Ambleside Blog

Thanksgiving Reflections

Joining my sister on a recent trip to Boston, I took the opportunity to visit Plymouth Hall Museum and to read Of Mourt’s Relations – A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The pilgrims’ response to a perilous journey, daily sufferings of cold, hunger and a death rate of fifty percent was inspirational and educational.  Of the eighteen couples that left England, only four survived the year intact. The rest were left as widowers and orphans. And yet, trials became their sacrifice of love, given for one another and for their God, in whose providential care they trusted.

A Shared Pilgrimage

Wednesday, the sixth of September, the winds coming east north east, a fine small gale, we loosed from Plymouth, having been kindly entertained and courteously used by divers friends there dwelling, and after many difficulties in boisterous storms, at length, by God's providence, upon the ninth of November following, by break of the day we espied land which was deemed to be Cape Cod, and so afterward it proved. And the appearance of it much comforted us, especially seeing so goodly a land, and wooded to the brink of the sea. It caused us to rejoice together, and praise God that had given us once again to see land.[1]

A Shared Grief

And in three months past, die Half our Company. The greatest part in the depth of winter, wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which their long voyage and unaccommodated condition bring upon them. So as there die sometimes two or three a day. Of one hundred persons, scarce 50 remain. The living scarce able to bury the dead; the well not sufficient to tend the sick: there being in their time of greatest distress but six or seven who spare no pains to help them. Two of the seven were Master Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Master Standish the Captain.[2]

A Shared Thanksgiving

You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others.  We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors.  Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.[3]

The story of the pilgrims reminded me of Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann’s reflection on our gathering at the Lord’s table, named by the early church “our offering of thanksgiving” or Eucharist:

And thus this offering to God of bread and wine, of the food that we must eat in order to live, is our offering to Him of ourselves, of our life and the whole world. “To take in our hands the whole world as if it were an apple!” said a Russian poet. It is our Eucharist. It is the movement Adam failed to perform, and that in Christ has become the very life of man: a movement of adoration and praise in which all joy and suffering, all beauty and frustration, all hunger and satisfaction are referred to their ultimate End and become finally meaningful. Yes to be sure , it is a sacrifice: but sacrifice is the most natural act of man, the very essence of his life. Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial: it puts the value, the very meaning of life in the other and gives life to the other, and in this giving, in this sacrifice, finds the meaning and joy of life.[4]

All that we encounter, abundance and scarcity, joy and suffering, the beautiful and the ghastly, become meaningful in our sacrifice to God; it all becomes our offering.


[1] Mourt’s RelationsA Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth. 1622. Bedford Mass: Applewood Books, 1963. 15.
[2] Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2016. 77.
[3] Mourt’s RelationsA Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth. 1622. Bedford Mass: Applewood Books, 1963. 81-82.
[4] Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. 35.
*Robert McGinnis, Freedom's Gate: Plimoth Plantation 1627, PlimothPlantation.com

Child Gymnasium or Child Garden

That children should be trained to endure hardness, was a principle of the old regime. "I shall never make a sailor if I can't face the wind and rain," said a little fellow of five who was taken out on a bitter night to see a torchlight procession; and, though, shaking with cold, he declined the shelter of a shed. Nowadays, the shed is everything; the children must not be permitted to suffer from fatigue or exposure.

That children should do as they are bid, mind their books, and take pleasure as it offers when nothing stands in the way, sums up the old theory; now, the pleasures of children are apt to be made more account than their duties. Formerly, they were brought up in subjection; now, the elders give place, and the world is made for the children.[1]

In this passage, taken from the opening pages of her first book, Home Education, Charlotte Mason points to two opposite and equal errors in the bringing up or educating of children, errors present in both her time and ours. Let us name these opposite and equal errors that of the child gymnasium and the child garden. Advocates of the child gymnasium envision a high-performance child, an object meticulously shaped and hardened by the strenuous effort of parent, teacher and child. Carefully designed discrete tasks, quantitative performance metrics, and ever-increasing rigor are seen as laying the foundation for victory in a dog-eat-dog, a Darwinian world in which only the strong survive. Advocates of the child garden envision what might be termed the romantic “enthusiasm of childhood, joyous teaching, loving and lovable teachers and happy school hours for the little people.”[2] A child’s garden, a kindergarten, protected by a glass dome, affording a world of carefree delights in which never a tear is shed nor does sweat come to a brow.

There is much to be said for the romantic vision of the child garden. Indeed, fullness of life requires protection from trauma and joyous engagement with persons and things. For those who have eyes to see, it is easy to recognize the toxicity of the child gymnasium with its better than my peers, performance vision and its potential for cultivating narcissism, loneliness, chronic anxiety and depression. What is often missed, even in some Charlotte Mason circles, is that the child garden is equally capable of producing its share of narcissists, loners, chronically anxious and depressed persons. The error of the child garden is its misplaced confidence in atmosphere alone. It assumes that if a child be placed in a natural, stress free, beautiful space he or she will naturally rise above the weakness of his nature. What actually happens is that the child is “left to his nature.” Just as a high anxiety, performance orientation is a recipe for narcissism, loneliness, chronic anxiety and depression, so is leaving a child to his nature.

