Reverence in Action

Reverence in Action

A mother contacted me a few months ago because her Form 1B student was enjoying everything in the program except Bible lessons. She asked for my advice. Should she try a different Bible translation? A different commentary? A different lesson format? My answer may have surprised her. I suggested a different attitude. An attitude of reverence.

In my previous two articles on reverent lessons (here and here), I’ve written about the importance of this quality and how it may be expressed towards the time and towards the child. In this final article, I’m focusing on reverence towards the content. Here’s the specific advice I gave in response to the homeschooling mother:

The Bible should be seen as a sacred book, different from all the rest. Bible lessons are first in the day because it is the only time you read a direct revelation from God Himself. Perhaps … it would be helpful to bring an element of reverence and awe to Bible time… One vehicle you might want to consider for this is a family service of Morning Prayer. The daily reading would appear then in its appropriate place in the family liturgy. Some time with this format may help awaken a sense of reverence for the sacred text.

Did I suggest this because Charlotte Mason suggested it? No. Is this approach found in the programmes or The Parents’ Review? No. But I still think it could be a valid way to express what Mason refers to as “sympathy” for the content. This particular mother ended up expressing her sympathy in a way that was more meaningful for her: “We started lighting a candle during [Bible lessons],” she wrote, “and … I do think that helped!” Now is there really value in such an external or formal ritual? I’ll let Mason herself respond:

It is a mistake to suppose that the forms of reverence need be tiresome to [children]. They love little ceremonies, and to be taught to kneel nicely while saying their short prayers would help them to a feeling of reverence in after life.[1]

Reverence for the Content

In Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason writes, “The teachers give sympathy and occasionally elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars” (p. 6). The sentence is a great summary of the role of the teacher in the Charlotte Mason method. The teacher does not do the “actual work.” But — and this part is essential — the teacher does give sympathy. Not occasionally, but always. As Mason wrote in 1913, “What [the child] wants to know is that his teacher cares.”[2]

While I believe that this sympathy and care should be expressed most profoundly during Bible lessons, Charlotte Mason protégé R. A. Pennethorne explains that a spirit of reverence should permeate all lessons because all are, in a sense, sacred:

To begin with, Scripture with us is not an isolated subject—the only ‘public recognition of God’ in the school curriculum. We believe that in that painting in Florence, which Miss Mason ventures to describe as the Great Recognition, is shewn the true educational gospel—that all knowledge is part of Holy Wisdom and the gift of God’s spirit. So we try to inculcate a spirit of reverence and wonder in all studies, while putting first things first and beginning every morning with a scripture lesson in the place of honour.[3]

To help parents and teachers “inculcate a spirit of reverence and wonder in all studies,” Mason and her followers provide their own sympathetic thoughts about a wide range of subjects.

Literature. Charlotte Mason writes that “nothing speaks to us more directly from the Spirit of God than the best books of the best men.”[4] In this set she includes, of course, “THE BOOK par excellence.” But what if each book read after the Bible lesson were approached with the eager expectation of teacher and student that they were about to receive some whisper of truth from the Spirit above?

History. Charlotte Mason writes that “our sense of the oneness of humanity reaches into the remotest past, making us regard with tender reverence every relic of the antiquity of our own people or of any other.”[5] Imagine if every history lesson were seen as an opportunity to receive a relic of any people or nation with tender reverence!

Mathematics. PNEU luminary Irene Stephens writes:

When a little child comes to the gate-way of number he comes as did the sages of old ready and hoping to be led into a magic land, to exercise his faculty of wonder once more in his so wonderful world, and alas, how often he is disappointed! He is shown, in effect, not a Delectable Country but a Slough of Despond with nothing beyond it but further Sloughs of Despond through which he must plough for years on weary years. We can only help him by getting back ourselves to the philosophical approach to mathematics, back to the place where we regain our own wonder and sense of reverence and awe before those things which the science and art of number can reveal to us.[6]

I find it so significant that Stephens identifies only one way to gift our children with a lively interest in mathematics. It is not done by manipulatives or techniques. It is not done by colorful pictures or lab-tested phrases. It is not even done directly to the child. It is done in us. We parents and teachers need to “regain our own wonder and sense of reverence and awe of … number.” For you, maybe it’s not to “regain” but to gain for the very first time. But either way, please don’t attempt to teach math without reverence. That fancy and flashy curriculum that your neighbor has is no substitute for the real thing: a heartfelt love for numbers and their intrinsic and wonderful worth.

