits cry for, to guide them, discipline them, unite them to each other; to give them a victory over themselves, a victory over the world. It is a Priest that our spirits cry out for, to lift them above themselves to their God and Father, to make them partakers of his nature, fellow-workers in one authentic testimony that He is both the Priest and King of Men.[1]

A great power has been placed in the hands of parents and teachers, the power to enthrone the King, to induct the Priest into the innermost chamber of a child’s heart. There is no greater service to be done for a child, no greater gift to be given a child. For what does it matter if a child gains the whole world but loses his soul?

The soul has one appetite, for the things of God; breathes one air, the breath, the Spirit of God; has one desire, for the knowledge of God; one only joy, in the face of God. "I want to live in the Light of a Countenance which never ceases to smile upon me," is the language of the soul. The direct action of the soul is all Godward, with a reflex action towards men. The speech of the soul is prayer and praise, the right hand of the soul is faith, the light of the soul is love, the love of God shed abroad upon it.[2]

Who will bring a child to the place of light and life, to rightful communion with his Maker and his Destiny? Who is worthy of this holy task, this supreme function of parent and teacher in the educating of a child? None who would take it lightly. When it comes to the divine life, the first question one must ask is, “How much do I really care?” It is a hard truth that, as a rule, a child will not give greater care and attention to the divine life than do his parents and teachers. Unless we are ardently pursuing a life of holy dependence upon and joyful obedience to our Heavenly Father, there is little chance that our students will find the true life of their soul. They always believe what we live, not what we say. If we are content with a religion of passionless ideology propping up an artificial righteousness, so it will be for our children. If we pursue the vanities of this world more ardently than the things of God, so it will be for our children. If, however, we can say with Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,”[3] then our children will have experiential knowledge of living water flowing through us to them. As a rule, our students will go no deeper in the things of God than we do. Thus, it must be the continual prayer of the parent and teacher, “More Lord, more of You, for Your glory, for the students’ sake, and for my sake.”

Sowing Naturally, Lightly and Consistently

Yet, even if we possess true spiritual passion, a mind that is enlightened and a heart that is ablaze, we must not make blundering efforts. It is not our place to meddle, manipulate or cajole the soul of another, particularly a child entrusted to our care. The union and communion between God and the soul is a holy mystery. It is not our place to manipulate it, but we must sow. We must sow naturally, sow lightly and sow continually. To illustrate this light but prodigious sowing, Charlotte Mason used the image of a bee.

But what can the parent do? Just this, and no more: he can present the idea of God to the soul of the child. Here, as throughout his universe, Almighty God works by apparently inadequate means. Who would say that a bee can produce apple trees? Yet a bee flies from an apple tree laden with the pollen of its flowers: this it unwittingly deposits on the stigmas of the flowers of the next tree it comes to. The bee goes, but the pollen remains, but with all the length of the style between it and the immature ovule below. That does not matter; the ovule has no power to reach the pollen grain, but the latter sends forth a slender tube, within the tube of the style; the ovule is reached; behold, then, the fruit, with its seed, and, if you like, future apple trees! Accept the parable: the parent is little better in this matter than the witless bee; it is his part to deposit, so to speak, within reach of the soul of the child some fruitful idea of God; the immature soul makes no effort towards that idea, but the living Word reaches down, touches the soul––and there is life; growth and beauty, flower and fruit.[4]

The work of the bee is natural, flowing from the bee’s very being. It is not artificially fabricated. It is with a light touch. It is not demanding or heavy handed. The bee is doing what it knows. Similarly, when speaking of heavenly things, the parent or teacher must speak of that which she knows. Does she know something of God’s goodness? Let her speak of His goodness when there is an opportunity for gratitude. Does she know something of God’s power? Let her speak of it when there is a need for divine intervention. Does she know something of God’s love? Let her speak of it when there is a need for love. Does she know something of God’s mercy? Let her speak of it when there is a need for mercy. Does she know something of God as her King and her Ruler, let her speak of it when there is a need for obedience. To speak where there is no personal experience is to be a hypocrite, and children have a tremendous ability to discern hypocrisy. It is almost their superpower.

In addition to the natural, fruitful labor of the bee, Charlotte Mason gives us as second image, that of the wind.

Spiritual teaching, like the wafted odor of flowers, should depend on which way the wind blows. Every now and then there occurs a holy moment, felt to be holy by mother and child, when the two are together––that is the moment for some deeply felt and softly spoken word about God, such as the occasion gives rise to. Few words need be said, no exhortation at all, just the flash of conviction from the soul of the mother to the soul of the child. Is 'Our Father' the thought thus laid upon the child's soul? There will be, perhaps, no more than a sympathetic meeting of eyes hereafter, between mother and child, over thousand showings forth of 'Our Father's' love; but the idea is growing, becoming part of the child's spiritual life. This is all: no routine of spiritual teaching; a dread of many words, which are apt to smother the fire of the sacred life; much self-restraint shown in the allowing of seeming opportunities to pass; and all the time, earnest purpose of heart, and a definite scheme for the building up of the child in the faith. It need not be added that, to make another use of our Lord's words, "this kind cometh forth only by prayer." It is as the mother gets wisdom liberally from above, that she will be enabled for this divine task.[5]

As the bee sows pollen and the wind spreads the fragrance of flowers, so must we sow ideas of God that are “fitting and vital,” fitting in that they are appropriate to the current life needs of a child, and vital in that they energize, give spiritual life.

There are some few ideas which are as the daily bread of the soul, without which life and growth are impossible. All other teaching may be deferred until the child's needs bring him to it; but whoever sends his child out into life without these vital ideas of the spiritual life, sends him forth with a dormant soul, however well-instructed he may be in theology. [6]

Chief among these ideas to be sown as “daily bread for the soul” are:

  • God as Father – ever present, benevolent and all powerful, Who holds me in the palm of His hand and is glad to be with me in my strength and in my weakness, Who knows my true heart and smiles upon it, Who despises sin which is a cancer to the soul and is angry at sin with a protective, life-giving anger. The child who does not know that the Father is glad to be with him in his strength and in his weakness or sin has a malformed soul. Likewise, the child who does not know that the Father despises sin and its pernicious effects has a malformed soul.
  • Jesus as Savior and King – ever present to bring healing, to deliver us from evil, to bring us into the Father’s joy and life, to rule and to order our hearts. Everyone seeks a savior; a person, idea, or thing to bring wholeness to the soul. Every child must and will have a savior. In Charlotte Mason’s words,

Jesus, our Savior. Here is a thought to be brought tenderly before the child in the moments of misery that follow wrongdoing. 'My poor little boy, you have been very naughty to-day! Could you not help it?' 'No, mother,' with sobs. 'No, I suppose not; but there is a way of help.' And then the mother tells her child how the Lord Jesus is our Savior, because He saves us from our sins.[7]

Every child must and will have a king. The idea of Jesus as true King, good King, benevolent King, with Whom we can walk and talk, must be ever present in the air. Charlotte Mason’s words,

Christ, our King. Here is a thought to unseal the fountains of love and loyalty, the treasures of faith and imagination, bound up in the child. The very essence of Christianity is personal loyalty, passionate loyalty to our adorable Chief.

That Jesus, Savior and King, comes to indwell our hearts is an idea most accessible and most essential to our students,

The Indwelling of Christ is a thought particularly fit for the children, because their large faith does not stumble at the mystery, their imagination leaps readily to the marvel, that the King Himself should inhabit a little child's heart. 'How am I to know He is come, mother?' 'When you are quite gentle, sweet, and happy, it is because Christ is within,

And when He comes, He makes your face so fair,

Your friends are glad, and say, ‘The King is there.’

  • Holy Spirit as Comforter, Guide, Teacher – ever present to comfort and instruct, Who makes His home within us, who is about the work of making us holy, Who gives strength and wisdom.

Notice the cultivating of God’s Word in our own deepest being, manifested by the work of our hands and the direction of our attention, comes prior to and is the necessary precursor for the instruction of our children. If God’s Word is not a lived reality, we need not bother putting it on our doorposts or gates. If and only if life in God is a lived reality, does a place for definite instruction in the things of God take shape.

