Ask Art #4 – The Spirit and the Letter

Ask Art #4 – The Spirit and the Letter

A listener asked, “If Charlotte wanted us to rely most of all on the Holy Spirit for guidance, why was she so specific (e.g. the timetables etc.)? If we were handed her 20 principles alone, I think there would be a wider array of practices, but she expounded on the specifics of her methods. Should those things be a jumping off point, or an end goal? Obviously there are areas most CM people see as being flexible, but what if you don’t keep a nature journal, what if you start with ancient history, or don’t do short lessons, what if you choose RightStart™ Math?”

Join Ashley Olander and me for a rousing discussion in which we explore the many aspects of this question and put forth an answer. Listen in as we discuss the great recognition, divine and natural law, and the twenty principles. And don’t be surprised if we challenge some of your assumptions about how the Holy Spirit operates—especially when we explore what Charlotte Mason meant when she said that children are “capable of receiving and constantly enjoying intuitions from the intimate converse of the Divine Spirit.”


The Ask Art series

The Great Recognition Mason Brought To Florence

Towards an Authentic Interpretation

Applying an AuthenticInterpretation

The Montessori System

9 Replies to “Ask Art #4 – The Spirit and the Letter”

  1. Brilliant! Thank you for this disccussion. Of course it prompts a million more questions. I thought the nature of the lady’s questions were treated very thoroughly. I have a few comments and reflections that have come out of this discussion. It was mentioned that the Holy Spirit’s Edcuation then cannot really be arbitrary and is not simply customized. There is order. However, I am thinking of how individually Christ spoke to those who came to him with questions. To some he said, “Give everything to the poor”, “Leave the dead to bury themselves”. To others who wanted to do this he said, (I paraphrase), “Go back home and life an upright life”. Each instruction was different (in terms of vocation) for each person. His word for each was entirely customized. So do I understand it that once we agree the Holy Spirit is the Educator (and perhaps we as parents the humble guides to our children), then the living ideas can become truly customized. The order is provided through living material and the customization through the way these living materials speak to each child?

    I also wonder about the principle that outlines the literary requirement of most living materials (aside from things and manual labour and music, etc). I laugh at each time I read when CM speaks to this she basically says this aspect “needs no explanation”. I am afraid in our educational culture, it does! MY secular and christian homeschooling friends a like will often say, “But how are we createdif not to learn through human to human relationship” “Books deaden the human element”, “ideas are passed from heart to heart”. And other obscure sentiments, which while appearing silly to many CM families, have some truth to them. In “For the Children’s Sake”, the author argues that in other cultures and societies, a living educaiton can be handed down without the literary requirement. While our Lord certainly had the old scriptures, he taught through verbal stories which I imagine he hoped would be understood by those living in the culture of the time and through proximate closeness to Him. Even then he would roll his eyes and ask how they don’t understand (I imagine!). But he didn’t sit them down with books. The truth was taught person to person. He continued to authorize the role of the teacher in the synagogue. So while I see the use of narrative as a gospel example of the method we use, I don’t see the automatic assumption that the literary avenue is the best way to deliver it. I can use my own deduction and derive that:
    -books are edited
    -they are the life’s work of a person dedicating their thought and adult lives, often, to the idea
    -they help us avoid long tangents of thought off topic
    -they are peer reviewed and published thus often given us some assurance of their quality

    But does CM ever outline, without just saying that its obvious, that books are the best avenue for gaining knowledge and being presented with living ideas?

    One more thought I had about the question about “Do we need to use nature books?” As a catholic, married to a divorced man before we could get an annulment, it was pastorally advised that I wait to receive communion until it was resolved by annulment. My circumstances required for a while that the ideal from of communion be stalled until my situation was resolved. Alternatives were spiritual communion which the saints have had to have when separated from the Eucharist for other dire reasons. However, we recognize this is not the ideal. Yes, we can do without al the essentials at times and God will still feed and nourish us but that the ideal should never be forgotten and daughter after. Eucharist is essential each Sunday for all Catholics but because of missionary work, imprisonment, or other circumstances this cannot always be attained. But we work toward reestablishing those essentials as soon as possible, while recognizing God will take care of us in the mean time if our goal is full communion as soon as circumstances allow. I think of this in terms of homeschooling too. Sometimes circumstances ( a death, a new child, loss of job) can prevent the full feast from being laid at the table, but this should never be situation we are content with for the future, but we should always look with expectation to the full feast again. Leaving out essentials voluntarily should never be our aim but that when we cannot avoid it, we must trust God will take care of us until such time as we can have the full feast again.

    Thank you for these great discussions. They are enhancing my feast while I try my best to build a small local community in the far north of canada (two of us are beginning too narrate and read together).

    1. Marlon,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and wide-ranging reflections on this episode. Regarding what is common or universal versus what is custom or particular, I agree with your summary statement: “The order is provided through living material and the customization through the way these living materials speak to each child.” You give the apropos example of how Christ customized His message to each individual. But these customizations were variations of a common or general approach. Charlotte Mason points out:

      “Our Lord,” says this author, “reverenced whatever the learner had in him of his own, and was tender in fostering this native growth—… Men, in His eyes, were not mere clay in the hands of the potter, matter to be moulded to shape. They were organic beings, each growing from within, with a life of his own—a personal life which was exceedingly precious in His and His Father’s eyes—and He would foster this growth so that it might take after the highest type.” (Pastor Pastorum, by H. Latham, M.A., page 6.) (III:183)

      Charlotte Mason brings together the common (universal) and custom (particular) in this one rich quote:

      Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. (VI:109)

      Your remark that the customization is “the way these living materials speak to each child” perfectly aligns with Mason’s remark that the child “is an eclectic.”