Science. Mason’s hope is that “children will grow up in [an] attitude of reverence for science.”[7] Indeed, “Where science does not teach a child to wonder and admire it has perhaps no educative value.”[8]

Nature study. In nature study, reverence may be shown by setting aside our own agendas and welcoming whatever discovery God places in our paths. Agnes Drury explains it this way:

But we do not go for a Nature walk in order to “find something to paint.” In the country, every walk becomes a nature walk for people who are in the habit of observing things. Telling a child that we are going for “a bird walk” or “a Nature walk” might rather be deplored, because we take whatever comes in our way and give it the attention and reverence it deserves.[9]

Sloyd. Even what might seem to be the most practical subject of all should be approached with reverence. Handicrafts such as sloyd do not train only our hands; they also train our hearts. The same R. A. Pennethorne who says the day begins with Bible lessons also says this about sloyd:

The child is only truly educated who can use his hands as truly as his head, for to neglect one part of our being injures the whole, and the learned book-worm who is ignorant of the uses of a screw-driver, also lacks that readiness and resourcefulness, mental neatness and capability, and reverence for labour and its results, which a knowledge of practical matters gives.[10]

The consensus among Charlotte Mason and her followers is clear: all our teaching of children should be given with a sincere and heartfelt reverence for the subject matter being taught.

Reverence for the Materials

Let us resolve to have reverence for the beautiful and wonderful ideas found in literature, math, science, and history. What then? The fact remains that each one of these ideas reaches us through some physical medium, whether book, object, or living thing. We show reverence for the idea by showing reverence for the material in which it is clothed. A natural implication of this is how we treat books. Mason wrote, “Let marginal notes be freely made, as neatly and beautifully as may be, for books should be handled with reverence.”[11] This incidental comment has many practical implications. For example, a PNEU homeschool mother from the 1920’s writes:

The possession of this book-case, where all the books can be kept by their owner in order, does encourage the child to love and care for its books.[12]

I find it interesting that Mrs. Brown does not say simply that children should love and care for the ideas found in their books. Rather, they should care for the books themselves. Every family may approach this concept differently, but some questions to consider are:

  • Do we have good reasons for how we choose between hardcover, softcover, and digital books? Have we thought about the messages our decisions convey?
  • Do we organize, store, and retrieve our books as if they were among the treasured possessions of our household?
  • Do we use our books with care, protecting pages and spines, and having thoughtful guidelines about whether or not to write in them?

Our children learn not only from books but also from things, including the living creatures of nature. Do we treat all living things with reverence? Mason challenges us to a lifestyle of tenderness towards animals when she writes:

A fourth relation is to the dumb creation; a relation of intelligent comprehension as well as of kindness. Why should not each of us be on friendly terms with the ‘inmates of his house and garden’? Every child longs for intimacy with the creatures about him; and—

“He prayeth best, who loveth best

All things both great and small;

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all.”[13]

This tenderness extends even to plant life:

The dissection even of a flower is painful to a sensitive child, and, during the first six or eight years of life, I would not teach them any botany which should necessitate the pulling of flowers to bits… Reverence for life, as a wonderful and awful gift, which a ruthless child may destroy but never can restore, is a lesson of first importance to the child:—

“Let knowledge grow from more to more;
But more of reverence in us dwell.” [14]

In my view, this should also affect our attitude towards natural ecosystems and the laws that protect them. To be sure, plucking wildflowers for painting at home teaches observational skills. But I believe it is irreverent to pluck native wildflowers without first obtaining a clear and accurate understanding of the impact such activity has on the fragile environment that makes such flowers possible.