During the English Civil War (1642-1651), the devoted supporters of King Charles I were known as the Cavaliers. Charlotte Mason presents them as a model for cultivating allegiance.

Let us save Christianity for our children by bringing them into allegiance to Christ, the King. How? How did the old Cavaliers bring up sons and daughters, in passionate loyalty and reverence for not too worthy princes? Their own hearts were full of it; their lips spake it; their acts proclaimed it; the style of their clothes, the ring of their voices, the carriage of their heads––all was one proclamation of boundless devotion to their king and his cause. That civil war, whatever else it did, or missed doing, left a parable for Christian people. If a Stuart prince could command such measure of loyalty, what shall we say of "the Chief amongst ten thousand, the altogether lovely"?

One is reminded of the words of Moses to the people of Israel.

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.[8]

Religious Habits – The Incarnation of Spiritual Realities

Spiritual realities are to be joyfully and freely lived. There is a natural spontaneity to the healthy life of the soul. Thus, there must be a spontaneity in all our efforts to cultivate the spiritual life of a child. Yet, while such cultivation is spontaneous, it is neither random nor precipitous. All Good and Beautiful spontaneity is the fruit of well-formed habits. This is true of an acrobatic catch by an outfielder, an elegant solution by a mathematician, or a luminous act of charity by a great saint.  While the work of nurturing the spiritual life is like a bee or like the wind, there are definite habits to be intentionally cultivated. In Charlotte Mason’s words:

The next point we must set ourselves to consider is the laying down of lines of habit in the religious life. We need not enter again into the physiological reasons for the compelling power of habit. My present purpose is to consider how far this power can be employed in the religious development of a child. [9]

A few of the more important and often neglected habits of the religious life include:

  • The Practice of the Presence of God.  God is ever present with us in power and in love. The continual awareness of His presence is a habit to be cultivated. The life lived in the light of His countenance is a glorious one, even for a child. The life unaware is an impoverished one. It is a small thing to call a child’s attention to the presence of the Father, small but glorious.
  • Reverent Attitudes. God may be our Father, but He is not our old man. Too often, God is treated like a servant. We acknowledge His presence, appreciate the good He can do for us, and perhaps give Him a tip. In so doing, we deny His glory. At the end of the day, no child will be inspired to follow a bellhop god. We only truly give ourselves to One who commands our worship, whom we approach humbly and reverently, be it in times of prayer, Sunday school, Bible study, church worship, or most importantly, daily encounters with the holy.
  • Regularity in Devotions. That which we value, we give time. Children understand this. The family that gathers faithfully to sing a hymn, listen to a passage of scripture, retell the Gospel story, and discuss, giving attention to the thoughts of all, is a family that values life with God. When father and mother sing, children sing. When father and mother declare their gratitude and their need, children thank God and share their longings with Him. When time in devotions is a priority over sport, entertainment or homework, children grow up to value God.
  • The Habit of Praise. In Charlotte Mason’s words, Perhaps we do not attach enough importance to the habit of praise in our children's devotion. Praise and thanksgiving come freely from the young heart; gladness is natural and holy, and music is a delight. The singing of hymns at home and of the hymns and canticles in church should be a special delight; and the habit of soft and reverent singing, of offering our very best in praise, should be carefully formed.”
  • The Habit of Sunday-keeping. Charlotte Mason reminds us that The habit of Sunday observances, not rigid, not dull, and yet peculiar to the day, is especially important. Sunday stories, Sunday hymns, Sunday walks, Sunday talks, Sunday painting, Sunday knitting even, Sunday card-games, should all be special to the day, quiet, glad, serene. The people who clamor for a Sunday that shall be as other days little know how healing to the jaded brain is the change of thought and occupation the seventh day brings with it.”

There are other habits, too many to name. Indeed, the formation of a child is a task too big for us. But we are not alone. It is ours to be like the bee or the wind. For the joy of it, we begin in a direction. The children will intuit our holy pursuits. That we care, truly care, and try will go a long way with them. We remember:

Unless the Lord builds the house,

    those who build it labor in vain.

Unless the Lord guards the city,

    the guard keeps watch in vain.[10]

May the Lord build, and may we find the grace to cooperate with Him.


[1] Maurice, Frederick. Sermons on Sacrifice qtd. in Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 341.
[2] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 342.
[3] Galatians 2:20 NRSV
[4] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 344.
[5] Ibid. 348.
[6] Ibid. 347.
[7] Ibid. 351
[8] Deuteronomy 11:18-21 (NRSV)
[9] Mason, Charlotte. School Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 140-144 (excerpts)
[10] Psalm 127:1 (NRSV)

Knowing God

The knowledge of God is the principal knowledge and the chief end of education.

                                                                 Charlotte Mason[1]

Education is the science of relations, relations with saints and sinners, the past and the present, earth and sky, art and craft, work and leisure. Still, there is more. Nothing matters so much in the making of a man or woman as his/her relationship with God. It is a truism that we are creatures who desire and worship and that we become like the things we desire and worship. For good or ill, we are always in the process of being conformed to the image of our gods. For many of us, our god is far too small. Like the ancient Israelites, we have a propensity to bow before idols of our own making. Too frequently, we do as is our nature to do and give our self to false gods; rather than, worshipping the living God in whose presence seraphim declare “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”[2]

The appearance of God is ineffable and indescribable and cannot be seen by eyes of flesh. For in glory He is incomprehensible, in greatness unfathomable, in height inconceivable, in power incomparable, in wisdom unrivalled, in goodness inimitable, in kindness unutterable. For if I say He is Light, I name but His own work; if I call Him Word, I name but His sovereignty; if I call Him Mind, I speak but of His wisdom; if I say He is Spirit, I speak of His breath; if I call Him Wisdom, I speak of His offspring; if I call Him Strength, I speak of His sway; if I call Him Power, I am mentioning His activity; if Providence, I but mention His goodness; if I call Him Kingdom, I but mention His glory; if I call Him Lord, I mention His being judge; if I call Him Judge, I speak of Him as being just; if I call Him Father, I speak of all things as being from Him; if I call Him Fire, I but mention His anger. You will say then to me, ”Is God angry?” Yes; He is angry with those who act wickedly but He is good and kind and merciful to those who love and fear Him; for He is a chastener of the godly and father of the righteous; but he is a judge and punisher of the impious.

                                                                               Theophilus of Antioch[3]





Unless half dead, the heart of man and woman cries for more than the humdrum of daily existence. We are made for the infinite and find no true fulfillment apart from it. Sixteen centuries ago, in his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo declared, “[God] You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”[4] Such is the testimony of all who have come to intimacy with God. In Charlotte Mason’s words:

“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… the Soul of the poorest and most ignorant has capacity for God and can find no way of content without Him.[5]

Central to the mission of Ambleside schools is nurturing every member of the school community’s relation to the Triune God, to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, leaders, teachers and staff at an Ambleside school affirm a commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy.[6] The importance of such orthodoxy is not to be underestimated. Doctrine expresses a set of ideas about the nature of God, and ideas have profound consequences. Doctrines are powerful, bear practical fruit in life and are essential for passing on truth from one generation to the next.

And yet, as is true of all relations between persons, there is an immense difference between (1) knowing true things about God and (2) knowing God intimately. While to know God intimately we must recognize essential truth about Him, theological knowledge about God in no way guarantees intimate attachment to God; for “Even demons believe and shudder.”[7] True attachment to God engages and transforms both the head’s understanding and the heart’s affections.[8] Witnessing the 1733–35 revivals in his Northampton, Massachusetts church and playing a prominent role in America’s First Great Awakening, pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards argued that:

He who has no religious affection, is in a state of spiritual death, and is wholly destitute of the powerful, quickening, saving influences of the Spirit of God upon his heart. As there is no true religion where there is nothing else but affection, so there is no true religion where there is no religious affection. As on the one hand, there must be light in the understanding, as well as an affected fervent heart; where there is heat without light, there can be nothing divine or heavenly in that heart; so on the other hand, where there is a kind of light without heat, a head stored with notions and speculations, with a cold and unaffected heart, there can be nothing divine in that light, that knowledge is no true spiritual knowledge of divine things. If the great things of religion are understood, they will affect the heart.[9]

At Ambleside, we seek, for ourselves and our students, an intimate attachment to God that is true knowledge, personal knowledge, and passionate knowledge. We recognize that there are those who one day will say to the Lord, “I signed the right doctrinal statement.” But to whom the Lord will say, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”[10] Conversely, there are those who share genuine intimacy with God while having incomplete knowledge or erroneous opinion about Him. In no way do we minimize the importance of truth. Erroneous theology has harmful consequences. To the extent that our theology is in error, we suffer loss; but if we sin against charity, we suffer greater loss. When we disagree, it matters; one is clearer on the truth and the other less so. Still we remain humble, charitable, and respectful of the diverse positions of our diverse families and churches. We remember the example of Thomas Aquinas, who possessed one of the church’s greatest theological minds. Toward the end of his life, following a more intimate personal encounter with God, Aquinas ceased his theological writing, saying to Reginald, his secretary and friend, “Such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as so much straw.”[11] When the full glory of God is revealed, we will all have our theology overwhelmed.[12]

In summary, our intent is that every member of the Ambleside community may have within his or her heart the shout of the King.