It is true that certain of Charlotte Mason’s writings do suggest the child garden. For example, in Home Education, she writes:

In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air. And this, not for the gain in bodily health alone––body and soul, heart and mind, are nourished with food convenient for them when the children are let alone, let to live without friction and without stimulus amongst happy influences which incline them to be good.[3]

Such passages evoke images of a bucolic childhood, prancing joyfully among fields of daffodils. And, indeed, every child should have her share, even her abundance, of prancing among the daffodils. Flowers and field, bird and beast, freely romping with peers are all part of every child’s inheritance, and the child that lacks these is deprived of a good part of what makes life rich and satisfying. But there is more to the story, later in the same book, Miss Mason writes:

The child in the Kindergarten is set to such tasks only as he is competent to perform, and then, whatever he has to do, he is expected to do perfectly. I have seen a four-years-old child blush and look as self-condemned, because he had folded a slip of a paper irregularly, as if found out in a falsehood. But mother or nurse is quite able to secure that the child's small offices are perfectly executed; and, here is an important point, without that slight strain of distressful anxiety which may be observed in children laboring to please that smiling goddess, their 'Kindergarnerin, [their child gardener].'[4]

In our day, few expect a four-year-old to do things perfectly. Partly because we fail to understand the capacities of a child and partly because we fail to understand the meaning of  completing things perfectly. When applying the adverb perfectly to the work of a child (or for that matter the work of any human person), we do not mean flawlessly. We do mean to perform a task which (1) is among the child’s  competencies and (2) is performed  in a manner or way that could not be better performed by the child. Let me repeat, when applying the adverb perfectly to the work of a child, we do not mean flawlessly. We do mean to perform a task which (1) is among the child’s  competencies and (2) is accomplished in a manner or way that could not be better accomplished  by the child.

Children have great capacities, often underestimated by adults. Toddlers can learn the joy of putting away toys or helping to bring dishes from table to sink, even if it risks the occasional broken dish. And, there is some question as to whether or not a toddler who doesn’t learn to put away his toys and help with the dishes will ever learn to joyfully do so. A child’s life must be more than simply frolicking. Children should learn the delight of working to the fulness and fruitfulness in which latent capacity is turned into a competency.

In the above passage, Charlotte Mason gives two warnings. First, the child should only be left alone to perform tasks which he is competent to perform, and second, there must be no “laboring to please that smiling goddess,” be she mother or teacher. When a child is left alone with the expectation of doing that which he or she is not competent to do, the child easily becomes overwhelmed. Similarly, to make the peace, stability and security of the child-adult relationship dependent upon child performance is to dissolve joy into anxiety. We forget that performance anxiety is learned socially. It is born of the fear that if one doesn’t perform adequately there will be a rupture in a very important relationship. Such fear takes all the joy out of doing things perfectly and robs hard and careful work of its pleasure. Yet, where the relationship is secure, parent or teacher is confident that the child can master a task, and adequate support is given; in a relatively short time, the child grows from latent capacity to competency. Having mastered the task, the child is now able to complete the task perfectly, even on her own. In doing so, joy abounds. For turning latent capacity into competency is one of the great joys of life. But this is true only if there is freedom from performance anxiety.

It is essential that parents and teachers clearly understand the relationship between latent capacity and competency.

  • Latent capacity refers to one’s potential to do a thing; be it manage emotional distress well, mend a wounded relationship, clean a room, solve a particular math problem, narrate a text, or experience friendship with God. Depending upon the presence or absence of sufficiently supportive parents, teachers and tribe; these potentialities may or may not be actualized as competency.
  • Competency refers to the fulfilment of the latent capacity. One can manage emotional distress well, can mend a wounded relationship, can clean a room, can solve a particular math problem, can narrate a text and can experience friendship with God.

In every competency, there are those among us who seem to be naturals. Latent capacity is fulfilled as competency seemingly without effort and with little support. The naturally benevolent child easily mends wounded relationships. The toddler was picking up toys from the time he could walk. A second grader knows all her math facts, apparently without ever giving them any effort or attention. A four-year-old listens delightfully as mom reads a story and retells with accuracy and vivid detail. The five-year-old’s prayer life is a sweet thing to behold. They are competent without effort and with little support. These are the naturals. What is easily forgotten is that the great majority of us are not naturals. For most of us, turning latent capacity into competency requires both personal effort and a supportive teacher.

The chief error of the advocate of the child garden is a misguided trust in what comes natural to a child. The belief is that by placing a child in the right garden, latent capacity will naturally become competency. While this is true for the naturals, it is definitely not true for most of us. All too often, latent capacity fails to become joyful competency, and the child is left in peril of a less than fruitful life with its accompanying narcissism, loneliness, chronic anxiety and depression.

While the advocate of the child gymnasium recognizes that latent capacity must become competency, he misunderstands how to go about it. His conviction is that the autonomous self will grow from weakness to competency if provided the right education and motivated by reward and punishment, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It’s true that such a regimen does work in some cases for some students. It will induce some students to better mastery of math facts or better narration skills, but it is just as likely to provoke a despising of math and a resentment of narration. And, most certainly, such a regime is unable to cultivate a capacity for managing emotional distress or mending a wounded relationship. Further, the cultivated performance orientation will not bode well for long term flourishing, given performance orientation’s predisposing one to narcissism, loneliness, chronic anxiety and depression.