A final note on materials is that wonderful ideas are sometimes clothed in mediocre media. When a question comes up during a lesson, YouTube is a convenience to be sure. But will the screens, advertisements, and comments develop in my children a love and reverence for books? My general rule has become to avoid digital videos and images during lesson time. I find that written word and printed image do more to inspire my reverence — and reverence should accompany all my teaching of children.

Reverence in Action: Co-learning

When we as parents and teachers feel a deep sense of reverence for the content and the materials of learning, our lessons become more compelling for our children. However, I believe there is another logical outcome from this kind of reverence. When we revere knowledge for its own sake, we no longer want it only for our children. We also want it for ourselves. And when we become lifelong learners ourselves, then we unlock the most powerful catalyst for the awakening of knowledge in our homes. I call it reverence in action, or co-learning.

Mrs. W. J. Brown’s 1930 article “The History of a P.U.S. Schoolroom, By the Mother Who Runs It” provides a wonderful account of what I call co-learning. She writes the following:

The secret of this method of attack is for the teacher and taught to work together as fellow-students. I never, from the beginning, took up the attitude of pedagogue! The whole of our enjoyment and success depended on the fact that we did the work together as friends and fellow-labourers. There is no need to fear that this attitude lowers the dignity of the teacher, it doesn’t.[15]

This approach, however, did not originate with Mrs. Brown. Charlotte Mason gives a wonderfully inspiring account of co-learning in Formation of Character when she describes the education of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

The father, who held that nothing was so stimulating to young pupils as for their elders to learn with them, also laboured at this [study of drawing]. (p. 335)

Goethe’s father not only learned drawing with his son, but they also took English classes together. Mason records that Goethe wrote, “My father resolved on the spot to make the attempt, and took lessons with me and my sister from this expeditious master.”[16] The thought of Goethe and his father tackling a new language together is just like the image I get when I hear of Mrs. Brown of doing “the work together as friends and fellow-labourers” with her children.

I don’t think this is merely an outlying principle of the Charlotte Mason method. Essex Cholmondeley sums up the work at the House of Education in this way:

Teaching is not a technique exercised by the skilled on behalf of the unskilled. It is a sharing of the effort to know, using all that is best in the world of books, of music, of pictures, all that can be observed and cherished out of doors, all that hand and eye can make; all that religion, history, art, mathematics and science can reveal to the active mind.[17]

I have understood this principle for quite some time and have applied it consistently in certain areas of my homeschool. For example, nature study, book of centuries, and commonplace journaling have all been “co-learning” subjects for me. Similarly, my wife Barbara has rolled up her sleeves to co-learn all of the handicrafts with the children. She has made some wonderful sloyd pieces!

But it has been only recently that I have started to apply this principle to the more “academic” subjects of our homeschool. The pattern of “go off and do this while I do my email” was starting to feel distinctly … irreverent to me. The unspoken message it sends is, “I’m asking you to do something I don’t want to do. I’d rather write an email instead. When you’re done with your ‘chore’ come and get me.”

Yet if I internalize the “reverence for the content” that I’ve described above, then why would I prefer email over learning? And if Goethe’s father is right, what would be so stimulating to my young pupil as for his elder to learn with him?

Let me say at the outset that for families with large schoolrooms, the co-learning I describe maybe infeasible. In that case, however, the children are still of necessity learning with their elders: specifically, their older siblings! When the schoolroom is small, on the other hand, I am seeing firsthand the benefit to the child of having a fellow learner with him.

As an example, my thirteen-year-old is doing sentence parsing and diagramming for grammar. His two older siblings did it before him, but his dad sat back while they did the work. This time I am doing something different. When he does his exercises, I do the same ones myself. We are working at the same time. Then when we’re both done, we trade pages. We check each other’s work. And it’s yielding unexpected benefits.