Let them grow up, too, with the shout of a King in their midst. There are, in this poor stuff we call human nature, founts of loyalty, worship, passionate devotion, glad service, which have, alas! to be unsealed in the earth-laden older heart, but only ask place to flow from the child's. There is no safeguard and no joy like that of being under orders, being possessed, controlled, continually in the service of One whom it is gladness to obey.

                                                                             Charlotte Mason[13]

But how is such loyalty and devotion to the Divine King to be cultivated? Such will be the subject of our next blog/podcast.


[1] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 2.
[2] Isaiah 6:3 (NRSV)
[3] Theophilus of Antioch. Apology to Autolycus. Book 1. Chapter 3. Theophilus was patriarch of Antioch from c.169 to c. 183. His Apology to Autolycus was an early defense of Christianity to a pagan audience.
[4] Augustine, Saint. “The Confessions (Book I).” Chapter 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Kevin Knight. Translated by J.G. Pilkington, CHURCH FATHERS: Confessions, Book I (St. Augustine),
[5] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 175-176.
[6] In the form of the Nicene Creed or equivalent. Trinitarian orthodoxy is much more than an esoteric litmus test of faith. It gives expression to the conviction that the fundamental ground of all existence is relationship in love.
[7] James 2:19 (NRSV)
[8] Other than a heart’s growing intimacy with God, growing love of neighbor and growing peace; we must not confuse any particular type of emotional experience with deepening attachment to God.
[9] Edwards, Jonathan. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. Philadelphia, PA: James Crissy, 1821. 44-45.
[10] Matthew 7:23 (KJV)
[11] Chesterton, G. K. St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox. Image Books/Doubleday, 2001.
[12] “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12 (NRSV).
[13] Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 57.

Instructing in the Beauty Sense

Last time, we spoke of the Beauty Sense, a formative force rarely considered in its potent ability to shape the character of children. The Beautiful, together with the Good and the True are servants to one another, each drawing to the others, as it draws us to itself. Charlotte Mason speaks of imagination with the trained eye and ear, as central to the perception of beauty.

 He must needs have Imagination with him to travel there, but still more must he have that companion of the nice ear and eye, who enabled him to recognize music and beauty in words and  their arrangement. The æsthetic Sense, in truth, holds the key of this palace of delights. There are few joys in life greater and more constant than our joy in Beauty, though it is almost impossible to put into words what Beauty consists in; color, form, proportion, harmony––these are some of its elements.[1]

These elements of Beauty speak of perfection—completeness and are often spoken of with Truth and Goodness, forming a triad.

They have been called “transcendental” on the ground that everything which is is in some measure or manner subject to denomination as true or false, good or evil, beautiful or ugly. But they have also been assigned to special spheres of being or subject matter—the true to thought and logic, the good to action and morals, the beautiful to enjoyment and aesthetics.[2]

Humans are created for and called to the transcendent, to climb over or move beyond, to excel, surpass, and surmount. And when this does not happen, something has gone wrong. Bill calls it a malformation. The malformed soul does not delight in the good, beautiful and true, but the biting, brutal, and base. The question before each of us as educators, both parents and teachers is,  how do we rightly form the hearts and minds of students of all ages?

At Ambleside, we hold as a first principle that Education is the "Science of Relations" that our hearts and minds, our affections and desires are formed by the relational world which surrounds us, be it books and things, family and friends or social media and pop culture, trends and technology. Many years ago, a parent at the Ambleside School of Ocala said to me, “We are the sum total of the books we read, the ideas we entertain, and the people we befriend.”

In the cultivation of the beauty sense, books hold the same primacy of place that do art and music. Mason said that in order to have a richly-stored imagination we must read much.[3] Students read thousands of pages a year in Ambleside Schools beginning with a thousand plus pages in kindergarten read mostly by the teacher, and culminating with eight to nine thousand pages each year  of high school. They read books described  as living, books filled with beautiful, vivid language, creating scenes for imagination, ideas of life, the knowledge of God and man, conduct and duty, a storehouse of thought wherein we may find all the great ideas that have moved the world.

Given the right book, cultivating the sense of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth begins with: Expectation and Attention— “Everyday moments of epiphany are bestowed on everyone. Our role is to simply pay attention.”[4]  When opening a living book, a revelation, a manifestation of a new idea or truth awaits the reader. This truth can take the form of a clear conscious thought or of a yearning of the heart. One must participate in a careful reading of the text, assimilating its language and responding to its Idea. We read to know, to know both mind and heart, to know in Goodness, in Truth, and in Beauty.

At Ambleside, a student cannot help but give his/her attention. At any given time in, any given subject, the student may be called upon to read, narrate or discuss. Throughout the day, living readings in fiction and non-fiction, citizenship, geography, history, Scripture, and science are thoughtfully engaged. Student are not left listless or passive. Each is engaged.  Each experiences the reciprocity of giving and receiving insights from the author and from classmate. Each  is all attention.

The manner by which a teacher cultivates the Beauty Sense is exemplified in the following three examples:

Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s, The Yearling, is set in the 1870’s backwoods of central Florida and tells the story of a year in the life of Jody Baxter, the only surviving child of Penny and Ora Baxter. The teacher introduces chapter two, directing the students’ attention to Penny Baxter as he introduces  the reader to the family history.

The babies were frail, and almost as fast as they came, they sickened and died. Penny (their father) had buried them one by one in a cleared place among the black-jack oaks, where the poor loose soil made the digging easier. The plot grew in size until he was compelled to fence it in against the vandalism of hogs and polecats. He had carved little wooden tombstones for all. He could picture them standing white and straight in the moonlight. Some of them had names: Ezra Jr.; Little Ora; William T.  The others bore only such legends as Baby Baxter, aged 3 mos. 6 days. On one, Penny had scratched laboriously with his pocket-knife, “She never saw the light of day.” His mind moved back down the years, touching them, as a man touches fence posts in his passing. 

Jody’s mother had accepted her youngest with something of detachment, as though she had given all she had of love and care and interest to those others. But Penny’s bowels yearned over his son. He gave him something more than his paternity. He found that the child stood wide-eyed and breathless before the miracle of bird and creature, of flower and tree, of wind and rain and sun and moon, as he had always stood…. He would act on any such occasion, he knew, as a bulwark for the boy against the mother’s sharpness.[5]

The students read the entire book in class, episode by episode, pausing after a single reading for a student to narrate, to tell back what was read. The narration includes the language, order, and details of the author.  An episode like the one above includes a bit more text as it is abbreviated here. The teacher provides thoughtful discussions concerning:              

  • What do you notice about Jody’s relationship with Pa and with Ma? Why is Ma so detached? How is Pa so attached?
  • Consider Rawling’s phrase, “He found that the child stood wide-eyed and breathless before the miracle of bird and creature, of flower and tree, of wind and rain and sun and moon, as he had always stood.” What about nature has such an effect on Jody? Specifically, what is it of bird, creature, flower, tree, wind and rain that captures Jody’s heart?
  • Words evoke an idea of these things and therefore some idea of Beauty. What words stirred this sense of beauty in you?