What then is required if non-naturals are to be brought up by teachers (both parents and schoolteachers) from latent capacity to joyful competency? Five things:

  1. There must be a bonded, joyful, attuned relationship between teacher and student. Moving from latent capacity to competency is a transformation, and all positive human transformation requires the mentorship of a less competent mind by a stronger and wiser mind. Such mind to mind mentorship is most potent when both minds know that they belong together (bonded), are glad to be together (joy), and are fully present to each other, attending to each other’s mind (attuned).
  2. The teacher must possess the needed competencies. Some of the most important elements of any competency are unconsciously imprinted in the mind of the taught by the mind of the teacher. One does not learn how to return from distress to joy/peace by listening to instruction or reading a book. The instruction or book might prime the learning, but it does not accomplish the learning. One learns how to return from distress to joy/peace by being in a joyful, attuned relationship with someone who competently returns from distress to joy/peace. Similarly, students learn mathematics best by being in a joyful, attuned relationship with someone who competently does mathematics. And it follows that unless a student happens to be a natural, it is unlikely that he will learn mathematics from a teacher who is simply following a script in the teacher’s manual.
  3. The teacher must be confident in her students’ latent capacities. Our students know what we think of them. There is no hiding it. If we believe they can’t, they will know it and believe it. In which case, incapacity will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. As a culture, we are far  far too quick to ascribe incapacity to those who are slower than peers in acquiring competency. In reaction to our own performance anxiety, we are far too quick to label and diagnose. All to often, the diagnoses become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and the child is forever seen as incapable.
  4. Many times throughout the day, a joyful teacher must wisely support her students by working with them (but not for them) that which they are not competent to do alone. We move from latent capacity to competency, by doing with someone that which he  cannot do alone. We know this of physical rehabilitation and athletics, we must come to believe it of mind as well. A teacher asks, “What is six times seven?” “I don’t know,” responds her student. “What is six times six?” “Thirty-six” “If we add six to thirty-six what would it be?” “Forty-two.” “If six sixes are thirty-six, how many are seven sixes?” “Forty-two.” “Correct. Close your eyes and see it on the back of your eyelids, six times seven equals forty-two. Open your eyes. How many is six times seven?” “Forty-two.” The teacher engages the student briefly at lunch repeating the process, and again as all are departing after school. With joyful support, the student is able to do that which he was not competent to do alone. Over time, latent capacity becomes competency.
  5. The teacher must be diligent, day in and day out, but neither anxious nor time hurried. Students actualize their latent capacities at different rates. A teacher must not be anxious about this, for we spread our emotions like the flu. The anxious teacher is certain to infect her students, and anxious brains simply do not learn well. One learns to read fluently at four, another five, another six, and some as late as nine. It is only our Darwinian angst which makes us afraid that our student will be left behind. God knows what He is about. Time frame matters little, so long as joy and diligence remain. Neither student nor teacher will long stay the course if it be filled with anxiety. Joy is the antithesis of anxiety. Remember by joy we do not mean parties, roller-coaster rides, Disney movies or other forms of excitement. By joy, we mean the deep feeling that it is good to be me here with you, whether doing the pleasant thing or doing the difficult thing. Though time frame matters little, it is not an excuse for lack of diligence. Daily effort on the part of teacher and student must be vigorously given. There is no more place for the laissez-aller, let it all go, they will get it easily and naturally. It may be true that they eventually will. But it is far more probable that without diligence they will not. No child garden for us.   

One final note. Assuming one sees the beauty of this highly relational, intentional, growth-oriented approach, what hinders the consistent application of its method? The three most common hindrances are:

  1. Application of this method requires the teacher possess a very specific set of skills. To sustain a “bonded, joyful, attuned relationship” is an emotional-relational skill that must be developed. Some are more masterful at it, some less. The same can be said of each of the above, up to and including being “diligent, day in and day out, but neither anxious nor time hurried.” Few adults come with all the needed skills, but all can grow.
  2. There is a natural tendency to go back to Egypt. We all tend to default, particularly when too busy, too stressed or too tired, to that which we have known throughout our lives. For the great majority of us, the default is either the child garden or the child gymnasium.
  3. It is impossible to stay fully relational and diligent when one is fatigued. By biological necessity, when fatigued, our capacities to attune and to remain diligent are both marginalized. These take sustained energy. So, we must be well rested, or we will move  towards default.

At Ambleside Schools, we find both the child garden and the child gymnasium to be inadequate visions for the formation of children. The joyful bringing up of children from latent capacity to mature competency requires a different vision. It requires a vision of joyfully attuned relationships, teacher competency, confidence in latent student capacities, wise support in doing that which cannot be accomplished alone, and anxiety free diligence on the part of both teacher


[1] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 7.
[2] Mason, Charlotte. School Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 56.
[3] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 43.
[4] Ibid,180.

Disobedience

Recently one of your number sought my counsel regarding a young man whose relational guidance system is malformed such that he doesn’t recognize certain behaviors as being inappropriate or hurtful.

