“If I stopped reading the Bible, I sometimes wonder if anyone would notice.”
The statement caught me off guard and took me back a step. It flew in the face of everything I believed to be true and to be my solemn duty as a Christian man, husband, and father. “Of course people would notice,” I thought to myself. “We’re Christians. We read the Bible. It’s what we do.” I encouraged my friend as such and went about my day, but I wrestled with those words like a toy poodle gnawing on a brontosaurus femur. All day long, the words came back to me and I was distressed with what I was seeing in myself.
“Of course it would be noticeable. Why, just this morning I was reading…” and it struck me. It was only noon and I already could not remember what I had read only 6 hours ago. I faithfully checked off “Read Scripture” from my to-do list every morning. I faithfully woke early to read and pray. Yet I could not remember what I read. Over the next several months I noticed this same pattern. I’d wake early and read the section from my Bible-reading plan, checking the box that proved I read it. Yet now I felt less like the Christian Warrior taking up the sword of the Spirit, and more like the man James spoke about, who looks at himself in a mirror, and going away at once forgets what he looks like. My faith was strong, but I couldn’t shake the conviction that I wasn’t measuring up to Jesus’ words, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (John 14:23, ESV, 2016), and “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7, ESV, 2016). How could I claim to abide in my Savior and to keep His commands when His words were falling from my memory as quickly as I closed the Bible? I prayed and begged for an improved memory, that His words would dwell richly in me and that I would be changed more and more into His likeness.
But I struggled for months. Maybe years. If I stopped reading, would anyone notice?
When Sandra came to me one day as our twins were reaching school age and said, “I think we should homeschool the twins,” I must admit I resisted the idea. I wasn’t sure that was a good idea, and I had fears of socially-inept kids who lived in plastic bubbles and had no idea what the world was really like. But listening to my wife, and reassured that we could change our course if things didn’t work out I agreed. She went about caring for their education like she does everything surrounding her family’s well-being. She dove in, educating herself about methods and curriculum. She planned and scheduled and conversed and pretty much gave up her entire life to make educating these kids the thing she did all day, and turned around to learn about in the evenings. Yet she struggled. She felt like, in spite of all these efforts she was missing the mark. It was hard, and many times frustrating to the point of wishing she could just let herself give up. That was, of course, until the “pink books” found their way to our bookshelf.
She started reading Charlotte Mason’s writings on educating children. She devoured it. She brought thoughts and ideas to me from Miss Mason’s writings that so invigorated her, so energized her, so resonated with her very soul. She was confident she had found the answer to teaching children, and again, she dove in with all her might. It was at this point she shared the idea of narrating, of telling back what had just been read. She excitedly shared all this amazing information with me and went about implementing it with the kids. She even found this community of people who subscribe to Mason’s teaching methods, and ended up going to a weekend away called the “Living Education Retreat.” She came back absolutely inspired like she hadn’t been in a long while. She asked me to attend with her. She said this would change the way I view the education of our children. She said that I would need to know what this “education is a lifestyle” was all about so that together we could create an atmosphere of learning that would serve our children their entire lives.
I agreed to go, but if I answer honestly I was more interested in a vacation than learning anything. I fear change.
I went that first year and found the speakers inspiring. I love my children, and it was clear that these people did, also. Sandra was patient with me, always bringing me along, sharing ideas with me that resonated with my spirit. I learned a little here, a little there, but never really understood the great ideas Mason brought about in her philosophy and writings. I couldn’t deny the effectiveness, though. By this time, my kids were nine years old and more well-read than I was at 45. They could speak on all sorts of subjects with people of all ages. Sandra went about presenting the feast of great ideas before them, and they responded just like Charlotte said they would.
I kept going back to the LER, and I think I’ve been there 5 years running now. I made some good friends, I felt a kinship in that “special kind of crazy” we all seemed to share. I had learned quite a bit about Charlotte’s philosophy and could recognize the important terms in conversation, like “narrate,” or “I am. I can. I ought. I will.” As I listened to the conversazione I felt like I was “getting it.”
But inside, I felt like an imposter. I really like the idea of being a Charlotte Mason Dad. I gave great lip service to the importance of reading living books, and experiencing the out-of-doors. I was proud of the work Sandra had accomplished with their education, and as I felt somewhat boastful on our way to the LER, I found myself feeling moreso convicted. I said I believed all this “Mason stuff,” but I wasn’t really helping to foster the atmosphere. In fact, where twaddle entered our home, it was likely attached to me or my allowing of it. I wasn’t holding the principles in my own heart, and it was undoubtedly passing through to the kids. I realized I needed to either go “all in” on the ideas, or accept that it wasn’t important and I didn’t care. The thought of using the phrase, “I don’t care,” in anything connected to my children cut me to the quick.
Well, that about ruined my upcoming vacation, I’ll tell you that much…
I was reminded of a plenary session given by Art Middlekauff a couple years earlier, where he talked about stealing time from ourselves to give it to our children, with the only possible motivation being love. I listened that weekend and felt the weight of my calling as a husband, and a father. I decided that I wanted the relationship with my children that I saw these other guys having, and I was willing to steal the “me time” to really dig in and give them what they needed most.
I was feeling pretty good about that decision. I felt like things were really going better. Then Art posed a most terrifying challenge. “The Idyll Challenge,” in fact. He said that he was going to start a book study of Charlotte Mason’s 6-volume series on education for guys only. He said that Charlotte recommended that all teachers should read her 6 volumes every 2 years, and that was exactly what we were going to do—read all 6 volumes in 2 years. But he also said, “don’t agree to do this unless you’re going to commit. You’re not allowed to drop out once we get going, so don’t enter in lightly.”
I could feel Sandra’s gaze, encouraging me to take part in this challenge. After seventeen years of marriage, I could tell what she was thinking without even looking at her. But this was a huge commitment and I felt like I’d be letting everyone down if I couldn’t complete it. In the end, though, I knew it was time to put my money where my mouth was, and on the last day of the retreat I told Art I would join the Idyll Challenge. As Sandra and I drove home and recounted all the amazing things we had learned at the retreat, I decided I would try to use Mason’s methods on myself, because if I was going to invest this kind of time I wanted to really understand. I wanted to know. I thought I’d put Charlotte Mason to the test.
As we went through the Idyll Challenge, I read these words in the preface to Toward a Philosophy of Education:
- “As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.”
- “A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarising. and the like.” (Mason, 1989f, p. xxx)
The way I studied before Charlotte Mason’s technique was more like “taking notes quickly while reading” and then reviewing several times to make sure I had it right. I decided to write out all my narrations of the Idyll Challenge after reading only once, following as closely as I was able to Miss Mason’s technique. Somewhat to my surprise (but not Sandra’s), this was really working! I was understanding more, retaining more, enjoying the conversations more. Charlotte Mason really had this right! I dug in more, and the more I dug in, the more things made sense. I felt like I had unlocked a treasure chest, and more wildly wonderful riches were discovered in that chest every time I read and narrated.
Then not long ago, I recalled that earlier conversation I had with that dear friend. I suddenly understood the problem of my morning devotions, and how I could read faithfully and walk away forgetting what I had read. I wasn’t going through the effort to know. I wasn’t reading to know. Charlotte’s words summed up my problem perfectly:
Desultory reading or hearing is entertaining and refreshing, but is only educative here and there as our attention is strongly arrested. Further, we not only retain but realise, understand, what we thus go over. Each incident stands out, every phrase acquires new force, each link in the argument is riveted, in fact we have performed The Act of Knowing, and that which we have read, or heard, becomes a part of ourselves, it is assimilated after the due rejection of waste matter. (Mason, 1989f, p. 292)
This desultory reading was how I had been approaching God’s word, and while I learned from it in bursts, here and there, I wasn’t abiding in the words of Jesus Christ like I could be. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:7-8). Once going through the act of knowing, that which I’ve read really becomes part of me, or abides in me.
I began narrating the Scriptures in the morning as part of my daily devotion. I read a passage of Scripture with intent and focus as if this was the only time in my life I was going to hear it. I close my Bible, set it aside and pick up my pen. I recount the passage with as much detail as I’m able to muster, but I don’t get hung up on whether or not I remember everything word-for-word, although often I do after about a year of practice. And just recently I added my own twist to the process. After I narrate in cursive handwriting the Bible passage I just read, I meditate over the Word, and print the thoughts and instruction that comes from the Holy Spirit to me.
The Word of God is coming alive to me! Charlotte said:
All the acts of generalization, analysis, comparison, judgment, and so on, the mind performs for itself in the act of knowing. If we doubt this, we have only to try the effect of putting ourselves to sleep by relating silently and carefully, say, a chapter of Jane Austen or a chapter of the Bible, read once before going to bed. The degree of insight, the visualization, that comes with this sort of mental exercise is surprising. (Mason, 1989f, p. 304)
“The degree of insight, the visualization, that comes with this sort of mental exercise is surprising,” is quite possibly the greatest understatement of Charlotte’s work I’ve experienced. The Spirit takes the Word and teaches me directly, and daily. Not a day goes by that I’m not amazed in what God has to tell me through His word and the enlightening of the Spirit (at least not on days when I really go through the act of knowing and don’t take short cuts, that is… don’t judge me… I’m new to this).
And what’s greater is recalling what I read so much more as I go through the day. Just like Jesus promised, when His word is hidden in our hearts we’re less likely to sin against Him. His joy is in me, and people ask me questions like, “Not much seems to get you down. What’s up with you, anyway?” In other words, I’m more often proving myself to be one of His disciples because His word dwells in me.
Finally, I feel like I’m no longer “always learning and never knowing.” I also saw that my greatest educational desire for my children isn’t that they be brilliant naturalists or be able to quote Shakespeare for their grandparents (although that is really, really cool). It’s that they would come to a life-giving relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. This is why I love so much when I read Charlotte’s words, that “The knowledge of God is the principal knowledge, and no teaching of the Bible which does not further that knowledge is of religious value” (Mason, 1989f, p. 272). When I read to know, and I help create that atmosphere in our home where we all read to know, and we’re reading God’s very words which are the principal knowledge, I can step out of the way and let the Holy Spirit do the teaching and the saving.
ESV. (2016). The Holy Bible: English standard version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Mason, C. (1989f). A philosophy of education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.
Greg Rolling is a musician, author, technologist, husband, father, and Christ-lover. He started learning about Charlotte Mason to better educate his children, and to his surprise has learned more than he teaches every day. Greg is an active participant in The Idyll Challenge, and frequently records Parents’ Review articles for the Charlotte Mason Poetry podcast.
©2017 Greg Rolling