On readings  and discussions such as these, the class ends in  a ”settled quiet” reflecting. The reflection reaps its result some six weeks later during Ambleside’s annual Veterans’ Chapel. A veteran of the Vietnam War spoke bitterly of his experience, regarding the relational injustices from officers and administration, to the undeserving, receiving of honors and medals. 

Exiting the chapel, the sixth-grade teacher said to me, “I have some clean up to do” referring to the profound negative tone of the message. Later, he told me this story. After settling into their seats, a student raised her hand, and said, “I know why the sergeant was so angry.  He is like Ma Baxter. She lost her children and remained sad. He lost all his friends through the years of the war, and he too is sad.” The teacher said to himself, “Why did I think I was the teacher?” As Charlotte Mason notes,

We recognize the spiritual potency of the idea that we are able to bow reverently before the fact that God the Holy Spirit is Himself the Supreme Educator, dealing with each of us severally in the things we call sacred and those we call secular. We lay ourselves open to the spiritual impact of ideas, whether these be conveyed by the printed page, the human voice, or whether they reach us without visible sign.[7]

The engagement with a living book is formative for life.

The next example is from the 1845 autobiography, The Life of Frederick Douglass. In this passage, twelve-year-old Douglass responds to a passage from The Columbian Orator.

In the same book, I met with one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.  The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over a conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers….

The idea as to how I might learn to write was suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters, after hewing and getting a piece of timber ready for use, write on the timber the name of that part of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece of timber was intended for the larboard side, it would be marked thus—“L.”  When a piece was for the starboard side, it would be marked thus—“S.”…  I soon learned the names of these letters, and for what they were intended when placed upon a piece of timber in the shipyard. I immediately commenced copying them, and in a short time was able to make the four letters named. After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, “I don’t believe you. Let me see you try it.” I would then make the letters I was so fortunate as to learn and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which is quite possible I should have never gotten in any other way. During this time, my copybook was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to write. I then commenced and continuing copying the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book, until I could make them all without looking on the book…. Thus, after a long tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write.[8]

After a  short introduction regarding The Columbian Orator, the careful reading and narrating of the text, the teacher provides questions (not all of these questions would be necessarily discussed) concerning Douglass’ response to his plight:

  • Douglass is twelve during this time, and he is reading famous speeches, what affect does this have on his life? Why?
  • The collection of orations includes such authors as: Socrates, Cicero, Jesus, Milton, William Pitt, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and native American chiefs; how do these readings act as a force in Douglass’ life?
  • Wordsworth, you may remember describes the child as father of the man. How did Douglass’ youth prepare him for manhood?
  • Speak about the gifts of reading and writing and their importance in school and in life.

The final example is from Alcott’s Little Women. In the episode “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair,” Meg reminisces with Joe and Marmee.

Meg had told her adventures gayly and said over and over what a charming time she had had, but something still seemed to weigh upon her spirits, and when the younger girls were gone to bed, she sat thoughtfully staring at the fire, saying little and looking worried. As the clock struck nine and Jo proposed bed, Meg suddenly left her chair and, taking Beth's stool, leaned her elbows on her mother's knee, saying bravely...

"Marmee, I want to 'fess'."

"I thought so. What is it, dear?"

"Shall I go away?" asked Jo discreetly.

"Of course not. Don't I always tell you everything? I was ashamed to speak of it before the younger children, but I want you to know all the dreadful things I did at the Moffats'."

"We are prepared," said Mrs. March, smiling but looking a little anxious.

"I told you they dressed me up, but I didn't tell you that they powdered and squeezed and frizzled, and made me look like a fashion-plate. Laurie thought I wasn't proper. I know he did, though he didn't say so, and one man called me 'a doll'. I knew it was silly, but they flattered me and said I was a beauty, and quantities of nonsense, so I let them make a fool of me."

"Is that all?" asked Jo, as Mrs. March looked silently at the downcast face of her pretty     daughter, and could not find it in her heart to blame her little follies.

"No, I drank champagne and romped and tried to flirt, and was altogether abominable," said Meg self-reproachfully.

"There is something more, I think." And Mrs. March smoothed the soft cheek, which suddenly grew rosy as Meg answered slowly...

"Yes. It's very silly, but I want to tell it, because I hate to have people say and think such things about us and Laurie."

Then she told the various bits of gossip she had heard at the Moffats', and as she spoke, Jo saw her mother fold her lips tightly, as if ill pleased that such ideas should be put into Meg's innocent mind.

"Well, if that isn't the greatest rubbish I ever heard," cried Jo indignantly. "Why didn't you pop out and tell them so on the spot?"

"I couldn't, it was so embarrassing for me. I couldn't help hearing at first, and then I was so angry and ashamed, I didn't remember that I ought to go away."

"Just wait till I see Annie Moffat, and I'll show you how to settle such ridiculous stuff. The idea of having 'plans' and being kind to Laurie because he's rich and may marry us by-and-by! Won't he shout when I tell him what those silly things say about us poor children?" And Jo laughed, as if on second thoughts the thing struck her as a good joke.

"If you tell Laurie, I'll never forgive you! She mustn't, must she, Mother?" said Meg, looking distressed.

"No, never repeat that foolish gossip, and forget it as soon as you can," said Mrs. March gravely. "I was very unwise to let you go among people of whom I know so little, kind, I dare say, but worldly, ill-bred, and full of these vulgar ideas about young people. I am more sorry than I can express for the mischief this visit may have done you, Meg."

"Don't be sorry, I won't let it hurt me. I'll forget all the bad and remember only the good, for I did enjoy a great deal, and thank you very much for letting me go. I'll not be sentimental or dissatisfied, Mother. I know I'm a silly little girl, and I'll stay with you till I'm fit to take care of myself. But it is nice to be praised and admired, and I can't help saying I like it," said Meg, looking half ashamed of the confession.

"That is perfectly natural, and quite harmless, if the liking does not become a passion and lead one to do foolish or unmaidenly things. Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg."[9]

Again, students give attention to the reading, assimilate the story (taking it into mind and heart) and retell the story in a manner both true to the author and uniquely their own. The teacher prompts thoughtful discussion.

The chapter “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair” consists of seventeen pages and would not be read in a single lesson as the teacher desires to give due attention to the text through a careful reading, narration and thoughtful discussion such as:

  • What role does conscience play in Meg’s life? How can conscience be easily ignored?
  • What truths did Meg learned from this experience about herself? Others?
  • What makes Marmee’s  advice wise?  

What one reads matters. The Beauty Sense is cultivated by encountering and sharing the beautiful in the lives of literary characters such as Jody, a boy becoming a man, Frederick Douglass, a slave and his quest for freedom, and a family of girls learning how to navigate the world.

Rawlings, Douglass, and Alcott instruct the human spirit through their stories. We learn from their pages, their artistry in making alive what was imagined and remembered in their hearts and minds. These books, and books like them, are living through their characters and conflicts, romps in the natural world with fawn and friend,  through the earnest defiance of injustice to the human spirit, to the intimacy of family and friendship, challenges of loss and loneliness, hardships and slavery. Each chapter reflects and cultivates the transcendent triad of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.

[1] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 41.
[2] The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World. Adler, Mortimer Ed. William Benton Pub.,1990.
[3]  Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 50.
[4] Schleske, Martin. The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020. xiii.
[5] Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. The Yearling. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966. 18-19.
[6] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 42.
[7] Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 230.
[8] Douglas, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Tribecca Books. 45, 47-48
[9] Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York. 1994. 109-111.

On Beauty

“On Beauty | Listen to this blog as a podcast on Ambleside Flourish Podcast

These are harrowing times. A man dies under the knee of a police officer. Such things ought not to be. Crowds erupt in riot, looting, burning and killing. Such things ought not to be. How are we to understand it? What is to be done?

Listening to the voices filling the air, the pundits on the left claim the problem is the power politics and economics of the right. The pundits on the right claim the problem is the power politics and economics of the left. Violent elements are enabled and exploited. All grow in fear and in rage. Both sides suggest that if we just get the politics and economics right, all will be well. But is this true? Certainly, politics and economics matter. They matter very much. But is there something more essential, something upstream from politics and economics that must be gotten right if a virtuous politics and economics is to be possible, something that if missing will inevitably lead to corruption and decay?

In generations past, it was generally held by Americans, both thoughtful elites and commonsense citizens, that apart from the general valuing of a noble character, no political or economic system would be sufficient to establish a people in justice and freedom. Thus, there was a time when no educational institution could be deemed successful unless it cultivated a virtuous character.1 As Charlotte Mason expressed a century ago: This is familiar ground to us: we too have taught, in season and out of season, that the formation of character is the aim of the educator.2

The formation of character is at the heart of an Ambleside education. It is not the only component of an Ambleside education, but it is fundamental. To fail in the matter of character formation, is to fail completely. “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?"3 To some extent, everything we do at Ambleside relates in some way to the formation of character; be it worshipping God, obeying a teacher, serving a classmate, managing emotional distress well, giving careful attention to a painting, or delighting in the accurate solving of a mathematics' problem—all reflect and cultivate the content of one’s character.

There is an aspect of character which is rarely considered but is a far more formative guide to the heart than conscious or critical analysis could ever be. This aspect of character, this motivational power, is what Charlotte Mason recognized as “the beauty sense.” To be sure, the beauty sense has little to do with the prosaic notion of good taste in fine art or home decorating. Like Goodness and Truth, Beauty is one of the fundamental aspects of any and every created thing. Ours is a world created and sustained by the eternal Word of God. Yet, ”groaning in labor pains until now”4, it suffers from the ravages of sin. In such a cosmos, every existing thing is more or less True, more or less Good, more or less Beautiful. Compare an elegant, fragrant rose in full bloom with a wilted rose:

  • In terms of thought, the elegant rose is more truly what God had in mind when He thought of roses. 
  • In terms of action in the world, the elegant rose is a better, more complete expression of what God intended for roses to be. 
  • In terms of bringing joy, the elegant rose is better ordered to the delight God intended roses to be.

In other words, the elegant rose is objectively truer, better and more beautiful than the wilted rose. This may be difficult to accept. For a hundred years, we have been told that beauty is subjective, a matter of personal preference. The subjectivizing of beauty is a gross failure of thought and imagination. Moreover, it is extremely destructive. The subjectivizing of beauty has led to an abandonment of the responsibility to educate our children’s “beauty sense.” And today, we are seeing the tragic consequences in our streets. Contemplate:

  • A new mother and her baby hold each other, eyes locked in visual embrace, mutual smiles, rhythmic peace and joy.
  • A father and child delight in one another; bright-faced, throwing, catching, chasing after a ball, smiles and laughter.
  • Unsolicited, a good woman drops food and other needed supplies on the doorsteps of elderly and physically vulnerable neighbors. 
  • A protester steps forward to take a police officer in warm embrace, as a crowd stands awed and tensions melt.
  • A band of brothers stand side-by-side in front of a store, peacefully using their bodies to protect both the elderly owner and his livelihood.

To the well-formed soul, such images brighten the eye, inspire, bring joy, motivate virtuous living. To those who have “eyes to see”, such images are beautiful. But to the malformed, such images have no appeal. To the malformed, only the grotesque appeals; only fear, anger, bitterness motivates.

How is it that both the grotesque and the beautiful have such power? While it is a great oversimplification, one can think of the human brain as having two motivational systems5 -- the love-joy system and the lust-fear-anger system. Love-joy is built upon and reinforces a life of relational wholeness. Lust-fear-anger is built upon and reinforces a life of relational deficits. At least since the Greek Classical Age, great minds have recognized that when the eye of the rightly formed soul looks out into the world and beholds Beauty, love-joy is amplified. Plato described this phenomenon in the Phaedrus:
When in like manner the soul is beginning to grow wings, the beauty of the beloved meets her eye and she receives the sensible warm motion of particles which flow towards her, therefore called emotion, and is refreshed and warmed by them, and she ceases from her pain with joy. 

Love-joy bonds are only built upon the objectively Good, True and Beautiful. Lust-fear-anger bonds are built upon the evil, false and grotesque. Beauty runs deep in the human soul, deep in the human brain; deeper than the Good and far deeper than the True. An infant recognizes the Beauty of her mother’s face before recognizing the Good and long before recognizing Truth. We know beauty when free of lust-fear-anger, our heart sees, smiles and wants to share the experience with others. This is true whether it is Beauty resonant in a Monet masterpiece, Odell Beckham’s acrobatic catch, or the September 11 rush of first responders into the Twin Towers.

We remember the words of St. Paul:
Finally, 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

The great tragedy of a malformed beauty sense is not bad taste in art or interior decoration. It is the complete inability to recognize the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, the worthy of praise. Failing right formation, the soul delights in the brutal, the base and the bitter. Fail to cultivate the beauty sense, and our children know only the mob.

1See James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character.
2Mason, Charlotte. School Education. 98.
3 Luke 9:25 NRSV
4Romans 8:22 NRSV
5See Allan N. Shore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self and E. James Wilder, et. al. Joy Starts Here.
6Philippians 4:8 NRSV
*Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son 1875, Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Open Access.

“Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times (Part 2)

“Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times (Part 1)  | Listen to this blog as a podcast on Ambleside Flourish Podcast

In Part I of “Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times we heard the story of Suzie and her “big sad.” We attended to the principal’s wise attuned engagement, through which he was able to facilitate Suzie’s return to joy/peace. In doing so, the principal was careful to:

  • Remain at peace when walking into a highly charged situation.
  • Reset the emotional-relational atmosphere of the classroom/home.
  • Attune to Suzie without becoming enmeshed.
  • Honor the distress coming from Suzie’s voice without taking it too seriously.
  • Give Suzie hope. “Let me know when big sad is only this big.”
  • Give relational time. It took a while for Suzie to get beyond her big sad.
  • Take advantage of a teachable moment, without forcing it.

Building Resilience

The story of the principal and Suzie was primarily about recovery from a distressed brain state, but this is only half of the work that is to be accomplished. It is also the responsibility of parents and teachers to build resilience. Resilience is the capacity to absorb adversity without slipping into a dysfunctional, distressed brain state. The greater the resilience, the less likely a child (or anyone for that matter) is to respond adversely, regardless of what is happening in the environs. Eight practices for building resilience will be the topic of this blog.

  1. Take care of the brain by taking care of the body. Human persons are bodily beings. If our bodies are not well cared for, we do not do well. If this is true of adults, it is even more true for children. Always, but particularly in stressful times, it is essential to ensure that children get plenty of exercise, sufficient sleep, and a healthy diet, one low in simple carbohydrates. If life on sugar, caffeine, and little sleep make adults more prone to emotional outbursts, how much more is this true for children?
  2. Learn the power of redirection. Hourly, most of us have at least one  distressing thought flit across our minds. If we give this thought attention, even by arguing with it, the thought becomes increasingly more potent and distressing. In contrast, if one has learned the habit of redirecting  a thought to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… anything worthy of praise,”[1] these initially distressing thoughts lose their power. An alert adult can be of great assistance to a child who has not yet learned this skill. Daily, we have seen children of increasingly distressed minds relieved, when peacefully redirected by the simple task of going to get a drink of water or handing out the science books.
  3. Establish joyful routines and good order. External order supports internal order. Assuming it is not being maintained by an anxious, angry parent, routines and good order promote security and peace. Children experience a greater degree of emotional well-being when they know what to expect of each day – time to rise, time to sleep, time for meals, time for chores, time for schoolwork, time for play, time for family and time for prayer. Moving from little or no routine to joyful routine can be challenging, as is any change. The challenge is more on the part of the adults than the children. Children adapt quickly if there is gracious, peaceful reasonableness and consistency, but reasonableness and consistency on the part of adults is essential. Children disdain what they experience as arbitrary.
  4. Build grateful hearts. Some of us give most of our thought and our talk to that which is worrisome and distressing. Others give most of our thought and our talk to that which is good and appreciated. The latter are far happier people and far better equipped to deal with distress. Appreciation inoculates us against a distressed brain. One cannot feel both appreciation and distress at the same time. Children tend to catch either a worrisome or appreciative orientation from their parents, either the habit of dark thoughts or the habit of sweet thoughts. The latter are far happier children and far better equipped to deal with life’s distresses. Whether around the dinner table or as part of a bedtime routine, spending a few minutes remembering the blessings of the day nurtures a grateful heart. It  is important that such a routine not be a dead litany but an active remembering, re-experiencing, and appreciating of these blessings.
  5. Share stories, especially heart-felt stories. When we share part of our story with someone who is interested and cares, the joy in the story gets multiplied and any associated distress is reduced. Parents and teachers are in a potent place to serve children in this way. Children need us to hear them, to be open, curious, and engaged. They need a gentle, encouraging response that communicates interest, support, and empathy.
    Related is the sharing of story through a regular time of family read-a-loud from a classic story. The adventures and adversity in a worthy story  do much to inform the hearts of children,  particularly when experienced in community. As we interact around shared stories, they tell us who we are and how we do life together.
  6. Provide worthy “mind food” and worthy work. Engaging the mind with idea-rich learning and with fruitful work provides a mental and emotional satisfaction that inoculates the brain against overwhelming distress, providing something to give attention to. A child’s lament of “I’m bored,” “There’s nothing to do” and the like quickly contaminate the atmosphere, leading to distressed brains.
  7. Get out in nature. There is something emotionally healing and restorative about being out in nature, whether walking through a park or studying a plant in the yard. Even the painting of a clipped flower has some of the life-giving effects of nature.
  8. Minimize screen time. Television and video games have a powerful effect on our bodies and our minds. Such media are designed to play upon our autonomic  nervous and endocrine systems, taking advantage of the body’s heightened response to keep us tuned into the screen and out of life.Children do not leave time with TV and video games feeling emotionally refreshed; rather, they become increasingly fragile and reactive. Screens may provide a temporary distraction for children and a break for parents, but there is a price to be paid. The more time on screen, the higher the price of dissatisfaction, resulting in  vulnerabilities to all that is in the “air.”

If this is all new, these eight suggestions for building resilience may seem overwhelming. It is important to be wise. Begin by thinking about where to start?  Do what you can and build upon it. You and your children will be blessed by your efforts.

Some Final Thoughts

The ability to manage emotional distress well and stay one’s best self is a learned skill. A few may be naturals, such as the congenitally light-hearted and positive. While they seem  inoculated against distress,  most of us must learn from a trusted adult who will walk closely with us.

It is worth asking the question, How good am I at managing emotional distress and staying my best self? How good are my children at it? Are we content to leave our children to their nature? They are not capable of doing that which they do not know how to do. Are we willing to grow up ourselves and to help them grow?

Unusually distressing times such as these turn up the temperature, increasing general levels of distress. The good news is that the principles for supporting child resilience and recovery from distress remain the same, even in times like these. And such times provide opportunities for everyone’s growth. We encourage Ambleside teachers to pray regularly that whatever areas of immaturity are present in the students be brought to the fore. This is a courageous prayer. But what is the alternative? Only that a student’s weakness remains hidden and maturity elusive. This is a challenging prayer. It requires that we all grow into the kind of adults that can stay our “best selves,” even when our children are less than their “best selves,” and that we learn to respond in a manner that cultivates greater maturity for all.

May God’s grace be upon us, as we are His instruments in the loving nurture, the “bringing up” of the children given to our care.

[1] Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)
*Image courtesy of Matthew Henry all rights reserved. Creative Commons.

What A Yearling!

He lay in a stupor of weariness. He hung suspended in a timeless space. He could neither go forward nor back. Something was ended. Nothing was begun.     The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings 

As my daughter and I finished reading this semester’s literature book, The Yearling, my voice unexpectedly left me, mid-sentence. I tried again, but the words were pushing the emotion out from my eyes and my voice refused to cooperate. I rolled my eyes at her while I took a deep breath and she tolerated my pause. I had tearlessly made it to the final sentence and was as surprised as she to not be able to complete it. It wasn’t really the final sentence that stood on my vocal cords, daring me to croak out the few remaining words. It was those words from earlier in the chapter that gripped my mother-soul and the knowledge of them overwhelmed me. 

Yes, I was touched with the significance of this moment, my last child finding her own way from childhood to young adult like the protagonist in the story, but it was more. Yes, the storyline overwhelmed me with the sweet reminders of the other child-to-adult transformations of her siblings, but the ache that caught my heart in my throat was still something else. 

The above excerpt, written in 1938, is an uncanny description of this current season of our lives: this timeless alone-apart, something where we all feel like we are leaving something we loved, but are not sure we treasured enough, while we are wary of what new thing may be ahead. We hang “suspended in a timeless space” where we are not in control of the tempo or the choreography of this dance through present history. 

We found ourselves in uncharted emotional, physical and spiritual waters when we were all pushed into the deep end of “distance learning” and “together-apart” and “shelter-at-home.” We faced new first times, scary transitions and questions demanding answers when we had few facts on which to base our replies. In some ways, we sent out a corporate SOS and weren’t sure who was going to hear us. 

We are still in the space between. The thing is, I don’t know of one transition that isn’t ugly. Think baby into a toddler. Think Middle School. Think puberty. And, roll your eyes, think menopause. Ugly. All ugly in their own ways. Leaving the safety of the known for the future unknown is always...rough. 

Like tightrope walkers, we have left the security of where we were as a community, with all its beauty and purpose as well as struggle and weaknesses, and we are headed on this tightrope toward the unknown, whatever is  before us. This wire is taking us from what we knew, to what is ahead, can only hold us if there is tension. Rarely do we see transformation in one simple step (except on Facebook) and never have I seen it without tension (which is usually ugly, can I get a witness?!). 

We can use that tension and decide that what we are leaving behind is left behind us. No one makes it across the tightrope if she clings to the place she just left. We need to grieve our losses in order to fully celebrate whatever our new normal will be. Goodbyes are hard but they’re harder if one refuses to acknowledge them. The Biblical call to forget “those things which are behind” doesn’t mean ignore them (Philippians 3:13). Take the time to close the door on what was, be it a specific grade, an event that was canceled, or the people you miss. 

Stepping across this transition/tightrope with confidence is difficult when we don’t always feel it is a choice. There will be a surprising crosswind or unexpected gust to make us catch our breath and question whether we can do this, make it through this. We know this walk can build our endurance (James 1:2-3). Unlike Jody in The Yearling, we have a community to lean on, a 15-year school history to support us. We have a network of other Ambleside Schools and our credentialing organization, Ambleside Schools International, sharing best practices with each other. We have the God who knows all the hairs on our heads and He can show each of us how we ought to educate our children. 

One of the satisfactory moments in The Yearling is when Jody chooses to selflessly step into his role as a household provider instead of clinging to his irresponsible childhood ways. From the hardships he and his yearling created, a young man emerges and begins to take his place serving instead of being served. Each of us has transitions we are personally “walking across” as well as those we are facing as the Ambleside community. May we keep our hearts set on the true prize before us, and remember, even though “transitions are ugly,” there is the opportunity for grace and new maturity for each of us as we live into the person God created us to be. 

 ~Dorthy Dersch 

Parent at Ambleside of Ocala /Board Member of Ambleside Schools International

Jody Lost, N.C. Wyeth, Project Gutenberg Public Domain.

“Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times (Part 1)

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These last weeks have been taxing. Routines have been radically altered. Freedoms have been constrained. Normal pleasures have been curtailed. For many, income has been disrupted. And perhaps most trying of all, the future is uncertain. The illusion that we are in control is being challenged. Such testing times can be stressful for parent and child alike.

In these exceptional times as in normal times, it must be remembered that every child is unique and responds to adversity uniquely. No two children do life quite the same way. No two are delighted in quite the same way. No two are distressed in quite the same way. Some are more skilled at responding to adversity, some less so; either way, there is always diversity. We see this diversity in the way children have responded to life under the threat of COVID-19. Many children, while they may be missing normal routines, outings, and community, are nonetheless at peace with the current home regime. Such children are responding with the same degree of blessedness and sinfulness as they would in “normal” times. Other children seem not to be their “normal” selves. They may be excessively clingy or selfish, perhaps unusually prone to outbursts of  tears or fits of anger. How is this to be understood? And, more importantly, what is to be done?