It is important to make the distinction between two different kinds of disobedience:

  1. Defiant disobedience in which one is (a) conscious of authorities’ instruction, (b) aware that possibilities of obedience or disobedience are present and (c) consciously chooses to disobey.
  2. Supra-conscious or faster-than-consciousness disobedience in which without reflection one does that which one ought not to do. In Charlotte Mason’s terms, one does that which “is his nature” to do. In Jim Wilder terms, it is a “fast-track response” based upon a lack of emotional-relational maturity.

To be clear both are disobedience, but it is very important to identify which kind it is. In this case, I would be surprised if, in general, the boy’s responses are defiant disobedience. And comments below are based upon that assumption that it is supra-conscious disobedience.

  1. Disobedience, whether defiant or supra-conscious is still disobedience, and must be met with a naming of the truth, an invitation to repentance, and the offer of forgiveness. In this case, that would be a conversation with him. “Tom [not his real name], tell me about your conversation with… I heard that you told her… Remember our conversation regarding the four things you could talk about with girls… Was that one of those four things?... Tom, you were disobedient… I understand. I know you don’t understand. I know you meant good not ill. Still, you were disobedient… Do you want my forgiveness for your disobedience?... You must ask for it…” A refusal to repent (when there is understanding and a safe relationship) is usually defiant disobedience. There are those cases when a refusal to repent is not defiant disobedience, but a response to a history of repentance leading to damnation rather than restoration.
  2. Repentance and forgiveness must be followed by the continued sowing of a transformative idea. In this case, I suspect the most important idea for Tom to grasp is: All people have a relational guidance system, like the autopilot in an airplane, which tells us how to respond, faster than thought, to situations around us. One of the effects of sin, is that all of us have broken relational guidance systems. We respond in ways that are confusing or hurtful to others, even when we do not want to. We must all help each other find repair for our relational guidance system. “Tom, your heart’s desire for kind, gracious relationship with others is good, but your relational guidance system is broken, so you say things which hurt relationships and make others uncomfortable… What did I just say about your desires and your relational guidance system?... Our words and actions must match the level of closeness of a relationship. One talks one way with an acquaintance, another with a good friend, another with a best friend, one way with a man, another with a woman. I think you don’t know when it is appropriate to say what to whom. What do you think?… Your relational guidance system doesn’t work well, particularly with girls… Will you believe me that this is true and let us help you? Note: When dealing with a male, young teen, it would be very helpful to include a man as part of the support team, joining in stating that he would never say such a thing, because he understands that it would make a woman uncomfortable. Also, this is not a single conversation, but a set of ideas which must be sown repeatedly in as various and creative ways as possible.
  3. Then you need a strategy. “Tom, we must help you not say things to girls that are in appropriate?.. How might we do that? How can we help you to not say inappropriate things to girls?... If there were always a teacher with you when speaking to the girls, would that help you stay appropriate?... Well if that would help you, it is somewhat inconvenient for us, but we are willing to do anything we can to help you. So, for now, you may not talk alone with one of your girl classmates without one of your teachers, who can help you stay appropriate, being present… Would that help keep you from being inappropriate?... So, what is your responsibility?... If you are seen talking alone with one of the girls, then you will have to stay with a teacher during break or lunch, until you are able to obey… Why is this? How are we trying to help you? What is our goal?...” Then you must follow through.

It is important to accept that there is nothing you can do that will ensure he will never say anything inappropriate to a girl again. Growth will mean a steady decrease in frequency and degree of failure.

In this situation, the girls need some coaching as well in how to respond (what to say, what to do, what to feel and how to process those feelings) when a boy says something stupid. Here’s a suggestion: Get the girls alone in a classroom. Draw a table on the board. Across the top give it the title “Responding when somebody says something confusing, inappropriate, hurtful or mean.”  Three columns:  Weak-Weak Response (Run away inside or out), Strong-Weak Response (Attack), Strong-Strong Response (Stay your best self). Using white boards, have the girls take one column at a time and write down thoughts, feelings, actions associated with that response. Assimilate these responses on the front board one column at a time. Point out that we all have a natural way of responding. Ask them to identify their natural way of responding. Discuss why a strong-strong response is always better. Ask what they need to do to move towards more consistently making strong-strong responses. Invite them to come to you for help, anytime they are struggling to make a strong-strong response. Conclude by discussing the following: A boy says something inappropriate and uncomfortable to you: You are beautiful, or you are not very attractive. I don’t like you, or I love you. What would be a weak-weak response? What would be a strong-weak response? What would be a strong-strong response?

It is important to remember that if the adults respond supportively, inappropriate words will not be experienced by the girls as traumatic. Such words that cause confusion and distress only become traumatic and damaging, when adults react with high levels of distress, rather than confidently assisting the girls in returning to peace and joy. Do the latter and it becomes on important opportunity for the girls to be brought up to greater maturity. In certain prominent sub-cultures (i.e. the university) there has been a loss of the distinction between (1) an event which is in itself so evil and emotionally overwhelming as to be abusively traumatic and (2) those events which are distressing or emotionally confusing but are made traumatic by the communities inability to either believe that returning to relational joy is possible or knowledge of how to do so. We must beware as these ideas are in the air and be very careful not to do the same in our community.