      Regarding your question, “But does CM ever outline, without just saying that it’s obvious, that books are the best avenue for gaining knowledge and being presented with living ideas?” I think her most succinct statement is this:

      The idea of the Logos did not come by chance to the later Greeks; “The Word” is not a meaningless title applied to the second Person of the Trinity; it is not without significance that every utterance which fell from Him is marked by exquisite literary fitness (VI:330)

      Mason clearly believed that the words Jesus spoke were of the “literary form” described in principle 13. This is not true for the spoken words of (most of) the rest of us. One reason living books are preferred to oral teaching is because most teachers are not good speakers (see volume 3, pp. 242-243). A second reason is given in volume 6:

      There are those who have a right to lecture, those who have devoted a life-time to some one subject about which they have perhaps written their book. Lectures from such persons are, no doubt, as full of insight, imagination and power as are their written works; but we cannot have a score of such lecturers in every school, each to elucidate his own subject, nor, if we could, would it be good for the children. The personality of the teacher would influence them to distraction from the delight in knowledge which is itself a sufficient and compelling force to secure perfect attention, and seemly discipline. (p. 78)

      The people of God have always been the people of the book. In Joshua 1:8 we read, “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night.” In Luke 2, we read of Jesus in the temple at the age of 12. It seems most likely that he obtained His wisdom from the Holy Scriptures, rather than from oral teaching.

      And thank you for this wonderful reflection:

      Sometimes circumstances ( a death, a new child, loss of job) can prevent the full feast from being laid at the table, but this should never be situation we are content with for the future, but we should always look with expectation to the full feast again. Leaving out essentials voluntarily should never be our aim but that when we cannot avoid it, we must trust God will take care of us until such time as we can have the full feast again.

      I agree completely!


  2. Wait, as I read my words I want to correct myself. I acknowledge that Christ did expect that the Jews were familiar with their written scriptures but the main imagine we have is of him teaching with people seated around him, near him, listening to an oral treatise and instruction. I know his is The Living Word, so perhaps he is a book, The Book, and thus an exception? But is this not an example to us to how to teach? Or do we take the example that he was helping his students unpack the written scriptures and Him, as the living word, and that is our role as parents?

  3. Thank you for these quotes. It appears I cannot get to all her writings quickly enough! That’s ok—- it appears I have plenty to look forward to. The podcasts keep giving me a taste of what is to come! On Parents and Children right now and can’t believe the depth of insight. Those quotes will help satiate a few of my bigger questions that are at the forefront right now until I digest some more of CMs writings.

  4. Thank you for this interesting and informative discussion. I have a couple of questions that I’ve been debating about asking for two days because I am afraid I won’t express myself clearly, but here I go. First, is it your understanding that Charlotte Mason believed she had received by illumination from the Holy Spirit an understanding of what she refers to as the code of education set forth in the gospels that had never been (fully) illuminated before? And second, if no other method of education invites the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, do we, as parents and educators, have any right to choose another method of education for our children (public school, Montessori, etc.)?

    1. Thank you for these great questions. Charlotte Mason did not claim to have received her method of education by direct revelation from the Holy Spirit. In other words, she did not claim plenary inspiration for her philosophy. She did not ask parents and teachers to trust her guidance as one might trust a prophet. Rather, she provided logical argumentation and evidence to support her conclusions and recommendations about education. She provided evidence taken from science, personal observation, and Scripture, along with other sources. Even her “code of education set forth in the gospels” was derived from exegesis, not from a presumed esoteric or prophetic insight into the Word of God. That being said, I don’t think she would claim credit from a human perspective for whatever is found to be true in her method. She would assert that whatever good that may be found in her philosophy came through the providential agency of God (James 1:17).

      Charlotte Mason would expect her readers to test her ideas using her own principle #19: “Therefore, children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas.” I don’t advise anyone to blindly accept Mason’s ideas. I urge every reader and listener of this podcast to accept or reject the ideas presented based on his or her own “principles of conduct, and … wide range of … knowledge.”

      If someone is unconvinced by any or all of Mason’s reasonings, then he or she in good conscience can opt for a different educational philosophy such as Montessori. If someone is convinced of only, say, one or two of Mason’s ideas, then it would be reasonable for such a person to combine those one or two principles with some other educational philosophy.

      On the other hand, someone might be persuaded by most or all of Charlotte Mason’s argumentation, but then be unable to put her principles into practice. For example, a single parent may be forced to make compromises and send his or her children to classes or schools that do not follow the Charlotte Mason method. Life is full of tradeoffs, and it is hard to live in perfect conformance with one’s ideals. It is best, I think, to cooperate with the providence of God, walk in humility, and be grateful for the extent to which we can deliver a living education to our children that aligns with our ideals.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to respond, and for the clarity of your response. More than once I have heard people say things that have made me *think* they are answering both of my questions in the affirmative, which has caused me to wonder if I’m misreading or misinterpreting Mason. More likely, I should work on my listening comprehension skills.

        1. Thank you. It is of course possible that you have heard other answers from other people that differ from the answers I’ve given above. I am speaking here only of how I would answer your questions. I would also note that the original question for this “Ask Art” was inquiring about the degree of specificity or flexibility that Charlotte Mason herself intended for those who follow her method. I have argued that Mason advocated a relatively high degree of specificity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *