Ambleside Blog


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,

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,


"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,

[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




We have seen those who possess every advantage and yet are ungrateful, anxious and generally dissatisfied with life. In contrast, we have seen those who possess few of the world’s advantages and yet are marked by gratitude, peace and joy. Like peace and joy, gratitude is a function of disposition, not situation. Those with the habit of being grateful have eyes to see and ears to hear the many gifts that are daily given – a blue sky, a friendly smile, fruitful work, good food, bright colored autumn leaves, a helping hand, an encouraging word. Yet, is there ever a day when we cannot find some excuse for ingratitude, anxiety and dissatisfaction? We can always find justifiable reasons for these, if it is our habit to do so. But, what is the fruit of this bad habit?

Not only do the grateful see and hear, but they also have a heart to appreciate. Appreciation, the pause of delight, the enjoyment of the giftedness of a thing. Appreciation discerns one who stands behind the gift and enjoys not only the gift, but also the giver. Appreciation is relational joy mediated through a manifestation of the Good, True and Beautiful. Gratitude and appreciation are mutually reinforcing; one does not last long without the other. We are made for both gratitude and appreciation, and when these are missing, the world becomes a dark, lonely and miserable place.

No other Lord of the Heart should do more to guide us into joyous and happy living than Gratitude. How good and glad it is to be grateful! The joy is not merely that we have received a favor or a little kindness which speaks of goodwill and love, but that a beautiful thing has come out of some other person's beautiful heart for us; and joy in that other's beauty of character gives more delight than any gain or pleasure which can come to us from favors. We lose this joy often enough because we are too self-absorbed to be aware of kindness, or are too self-complacent to think any kindness more than our desert. Young people are apt to take the abounding, overflowing kindnesses of their parents as matters of course; and so they come to miss the double joy they might have in a touch, a word, a look, a little arrangement for their pleasure, a thousand things over and above, so to speak, the love that is due from parent to child. A kindness is like a flower that has bloomed upon you unawares, and to be on the watch for such flowers adds very much to our joy in other people, as well as to the happy sense of being loved and cared for. You go into a shop, and the shopkeeper who knows you (I am not speaking of big stores) adds a pleasant something to your purchase which sends you cheerily on your way––some little kindness of look or word, some inquiry that shows his interest in you and yours, perhaps no more than a genial smile, but you have got into pleasant human relations with him because he has given you a kindness. There are two courses open to the receiver of this small kindness. One is to feel himself such an important person that it is to the interest of shopkeepers and the like to show him attention. The other is to go away with the springing gladness of a grateful heart, knowing that he takes with him more than he has bought.[1]

On this Thanksgiving Day, let us go beyond the benign annual ritual of the turkey-laden table, “Tell us something for which you are thankful.” And, in the quiet of our heart, let us pause to remember some good gift given by one who cares. Let us contemplate the gift and the giver until the corners of our mouth turn up in a faint smile. Then, if possible, let us communicate our gratitude and be twice blessed.

[1] Mason, Charlotte, Ourselves.


Making a Difference: A Practical Resource

Do you ever struggle as to whether you make a difference in the lives of your students?  “Make a Difference.”  It is the Imperative of my life.  But I struggle deeply with whether I am making a difference.  I am often anxious as to whether it is the successful Narrative of my life, and lately the struggle has been dead-centered on my teaching efforts.  After all, how can I know if I am making a difference in the lives of my students in the long run?  Anxiety and struggle represent the outcome of my dubious and abstract success metrics that try to look far into the future and deep into the heart. 

In her first experience as a teacher, prior to developing her educational philosophy and founding the House of Education, Charlotte Mason struggled with whether she was making a difference in the lives of her students. 

“Some years ago, I was accustomed to hear, ‘Habit is TEN natures,’ delivered from the pulpit on at least one Sunday out of four. I had at the time just begun to teach, and was young and enthusiastic in my work. It was to my mind a great thing to be a teacher; it was impossible but that the teacher should leave his stamp on the children. His own was the fault if anything went wrong, if any child did badly in school or out of it. There was no degree of responsibility to which youthful ardour was not equal. But, all this zeal notwithstanding, the disappointing thing was, that nothing extraordinary happened. The children were good on the whole, because they were the children of parents who had themselves been brought up with some care; but it was plain that they behaved very much as ‘’twas their nature to.’ The faults they had, they kept; the virtues they had were exercised just as fitfully as before. The good, meek little girl still told fibs. The bright, generous child was incurably idle. In lessons it was the same thing; the dawdling child went on dawdling, the dull child became no brighter. It was very disappointing. The children, no doubt, ‘got on’—a little; but each one of them had the makings in her of a noble character, of a fine mind, and where was the lever to lift each of these little worlds? Such a lever there must be. This horse-in-a-mill round of geography and French, history and sums, was no more than playing at education; for who remembers the scraps of knowledge he labored over as a child? and would not the application of a few hours in later life effect more than year’s drudgery at any one subject in childhood? If education is to secure the step-by-step progress of the individual and the race, it must mean something over and above the daily plodding at small tasks which goes by the name.[1]

Home Education (98)

Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy and method are the results of her extensive inquiry into how to effect real growth in students, to make a difference in their lives. 

As I have considered how to move away from anxiety over whether I am making a difference, I am going to engage more with a practical resource from ASI: the Reports of Growth.  The Reports of Growth measure Maturity Traits, Relationships with Content-Based Knowledge and Relationships with Skill-Based Knowledge.  They are to be completed at the end of each semester for each student.  As an introduction to the Reports of Growth, ASI states,

“Growth is the fulfillment of living things. It is what is intended for us as human persons. Physical growth is seen through height and weight differentiation; whereas, intellectual growth, spiritual growth, and relational growth are seen through changes in behavior and thinking. They result in skill development, in the ability to talk and write about a subject, and in the pursuit of further knowledge.” 

The Reports of Growth help the teacher to carefully assess changes in behavior and thinking in students based on meaningful evaluation criteria that can be seen on a daily basis and are important for each student in the long run, such as engagement with living ideas, joy in growth and relationships in the classroom, and submission to habit training. Whereas in past years I only turned my attention to the Reports at the end of the semester, I am going to become very familiar with the Reports of Growth prior to the end of each semester as a way to help guide my efforts and thoughts throughout the semester.  I encourage you to do the same.

Through faithfully applying Ms. Mason’s educational philosophy and method, and utilizing the practical resources offered by ASI, I have a sense of how to make a difference in the lives of my students – a sense of vocation beautifully expressed by one of the teachers trained under Charlotte Mason herself:

“I think none of us left without the sense of a vocation. ‘I have a life to give.’ Teaching was to be a mission carrying the breath of life to God’s children, going out ‘two and two’ with the mothers of our children to labour in God’s vineyard – not looking for results or rewards or for the praise of man but praying for our children that they ‘might increase’ even as we ‘decrease.’”[2]


[1] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, (98).

[2] Cholmondley, Essex. The Story of Charlotte Mason, (75).



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