Every blessing in Christ Jesus,


*Saul Reproved by Samuel for Not Obeying the Commandments of the Lord  Painted by  John Singleton Copley (CC at WikiArt)

He Is Risen, and He Is With Us

Walking home from school, an eight-year-old boy rounds a corner only to find the neighborhood bully standing belligerently before him. Faster than consciousness, the body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear – blood pressure up, muscles tense (including knots in the stomach), adrenaline level spikes. All is ready for fight or flight.

Similar scenario. Walking home from school, an eight-year-old boy rounds a corner only to find the neighborhood bully standing belligerently before him. But, at the precise moment the boy sees the bully, he also sees his good father standing near, strong, confident, fully aware and protective. The boy experiences nothing but a peaceful assurance and confidently walks forward.

Roughly 1850 years ago, the prominent bishop of Sardis (an ancient city in the western part of what is now Turkey) preached an Easter homily in which he proclaimed:

The Lord, though He was God, became man. He suffered for the sake of those who suffer, He was bound for those in bonds, condemned for the guilty, buried for those who lie in the grave; but He rose from the dead, and cried aloud: Who will contend with Me? Let him confront Me. I have freed the condemned, brought the dead back to life, raised men from their graves. Who has anything to say against me? I, He said, am the Christ; I have destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men up to the heights of heaven: I am the Christ.

The Ascension by Benjamin West

Come, then, all you nations of men, receive forgiveness for the sins that defile you. I am your forgiveness. I am the Passover that brings salvation. I am the lamb who was immolated for you. I am your ransom, your life, your resurrection, your light. I am your salvation and your king. I will bring you to the heights of heaven. With my own right hand I will raise you up, and I will show you the eternal Father.

The resurrection of Christ Jesus, which we celebrate this and every Easter, is something more than the decisive proof of the truth of Christian doctrine, though it is certainly that. It is something more than the definitive opening of the gates of heaven to “as many as would believe,” though it certainly is that as well. Easter resurrection makes possible a new way of life today. “I am with you, even until the end of the age,” the resurrected Christ tells His followers. Regardless of whatever belligerent bullies might stand before us, if we have eyes to see Him, everything about our experience changes.

It is relatively easy for children to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but only if those dearest to them actually believe the reality. Merely believing in the doctrine is never enough to convince a child.

He is risen!

May we have eyes to see.

Christmas and the Disappointed Faithful

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David…
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.[1]
 
So prophesied the aged priest, Zachariah, his cup overflowing. For decades, Zachariah’s life, together with that of his wife, had been a story of disappointed faithfulness. Having lived blameless lives, true to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord, both were “righteous before God.” And yet, things had not gone as promised or expected. There was no greater disappointment for a Jewish couple than to be without child. Given the Psalm’s promise to those “who walk in His ways” that “your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,” [2] to be without child was for Zachariah and Elizabeth to be among those forsaken by God, abandoned not only to profound personal disappointment but to public disgrace. Their very names seemed a mockery. Zachariah means “Yahweh has remembered.” Elizabeth means “God has sworn.” Yet, God seemed to have forgotten and foresworn. They were among the disappointed faithful. But then, as a preliminary to Christmas, “there appeared to him [Zachariah] an angel of the Lord” declaring beyond all hope, the unfathomable words:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.[3]

The world has two kinds of people, the disappointed faithless and the disappointed faithful. Since the time of Adam and Eve, the world has disappointed,  and, when left to itself, the world will always disappoint. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. And, this is why we need something so completely unexpected, so completely gratuitous, as Christmas. Christmas is the story of God decisively breaking into history on behalf of the disappointed faithful. We must not demand, and we cannot control the coming of our personal Christmases, any more than the nation of Israel could demand or control the first Christmas. But we can remain faithful knowing that He has come, knowing that He is here, knowing that He is coming. Such is the invitation, the promise and the joy of Christmas.

May yours be a blessed and merry Christmas, particularly if you are among the disappointed faithful.


[1] Luke 1: 68-69, 76-79 (NRSV)
[2] Psalm 128 (NRSV)
[3] Luke 1:13-17 (NRSV)

The Christmas Story In Art

During a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art, we had the privilege of learning from Dr. David Gariff, senior lecturer at the Gallery. We walked among and reflected upon a dozen Nativity masterpieces.

As far back as the Roman catacombs, artists have depicted the varied episodes of the Christmas story, from the annunciation to the flight into Egypt. Drawing from the Scriptures, as well as non-canonical writings, artists have sought not just to tell the story but to form hearts and minds. Typology, the use of representational types or symbols, was the accepted means of instruction in such sacred ideas. A lovely example of such instruction is Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi’s The Adoration of the Magi. This magnificent piece contains a myriad of themes in multiple episodes. The nativity is set amid architectural ruins, representing the crumbling of the classical world. Upon these ruins stand five thin and scantily clad men, impoverished onlookers, who fail to join the rejoicing multitude processing towards the picture’s focal point, Christ Jesus in the arms of his mother. The approaching worshipers all have hands clasped heavenward or palms outward in praise and amazement. Contemplative eyes are turned upward or directed towards the babe held in his mother’s lap. The throng is marked by fervent devotion, seemingly absent of consciousness of self or others; they have come to adore Him.

Although set in the very center of the painting, the ox and the ass are often overlooked. The ox looks earnestly upon the Christ-child and the adoring elder Wiseman who kneels before his King. The ass feeds fervently, looking out of the painting at the observer. He is unaware of the wonder that is occurring all around him. The artists are providing a pictorial representation of Isaiah 1:3:

An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master's manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand.

Clearly, these two animals have two very different ways of relating to their master, one of devotion, the other self-satisfaction. The ox is most aware of his master. The donkey is most aware of his stomach. The eighteenth century, bishop and poet, Robert Lowth, recognized in this text, Yahweh’s protest that "My people doth not consider me, doth not reflect on my relation to them as Lord and Master."

And us?  As we ponder this masterpiece, are we like the impoverished observing from the ruins or the processing worshippers? Are we like the ox attentive to His master or the ass focused merely on feeding? Is our attention upon the Master and the Master’s ways or are we like Isaiah’s audience, not knowing and not considering?

 What ideas of Christmas have we sowed to our children, to our grandchildren, to one another through our adoration?

Christmas Blessings,
Bill & Maryellen St. Cyr

A Habit of Thankgiving

When the Pilgrims landed on the shores of Plymouth Bay in 1620, they were strangers to the new land but not to suffering. They had already been tested and tried in England, in Holland, and on the seas of the great Atlantic. Prior to their journeys, they set apart days of solemn humiliation, fasting, praying and seeking God.

So they lefte yt goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place near 12. years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.[1]

The winter of 1620 brought great adversity which extended beyond the trials of foul weather and disease.

In these hard & difficulte beginings they found some discontents & murmurings arise amongst some, and mutinous speeches & carriags in other; but they were soone quelled & overcome by ye wisdome, patience, and just & equall carrage of things by ye Govr and better part, wch clave faithfully togeather in ye maine. But that which was most sadd & lamentable was, that in 2. or 3. moneths time halfe of their company dyed, espetialy in Jan: & February, being ye depth of winter, and wanting houses & other comforts; being infected with ye scurvie & other diseases, which this long vioage & their inacomodate condition had brought upon them; so as ther dyed some times 2. or 3. of a day, in ye foresaid time; that of 100. & odd persons, scarce 50. remained.

And of these in ye time of most distres, ther was but 6. or 7. sound persons, who, to their great comendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toyle and hazard of their owne health, fetched them woode, made them fires, drest them meat, made their beads, washed their lothsome cloaths, cloathed & uncloathed them; in a word, did all ye homly & necessarie offices for them wch dainty & quesie stomacks cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly & cherfully, without any grudging in ye least, shewing herein their true love unto their friends & bretheren. A rare example & worthy to be remembred.

The winter passed, crops were planted, but drought persisted. The ground was parched like withered hay. The pilgrims responded by setting aside another solemn day of humiliation to seek the Lord humbly and fervently in prayer.

To their owne, & the Indeans admiration, that lived amongest them. For all ye morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather & very hotte, and not a cloud or any signe of raine to be seen, yet toward evening it begane to overcast, and shortly after to raine, with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, & blesing God. It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degreese in yt abundance, as that ye earth was thorowly wete and soked therwith.

They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to yt proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.

As their habit was, the community of fifty-three Mayflower Pilgrims and many Indians came together for a time of thanksgiving celebrating the time of plenty that had come and the goodness of God that was upon them. Thanksgiving was a response to God upon whom they depended in want and plenty, through death and life, in sorrow and gladness.

In a letter to a friend, Edward Winslow wrote: “And God be praised, we had a good increase…. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together….” Winslow continues, “These things I thought good to let you understand… that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favourably with us.”

After speaking with the South African leadership of Ambleside Schools early this morning, Mary Ann Shearers (Mark and Mary Ann Shearers Founders of the Daniel Academy ) shared with a grateful heart, one exclamation after another of all that God has given them through the hands of others after her home, warehouse, restaurant and store were all destroyed by wildfires, leaving her family with only the clothes they were wearing.

The years have brought many sorrows and griefs to each of us, some much greater than others. As there continue to be these times of plenty and want, let us draw near to our Father in heaven, the safe resting place for our souls.

Blessed Thanksgiving,
Bill & Maryellen St.Cyr

[1] All italicized text taken from William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, Gutenberg.org

 

"In Community" - How Do We Fit?

By Dorothy Dersch, Parent at Ambleside School of Ocala

Recently, Father Jonathan French shared with us the simplicity of opening his home to the friends of his college-age children and their friends, who came home with them the weekend Hurricane Irma hit Florida. After the young adults laughed their way though the evening and slept their way through the storm, the French family had eleven healthy and willing young adults to help clean their yard of storm debris. The job was done quickly, so they energetically crossed the street to help clear a large tree from the Sheriff Lieutenant’s driveway as he was coming home after a long night on duty. After wood was stacked and branches piled at the Sheriff Lieutenant’s home, Father Jonathan looked at the darkened home next door and told the group they had one more yard to clear. When the students left to go back to college, they were fatigued but energized by the service they had done. Later, when that next-door neighbor returned, he made his way across to the French’s home and shared his gratitude and amazement that a neighbor whom he’d never met would do that for him. The unexpected kindness of the group “restored his faith in humanity.” He felt the love of Christ in the actions of service.

We’ve all weathered September and the hurricane in various ways, but I believe we each could say we’ve experienced the give and take of community though Hurricane Irma. Homes have been opened; generators have been shared; thawed food has been grilled and passed along; tree limbs hauled; roofs tarped; and aching shoulders massaged. This is what community does at its best. At its worst, community may occasionally generate fights and even an arrest(!), with irrational people wanting to hoard and self-serve provisions like food, water, and gas. So, what makes the difference? How do we choose to be part of a community that thinks of the Other over the Self? How can we instill real values in our children that will result in their becoming the caring, kind adults, who desire to share deep, rich lives with those around them?

It doesn’t take much time or observation to recognize we are a part of a unique and endearing community at Ambleside. As parents, it’s reasonable to arrive with certain expectations of what a teacher / our school should be doing with and for our children. It’s also reasonable to come into this community recognizing there are expectations of each student, each family, and therefore, each adult, who interacts here. Some of those are clearly defined in the student handbook we’ve all read: students should be in dress-code; adults must attend all Parent Nights; both parents or guardians are present at Parent-Teacher Conferences each semester; background-checks are done before any interaction with students in the classroom. Well-defined, realistic expectations make for a more predictable community but not the energizing type we enjoy on our campus. We can choose to be part of the deeper, fuller campus life when each of us engages in the next step of service in the “give and take” community equation.

As a parent with many children, I saw this play out as something I call “group-think.” While the term can have negative connotations when the group isn’t actually thinking, to me it means thinking about my attitude and actions and how these affect those around me. This kind of group-think takes the rules for successful community and adds kindness and love to them. Think, “How can I serve this classroom?” “How can I deliberately be kind to this teacher?” “What can I do to make this school year remarkable for our staff?” “How can a show my child ways to quietly serve people?” “Is there someone at this meeting who needs to be welcomed, or encouraged?” It doesn’t have to be coffee every Monday, although this would thrill most of our teachers! It’s as simple as how we speak in front of our children about a change in policy or a method of teaching. It’s recognizing that taking my one student out of class for personal preference disrupts the classroom flow and costs the teacher time to gather make-up work and schedule assessments. It means fostering an atmosphere that compels our students to follow the dress code, so the teachers don’t have to take time from teaching to address “violations.” Maybe it means planning to drive on a field study or encouraging a child to surprise a teacher with an apple for her desk and a note of thanks. It means being intentional to convey a sense that “It’s good to be me, here with you,” to those in our community whose path you cross in the coming year.

This community at Ambleside School of Ocala is abundantly blessed with precious people who consistently show the love of Jesus through their actions, much like Fr. Jonathan’s family and friends showed his neighborhood Christ’s love. I see it almost every time I’m on campus. I challenge you to take our Community to the next level of selflessly serving one another. How do you see it happening in your family and at school?

“Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, in Whom there is no variation or shadow cast by turning.”

James 1:17

 

A Reflection on the Crucifixion

In The Small Crucifixion from the National Gallery, the artist invites the viewer into the horror of crucifixion, with moving realism and immediacy. The perfect and divine oblation of our Lord on the Cross radiates from the canvas. Christ’s abandonment, desolation, and poverty on the Cross is expressed through every element in the scene – form, line, color, and composition. The viewer is drawn to His emaciated body racked with marks of torture, his bloodied face, and his bowed head, all of which speak of his unbearable agony.

This is the revealed form of divine love.

Christ’s luminous body, draped in a tattered loincloth, gives evidence of the inhumanity of his tormentors, and the sin of humanity for which He willingly humbled himself, “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

But it is our Lord’s yearning and twisted fingers and his gnarled feet that rivet the eye. For in them is expressed the fullness of divine love in anguish over human alienation from God. The crossbeam strains under the weight of his wounded body, while his distressed hands, stretching heavenward, offer final words of filial abandonment, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23: 46).

Three robed figures stand in the viewer’s space while uniquely sharing in Christ’s Passion. On the left stands Mary, his Mother, bowed with the grief that now pierces her heart; on the right is the beloved disciple, John the Evangelist, praying before the mystery of the Cross. And at the foot of the Cross kneels Mary Magdelene, pondering in a contemplative gaze the meaning of human suffering, in light of His Passion.

A landscape of low green hills and rocky inclines also bear witness to this pivotal moment in the history of salvation. It is as if all of creation groans with its suffering Lord. Grünewald conveys the biblical record of the “darkness that came over the whole land,” in the eerie green-blue light that envelops the scene.

The Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Passion, death, and Resurrection have, over the centuries, inspired countless master artists. Such works reveal the artists’ skill and creative inspiration. They also invite a profound sharing in the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising, made present for us in Lenten liturgies. Such artistic masterpieces are visual reminders that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are not distant theological abstractions, but events that forever transform human history, and our own daily existence, if we allow it.

To the casual observer, Grünewald’s The Small Crucifixion evokes empathy in the face of another’s torment. Through the eyes of faith the Christian disciple is led a step further. For in pondering this image we can be moved through beauty to enter into the redemptive meaning of Christ’s suffering. For through this visual homily, Grünewald, the painter, encourages us along the Lenten journey to persevere in our own daily patterns of dying and rising to new life.

Sullivan, Jem, PhD. “The Small Crucifixion of Matthias Grunewald.” Blog, April 4, 2011.

Adjunct Professor in the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC.

Art and Education: Learning to Observe Truth

by Emily R. Bowyer

The following address was given at an art show and fundraiser for Ambleside School of Fredericksburg, Texas (a K-12 institution). Founded on the principles of British educator Charlotte Mason, Ambleside Schools International and its member schools believe a "living" education is influenced by 3 principles: atmosphere, discipline (habits), and life (texts rich in ideas).[1] Emily Bowyer is an alumna and current faculty member of the Fredericksburg school.


I would like to begin my brief remarks with a roll call, as it were, of some of the great masters of the artistic tradition: Fra Angelico, Pieter Bruegel, Winslow Homer, John James Audubon, Claude Monet and the Impressionists, Utagawa Hiroshige, Diego Velazquez, Georgia O’Keefe, Rembrandt van Rijn, J.M.W. Turner, Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Vermeer, Henri Matisse, Jacob Lawrence, and Vincent Van Gogh.

By the time Ambleside students begin high school, they will have spent three months with each of these artists, studying at least a dozen of their works with care and attention until they can happily hang each one in the gallery of their memories. We recognize, as Charlotte Mason once did, that

“the power of appreciating art and of producing to some extent an interpretation of what one sees is as universal as intelligence, imagination, [or] speech. . . But there must be some knowledge and, in the first place, not the technical knowledge of how to produce, but some reverent knowledge of what has been produced .”[2]

This is not to say that we neglect the technical side of our students’ art education. On the contrary, they are given weekly instruction in drawing or painting, and also regularly produce free-hand color illustrations in science and history lesson books and watercolor entries in nature study diaries. In addition, they complete several detailed reproductions of their favorite masterworks every year. Nonetheless, we discover that when we offer our students a relationship with the great artists of the past and present, they are more inspired to pursue excellence in their own artistic endeavors and to learn more about what it means to live, to be fully human.

Calvin Seerveld, an American art historian who studied in the Netherlands and then went on to a professorship in Canada, once wrote that “art calls to our attention in capital, cursive letters. . . what usually flits by in reality as fine print.”[3] We must summon our aesthetic capacity—our innate power to appreciate art—to watch for these “capital, cursive letters,” and even to seek them out. In other words, we must learn to open our eyes. Why? Because otherwise we might miss an opportunity to see our lives with greater clarity, insight and wisdom. Great works of art serve as parables,[4] not mere copies, of the human experience. They reveal hidden meanings by engaging our imagination and our inner eye, something that Helen Keller called “soul-sense, which sees, hears, feels, all in one.”[5]

Allow me to demonstrate: Van Gogh teaches us about loneliness by painting an old chair with a pipe and tobacco on it, the owner of the chair made conspicuous by his total absence. Vermeer shows the virtue of a milkmaid going about her daily work with strength, vitality, and fortitude, reminding us that there is dignity even amidst the seemingly menial occupations. Matisse highlights the remarkable shapes and colors present in every person, place, and thing around us, whether it is as stationary as a French window, or as dynamic as the couple having a conversation beside it. Bruegel celebrates the ingenuity and rashness of children at play. Velazquez depicts a Venus looking in a mirror; her forlorn gaze tells us, “beauty isn’t everything.” Monet transfixes us with the utter tranquility of a cluster of lilies floating on the surface of water. Turner exposes the travesty of the slave trade by depicting a single slave ship unburdening itself of unwanted human cargo during a storm. Da Vinci uncovers the scientific proportions of the human body in an ingenious way while still preserving the enigmatic mystery of a woman’s smile.

These are but a very few examples of the way in which art serves to draw our attention to ideas that we too often ignore or forget. The poet Robert Browning put it thus:

“For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love

First when we see them painted, things we have passed

Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see. . .”[6]

Why might this be the case? How can a painting, a sculpture or a drawing cause us to  love that which we have overlooked so often in reality? I would venture to say that when we see something for the first time through the lens that an artwork provides, we see its essence. Art comes to us an invitation. It invites us to know the truth of a thing. Great artists are firstly great observers. They teach us how to clearly see the details, the symbols, the wonder of everything around us. The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called this the “inscape”[7] of all created matter, its inner glory. Artists possess the gift of turning the world inside out so that the invisible truth becomes visible. We are all created to yearn for this truth, and to love it when once we find it. There are times when a piece of art depicts something less than beautiful, even grotesque, but if it tells the story of the world’s brokenness or cruelty in a truthful way, it remains an important object of our study, if not our enjoyment. Art should provoke us on our ongoing search for the Truth, and our souls will remain unsatisfied until we meet that same Truth, face to face.



[2] Mason, Charlotte. The Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6 (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1989), 214.

[3] Seerveld, Calvin. Rainbows For the Fallen World (Toronto: Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980), 27.

[4] Rookmaaker, Hans. “Images of Man in Art,” L’Abri Fellowship, Lecture, www.labri-ideas-library.org.

[5] Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904), 122.

[6] Browning, Robert. “Fra Lippo Lippi,” in  My Last Duchess and Other Poems, ed. Shane Weller (New York: Dover, 1993), 43.

[7] Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Poetry and Verse,” Hopkins: Poems and Prose, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets ed. Peter Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 123.

Image: (detail) "Children's Games" by Pieter Bruegel

 

 

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