The Story of Suzie and the Principal

The school secretary rushed into the principal’s office and exclaimed, “The kindergarten needs your help!” Up from his desk, through the door, and down the stairs went the principal. As he approached the door of the kindergarten classroom, a piercing shriek could be heard resounding down the hall. Opening the door, the principal saw to his right, in the front of the classroom sitting on the carpet with their teacher, eleven students, all wide-eyed and slightly pale. To his left, in the back corner of the classroom stood Suzie, screaming at the top of her lungs. Immediately, the principal turned to the eleven students and calmly but clearly said, “Suzie has a very big sad, doesn’t she?” Every head nodded vigorously in agreement. “Have you ever had a very big sad?” Again, every head nodded. “It’s all going to be okay.” And eleven little bodies all released a sigh of relief.

Turning to the other side of the classroom, the principal said, “Suzie, how big is your sad? Is it this big?” holding his hands six inches apart. “This big?” holding his hands thirty inches apart. “Or this big?” stretching his hands as far apart as he could. Suzie, immediately thrust her hands as far apart as she could, all the while screaming at full throttle. “Oh, that’s hard, let me know when it’s only this big,” said the principal holding his hands thirty inches apart. He then turned to the teacher and instructed her to continue reading.

Thus, the teacher read, eleven students peacefully attended to the story, Suzie continued to scream though not quite so vigorously, and three minutes passed. The principal asked again calmly, looking deeply, inquisitively into her eyes, “Suzie, how big is your sad now? Is it this big? This big? Or this big?” Again, Suzie thrust her hands as far apart as she could, all the while continuing to scream. “Okay, let me know when it’s only this big,” said the principal holding his hands thirty inches apart. Another three minutes passed, and the principal asked again, “Suzie, how big is your sad now? Is it this big? This big? Or this big?” This time Suzie responded with something between a whine and a scream, holding her hands twenty inches apart. “Good,” said the principal, “let me know when it’s only this big,” holding his hands six inches apart. A few minutes later, the teacher finished the story, and the class got up to go outside. The principal indicated he would remain with Suzie. As the class departed, Suzie became increasingly quiet. The principal then asked a final time, “Suzie, how big is your sad?” This time she held her hands six inches apart. “Good, come sit beside me,” said the principal, and the following conversation ensued.

“That was a very big sad, wasn’t it?”
            Suzie vigorously nods her head, yes.
“Do big sads sometimes just come and jump on you like that?”
            Again, a vigorous nod.
“Tell me, Suzie, do you know when a big sad is coming? Can you feel it?”
            Again, a nod.
“When a big sad is coming, where does it start? Does it start in your stomach, your heart, your head or some other part of your body?”
            “My stomach.”
“And it spreads from there so that you don’t know what to do and can only scream?”
            Again, a nod.
“There is a way to stop the spread of the big sad.”
“You’ve been learning your numbers, right? Can you count to 100?”
“Show me.”
            Suzie counts from 1 to 50.

“Whoa! You know your numbers, Suzie! Now, the best way to fight the big sad, when it starts to grow, is to redirect your thinking to something else. Why don’t you try it? Next time you feel a big sad coming, instead of thinking about the big sad, think about your numbers and start counting. See how far you can count before the big sad is chased away. Are you ready to go and rejoin you class?”

            “Yes," she said.

Suzie and the principal walked hand in hand to join the class. As Suzie did so, she was all smiles, and for the remainder of the day, she was peaceful. The next day during lunch, Suzie’s teacher approached the principal, saying, “The strangest thing just happened. This morning, Suzie got that look in her eye, and I said to myself, ‘Oh no, here we go.’ But then, I heard her whispering, ‘One, two, three, four, five’ and so on. And the clouds passed without a storm.”

Before exploring the lessons to be learned, a little of the backstory would be helpful. Suzie’s teacher had instructed her students to move from their desks to the carpet for the reading of a story. Suzie asked to sit next to her teacher. As Suzie had sat beside the teacher the day before, her teacher graciously declined the request. Lacking the emotional-relational maturity to handle this disappointment well, Suzie rapidly decompensated and was soon screaming at the top of her lungs from the other side of the classroom.

Like every human person, Suzie is made for and seeks beatitude, relational blessedness. More than sensual pleasure, relational blessedness is the internal state of fruitful joy and peace, that manifests itself to the world. It is nurtured and sustained by the fruitful, joy/peace of one’s people, and ultimately by the fruitful, joy/peace of God. Sin and the “groanings”[1] of a broken world often disrupt joy/peace. When joy/peace is disrupted the human brain begins a faster than consciousness search of memory,[2] looking for a mental map that would guide back to joy/peace. While a psychologically and spiritually mature person will have many maps back to joy/peace, an immature person will have few. When a distressing event occurs and one lacks a mental map back to joy/peace, the brain reacts as if in a feverish loop, running round and round in circles, seeking an answer it simply does not have. Frontal lobes begin to darken. Executive function becomes unhinged, and the brain regresses to fight, flight, freeze or cling mode.[3] If we have been paying attention, we all will have noticed this in our children, our co-workers, our friends, our spouse, and even ourselves. A distressing event occurs, and a person ceases to be his or her usual self. There is a desperate, out of control look in the eye. Behaviors become erratic, unreasonable, angry, anxious, depressed and/or enmeshed. The mind’s elevator is no longer getting to the top floor. This is all quite normal, a common phenomenon in a fallen world. We need not become overly fretful. The question is, how are we to be helpful?

While the story of Suzie and the principal is taken from a particular school situation, it provides lessons for coming to the aid of distressed brains at home or in the classroom.

Lessons to Be Learned

  1. Remain at peace when walking into a highly charged situation. This is essential. One cannot be part of the solution if one becomes part of the problem. One cannot bring peace if caught up in the distress. We can catch a distressed brain state like the flu (or COVID-19, for that matter). When two or more share a distressed brain state, they tend to spin out, getting farther and farther from joy/peace. It is quite impossible for one who is in a distressed brain state to help another recover from a distressed brain state. Parents and teachers are called to be the “bigger brains.” This can be difficult, and there are times when one must take a personal time out or tag team with someone not in distress state. In order to get back to joy/peace before attempting to come to a child’s aid; we must take seriously Jesus’ words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”[4]
  2. Reset the emotional-relational atmosphere. Stress was in the air. The intensity was palpable. It could be seen on the faces of the other children. A distressed atmosphere amplifies distress, making it more difficult to get back to joy/peace. The principal resets the atmosphere by reassuring the other students. “Suzie has a very big sad, doesn’t she?” “Have you ever had a very big sad?” “It’s all going to be okay.” Most importantly, all the principal’s nonverbal communication—facial expressions, posture, voice tone, are reinforced by the statement, “It’s all going to be okay.”
  3. Attune without becoming enmeshed. Looking intently into Suzie’s face, the principal’s face communicates concern but not distress. He understands her. He recognizes something is happening inside Suzie that is emotionally overwhelming to her, but not to him. He feels Suzie’s distress but can peacefully handle it. This stance is reinforced by the untroubled question, “How big is your sad?When it comes to attuning with a distressed brain, there are two failings. The first is to stay coldly aloof. It is a failure to empathize, to allow oneself to be connect with what the distressed person is feeling. The second is to become enmeshed. An enmeshed brain goes beyond empathy to “unreasonable pity” and, thereby, unintentionally amplifies the distressed brain’s feelings. The coldly aloof and the enmeshed are equally incapable of aiding a distressed brain in getting back to joy/peace.
  4. Honor what comes from a distressed person’s voice but do not take it too seriously. While distressed brains desperately seek to communicate their internal reality, they cannot assess external reality very well. Suzie screams as if something terrible is happening. Objectively, this is simply not the case. But trying to convince Suzie that things really are not so bad and that she really ought not be responding in this way, would be of no help at all. Further, such talk would be to Suzie a denial of what she is experiencing. By asking, “How big is your sad?” the principal honored Suzie’s experience without buying into it. Always remember that a distressed brain has a remarkable capacity to fabricate a story for explaining to itself both its distress and its response to the distress. The story may appear ludicrous to the observer, but to the distressed brain it is absolute truth. One should never debate with a person in a distressed brain state. The reasoning part of his/her brain is simply not working. Wait until the brain gets back to joy/peace when the brain’s executive functions turn back on. Then and only then is there the possibility of a reasonable conversation. Forced attempts at “rational” conversation with a distressed little brain are usually vain attempts on the part of an increasingly distressed bigger brain to maintain control.[5]
  5. Give hope. The greater a brain’s distress, the greater the sense of despair. Perhaps the distressed brain’s biggest fear is that the distress will go on and on and on, that it will never come to an end, eventually turning into a black hole which consumes the soul. The principal’s repeated admonition, “Let me know when it’s only this big,” communicates confidence that the distress will pass. It will not go on and on. There is the expectation of a return to joy/peace.
  6. Give relational time. The return of a brain to joy/peace is a process that can be supported but cannot be controlled. Recovery takes time, sometimes more, sometimes less. It is absolutely necessary to give the needed time. One caveat: if a child is using personal distress as a manipulative tool to gain attention or to win a power struggle, it cannot be allowed to work. Most of the time in such cases, the child should be left alone, with the standing offer to return to life together, once he has “quieted his heart.”
  7. Do not force it but do take advantage of a teachable moment. When a person is in the midst of a distressed brain state, it is not a teachable moment. Distressed brains are incapable of receiving verbal instruction well, and it is counterproductive to force the matter. However, if one has successfully aided a distressed brain in getting back to joy/peace, it becomes a very teachable moment. The principal took advantage of this moment to show Suzie that she is loved (sitting beside her, walking with her to rejoin the class, holding her hand) and to instruct her in a strategy for avoiding “big sads” in the future.
  8. Change is almost never an instantaneous and complete reversal. Change usually occurs  in frequency over time. This was not Suzie’s last “big sad. ”But it was the beginning of a process by which over time Suzie’s “big sads” became fewer and of less intensity; such that two years later, by the time Suzie was in the second grade, “big sads” were largely a thing of the past.