One surprise benefit is that I now understand firsthand whether the work is easy or hard. I discover which are the tough problems. If a question comes up, I am completely prepared now to answer. I learn humility and compassion when I find that I too get some problems wrong. We learn together that the answer key is not infallible. Sometimes there are gray areas. My son sees that we are not working for the score but for the truth.

I started doing the same with math. The algebra problems feel so basic to me now … until I get a problem wrong. Now I’m “in the game” with him. I am so much more engaged and ready to discuss the nuances of what we are doing.

With Latin, it’s a more even playing field. I am only a few steps ahead of my son. In that course especially, I am like Goethe’s father taking English classes with his son. I do all the same work — the same exercises, study the same vocabulary, and even take the same tests. I’m learning Latin with one of my best friends and I wouldn’t trade the experience for almost anything in the world.

Once I started doing Latin exams, on a whim I started to take the rest of the exams too. At the end of the term when my son writes about his favorite picture study from the term, I write about mine too. When we’ve answered the questions, we trade papers. It’s so interesting to find out what views and impressions we have in common — and when our opinions have gone different ways.

For Plutarch, I actually use the questions from the historical PNEU programmes. It is humbling to me to attempt this portion of the exam myself. I have so much more compassion and sympathy for my son as he attempts the tough parts. If he struggles, he gets some assurance that there’s nothing wrong with him — it’s just that some of this is really hard!

When I was focusing more time on the older two, Barbara did all the math with our youngest. She’s actually the one who pioneered this form of co-learning in our home, when she discovered that our son’s engagement and attention increased when he knew she was working on the same math problems by his side. The moment came, however, when it was time for algebra. He was graduating from “mom school” and it was time to work with dad.

I thought it would be a big honor, a sort of rite of passage for him. Instead, it was more bitter than sweet. He did not want to lose his co-learning companion who had been on the math journey with him for so many years.

Then a beautiful thing happened. Barbara said that she would join my algebra school with our son. She had every reason not to. What was the upside? She could be reading email, serving in church, watching a movie, talking to friends. And how many downsides! Having never touched algebra since high school there would be every possibility of her making silly mistakes, being embarrassed, and exposing her weaknesses.

Despite the risks, she took the plunge. She recommitted herself to lifelong learning, to working by her son’s side, even though she didn’t have to. Some might call it silly; others might call it a waste of time. I call it reverence in action. And I’m so glad my wife is making it real in our home.


[1] School Education, p. 141.
[2]The Reading Habit And A Wide Curriculum,” p. 569.
[3]P.N.E.U. Methods of Teaching Scripture,” pp. 156–157.
[4]The Reading Habit And A Wide Curriculum,” p. 572.
[5] School Education, p. 48.
[6]Number: A Figure and a Step Onward,” p. 38.
[7] School Education, p. 160.
[8] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 224.
[9]Nature Study,” p. 189.
[10]P.N.E.U. Principles, as Illustrated by Teaching,” p. 561.
[11] School Education, p. 181.
[12]The History of a P.U.S. Schoolroom, By the Mother Who Runs It,” p. 293.
[13] School Education, p. 80.
[14] Home Education, pp. 62–63.
[15]The History of a P.U.S. Schoolroom, By the Mother Who Runs It,” p. 285.
[16] Formation of Character, p. 338.
[17] The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 157.

6 Replies to “Reverence in Action”

  1. This series on reverence has been a blessing. I also want to add, Art and Barbara, that God has blessed your children with very special parents.

  2. Thank you, I’ve really enjoyed this series! It’s so easy to become anxious that our efforts aren’t producing the results we expected. I’ve slowly been learning to trust the process and let go of the expectation that education will happen all at once or that I can control the outcome. Reverence for the child and also for the books we read together, that have been chosen with prayer and discernment.

  3. Thank you for this writing on reverence, Art. It has been a tremendous blessing for me. The perspective of co-learning, reverent toward the materials; all these insights have enriched my homeschool journey. Thank you!

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