“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
What did Charlotte Mason believe about sanctification? How, according to Charlotte Mason, does one become more Christ-like in thought, word, and deed? Is it a “natural” process or a “supernatural” process? Does it begin with the divine miracle of regeneration? Or does sanctification begin with something else?
One might think that these questions are answered in Volume II, Parents and Children. In this volume, Charlotte Mason writes the following:
And now, at last, the miracle of conversion is made plain to our dull understanding. We perceive that conversion, however sudden, is no miracle at all — using the word miracle to describe that which takes place in opposition to natural law. On the contrary, we find that every man carries in his physical substance the gospel of perpetual, or of always possible, renovation; and we find how, from the beginning, Nature was prepared with her response to the demand of Grace. Is conversion possible? we ask; and the answer is, that it is, so to speak, a function for which there is latent provision in our physical constitution, to be called forth by the touch of a potent idea. Truly His commandment is exceeding broad, and grows broader day by day with each new revelation of Science. (volume 2, pages 160-161)
In this chapter, Miss Mason describes the power of habit to develop character. “To-day is the day of salvation, physically speaking, because a habit is a thing of now; it may be begun in a moment, formed in a month, confirmed in three months, become the character, the very man, in a year” (volume 2, page 159). After reading this chapter, one might conclude that, for Charlotte Mason, sanctification is a physical and natural process. It does not require a spiritual rebirth. The power of habit is available to all.
And yet volume II is a collection of “essays [that] have appeared in the Parents’ Review, and were addressed, from time to time, to a body of parents who are making a practical study of the principles of education — the ‘Parents’ National Educational Union.’” Should one look for a theology of sanctification in an essay for parents about education? Did Miss Mason write for any other audience in any other context?
In my own Charlotte Mason journey, I have read, studied, and pondered her first five volumes. I have also read and discussed the first six chapters of volume 6. Most of this material was written for educators. When topics such as sin and holiness are encountered, they are usually incidental and secondary to a larger educational topic. The exception is volume 4, which is a ruby among gems in Charlotte Mason’s series.
Volume 4 is my favorite. In this volume, Miss Mason changes her perspective. The other volumes are organized around the principles of education. By contrast, volume 4 is organized around the internal nature of the person. It is her systematic presentation of the soul. In my view, this “inside-out” presentation is the best place to look for Charlotte Mason’s understanding of sanctification.
Within volume 4, there shines a sparkling light which fills the heart with wonder. This sparkling light is Chapter 18 of Book II, Part I. In my view, this chapter is Miss Mason’s definitive treatment of sin and holiness. It should be the standard by which her other statements are measured. In this chapter we see, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that more is at work in sanctification than nature.
She writes about falling into sin:
We do not intend, will, or foresee these sudden falls; we become as persons possessed, and have no power in ourselves to struggle out of the flood of malice, pride, uncleanness, greed, envy, or whatever else of evil has overwhelmed us. The fact that we have not foreseen these falls, points to a cause outside ourselves — to those powers and principalities in high places, whose struggle for dominion over us the Bible reveals; and the revelation is confirmed by our own sad and familiar experience. (pages 115-116)
Science cannot speak to the spiritual forces at work in temptation and sin:
But if we are aware of the movements of our own spiritual life, and observant of that life in those about us, if we have taken cognisance of how good and evil come as a flood upon the world or upon an individual soul, we shall recognise that there is a source of temptation outside of ourselves, even as there is a source of strength and blessedness. We shall know that “we wrestle not with flesh and blood,” but with spiritual wickedness in high places; and we shall lay ourselves out to understand the laws and conditions of temptation, and shall look eagerly for ways of escape. (page 116)
No regimen of habit, no physical training, can forever deliver us from the presence of temptation:
A sense of the inevitableness of temptation, the nearness of sin, comes upon us, now and then, like a terror; and it is well we should realise that temptation is a fact of life — a fact to be faced; and, also, that we are besieged in our weak places, tempted always to those sins we have a mind to. (p. 117)
And yet God has made provision for His children to choose holiness. Charlotte Mason quotes 1 Corinthians 10:13, which reads, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” But to whom is this provision offered? Is it available to all people? Or only to those who have been born from above?
I believe Miss Mason answers this question on page 118: “But, once we open the gates of our thought to let in the notion, why, we may conquer in the end, through the grace of Christ our Saviour, and after conflict, tears, and sore distress. But such a fight against temptation is a terror to the Christian soul.” Chapter 18 is addressed to the Christian soul. The ultimate deliverance from sin is found not in the “physical substance the gospel,” but rather in the “grace of Christ our Saviour.”
Again, she writes, “We have a Father who cares and knows. We have a Saviour who saves his people from their sins. We are not left to ourselves; we have a King who governs us, whose power upholds us, and whom we glorify by every little effort of ours not to enter into temptation.” (page 119) Christ is no mere intellectual principle or abstract idea. Rather, Christ is the Savior who knows, cares, acts, and upholds.
The proper response to temptation, according to Charlotte Mason, is to change one’s thoughts. But even this simple act should be done in faith, calling upon God for divine assistance. “When we face temptation, We just have to think of something else when an evil thought comes, something really interesting and nice, with a prayer in our hearts to God to help us to do so.” (Volume 4, Book I, page 23)
This prayer of help to God is not an empty gesture. Prayer itself is a miracle. “The Christian life is altogether of the nature of a miracle. That God should hold intercourse with man; that we may pray, knowing, with full assurance, that we are heard and shall be answered; that at our word the hearts of princes will surely be refrained; that the fit and right desires of our hearts will be fulfilled, though always in simple and seemingly natural ways — these things, which come to all of us as signs, are they not of the nature of miracles? Do they not imply the immediate and personal action of our God, not in your behalf or mine alone, but in behalf of each of the creatures of his infinite care?” (Volume 4, Book II, page 93)
If this “spiritual” account of sin and temptation is definitive, then how should one interpret the opposing account from volume II? I believe that a close reading of volume II reveals the key to harmonizing these two perspectives. Charlotte Mason wrote that “from the beginning, Nature was prepared with her response to the demand of Grace.” We are so accustomed to think of natural vs. supernatural, physical vs. spiritual, profane vs. sacred. Surely sanctification also must be one or the other…
But in “the beginning,” it was not this way. “Nature was prepared with her response to the demand of Grace.” Or, in the words of Father Alexander Schmemann: “The world, be it in its totality as cosmos, or in its life and becoming as time and history, is an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence, and power. In other words, it … truly ‘speaks’ of Him and is in itself an essential means both of knowledge of God and communion with Him.”
In the beginning, according to Schmemann, “the only natural (and not ‘supernatural’) reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it … in [an] act of gratitude and adoration.” In Christ, we are born from above, “and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.” Whether invisible prayer or tangible “ruts” in the brain, all of these are from God, to sanctify us, and make us like His Son.