Final Thoughts

The school classroom is the setting for the story of Suzie and the principal; nonetheless all of the ideas explored here apply as much to home life as they do to the school. Principals, teachers, and parents alike will encounter distressed “little brains.” It is all quite normal. We are not just born sinners; we are also born emotionally-relationally immature. Thus, bringing distressed “little brains” to greater maturity is part of the job description of parents and teachers. We must acknowledge that it is not always easy. It is challenging to remain the peaceful, engaged “bigger brain” which is helpful to the little ones we love.  Thus, the distress becomes an opportunity for growth not just for the “little brain” but the “bigger brain” as well.

The story of the principal and Suzie was primarily about recovery from a distressed brain state, but this is only half of the work to be accomplished.  It is also the responsibility of parents and teachers to build resilience, the capacity to absorb adversity without slipping into a dysfunctional, distressed brain state. Building Resilience will be the topic of

Part II “Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times.

[1] Romans 8:19-23 (NRSV)
[2] Our brain’s search for a mental map back to joy/peace happens so rapidly, that we are not consciously aware of it.
[3] Much of addiction seems to be a form of clinging. A distressed brain, without a map back to joy/peace and lacking a person upon whom to cling, may substitute food, drink, pornography, or videogames.
[4] John 14:1 (NRSV)
[5] Note: A distressed brain also does not remember well. A distressed brain may make an outlandish claim or engage in outlandish behavior and later deny it completely. Assuming the child is normally honest, the now calm brain is probably not actively lying but simply has no memory of what was said or done. The brain was not functioning well, and the event was not recorded in memory. Because what was said and done is now rather incriminating, it is reflexively denied. Rather than denial, children should learn to respond by professing no memory of such words or deeds.
*Image courtesy of Caleb Woods all rights reserved. Creative Commons.

Communion in Suffering

There is perhaps no rendering of Christ’s crucifixion so poignant as that of the above altarpiece. Painted by Matthias Grünewald (1512), it masterfully depicts Christ’s unbearable agony, his emaciated body writhing from the pain of nails driven through hands and feet, his broken body pitted with sores reminiscent of the bubonic plague. And yet, for all that, the painting was to serve as a source of solace and comfort. The original home of this masterpiece was the Monastery of St. Anthony, located in the town of Isenheim, Alsace, France.
St. Anthony’s was a monastic hospital. The principal ministry of its monks was the care of those suffering from various skin diseases, particularly the plague. Beginning with the Black Death (1347-1351), regular outbreaks of bubonic plague devastated Europe, bringing immense suffering and death. It was to places such as St. Anthony’s that the sick and dying came. Grünewald’s poignant image of the crucified Christ, pitted with plague-type sores, illustrated to patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions and that they, like St. Paul,1 could share in His afflictions. Perhaps, the patients and the monks of St Anthony’s knew something that we have forgotten. Perhaps, they understood that suffering is an opportunity for communion with Christ and one another and that such communion is the foundation of peace.
Hardly a day goes by in which we are not presented with an invitation to suffer, sometimes in the form of a little disappointment, slight offense or minor injury and sometimes in the form of a great injustice, profound loss or debilitating illness. Contrary to modern utopian delusions, in this world, suffering is expected. As Wesley famously quips in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” For a more esteemed source, consider Jesus’ declaration that “While you are in the world, you will have to suffer.”2 Each of us will suffer. The question is, will we suffer well?
We labor against illness and other roots of human suffering. We labor to bring healing and restoration. And like Christ, we accept the suffering which is ours to bear. But how? Given the structure of the human psyche and its neurological underpinnings, we humans respond to suffering in four ways—fight, flight, freeze or communion. Few can stoically endure alone for long. Our brains are not wired for it. We may try and, depending upon our capacity, succeed for a time. But inevitably the brain will default to one of its prewired pain processing pathways.
The fight response is an aggressive refusal to accept the suffering which is ours. Cold fighters obsess, calculate, struggle to control the cosmos. The cold fighter’s delusion is, “If I just work smart enough and hard enough, I can avoid suffering.” Hot fighters rage against the perceived source of suffering and/or against those perceived to possess the power to make the suffering stop. The hot fighter’s delusion is, “If you just got it right, I would not suffer.” The flight response is an attempt to run from suffering, rather than control. Some take flight through distraction (TV binging, obsessing on work), others by delusion (pretending what is happening or is not happening), distancing (avoiding the person or situation) or anesthetizing (alcohol, sex, drugs). Those who freeze, either fall into depression or become numb—emotionally nonresponsive. It is as if we stop living while waiting for the suffering to pass. None of these responses work very well. Over the long term, they tend to increase personal suffering rather than decrease it. There is another way.
Like the monks of St. Anthony, we may discover that suffering is an opportunity for blessed communion with one another and with Christ. Such communion is the foundation of peace in the face of adversity. Our brains are designed for this kind of communion. When two or more suffering human minds commune with hope, it brings strength and comfort, if suffering human minds commune together in fear, it increases suffering. Thus, it is essential that in the shared processing of suffering the “bigger brains” bring hope. When we suffer together with Christ in hope, the suffering binds us together and empowers us.
While our brains are designed for communion through suffering both with God and one another, our capacity to do so is dependent upon our experience. As an Ambleside community, we are committed to growing in the skill of suffering well. We support this growth by:
  1. Attending to the stories of those who learn to suffer well. A few of the many examples from the Ambleside curriculum include the stories of Heidi (Heidi), Jody (The Yearling) and Betsy (The Hiding Place).
  2. Having communion in suffering modeled by those who are mature enough and care enough to attune with students in their suffering. This must be the normal practice of parents and teachers.
  3. Having an empathetic response to suffering as a community practice. As modeled by the monks of St. Anthony’s, communion in hope must be the community’s normal response to suffering. In Charlotte Mason’s terms, communion in suffering is to be in the air—the atmosphere.
  4. Growing in the ability to empathetically connect with God. We must practice sharing our heart with God and attending to His heart. This is one of the goals of the regular practice of Lectio Divina.
As we remember Christ’s crucifixion, may we meet with Him in His sufferings, uniting our sufferings with His. As we celebrate His resurrection, my we find comfort in His presence with us, “always, to the end of the age.”3

[1] Colossians 1:24
[2] John 16:33
[3] Matthew 28:20
**Matthias Grünewald (1510-1515), Isenheim Altarpiece, Courtesy of The Unterlinden Museum,  Public Domain.


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