Saturday, February 21, 2009

trying to reach higher ground

Photo taken by Clare

When I was making this list of Habits from CM's Home Education, for children under the age of nine, I was thinking that any time we talk about habits for children, we are necessarily talking about something required of the mother as well. So maybe that's part of the reason I tend to get bogged down quickly whenever I read CM's thoughts on habits. I get good things out of them, but at the same time I start feeling discouraged.

More than just getting discouraged, I get skeptical. I wonder if her ideas are "permanent principles" -- are they still relevant today? Some of them? All of them? In what way? Do I want my individual, unique children "habitized?" Do I want myself to be that way?

I will have to try to deal with the last two questions some other time, but right now I'll try to deal with the first couple. I notice that I find it too easy when I'm trying to sort through Charlotte Mason's ideas to either (1) resort to banalities -- that is, basically just repeat and restate her thoughts (2) throw away the whole thing in discouragement (3) get unhappy as I read her books and then compare them with my quite different ways of doing things, and feel a kind of resentment towards my whole life and its seeming shortcomings; a resentment that becomes a near occasion for sins of anger and pride.

So I thought I'd try to think through that difficulty just a bit.

From what I understand, Charlotte Mason WAS speaking for her time -- she did it intentionally. In her time, she was trying to reframe the traditional ideas in such a way that they would be understandable to her educated contemporaries. She often spent a chapter critiquing a contemporary educationist, or comparing her school's ideas with those of a current philosopher or scientist.

She probably would expect us to do the same. She would stand by the principles she was employing, which she thought had eternal verity. But she did think the "Zeitgeist" or current state of thought needed to be taken into account. She thought there needed to be educators who would say things in terms that the people around them would understand, as St Paul spoke to the Greeks on Mars Hill. So this is part of her method -- she didn't expect it to be a static "system" with no flexibility or individuality of application.

There's also something else, that St Francis de Sales often spoke about. This is about the feeling you get when you are looking at a set of standards and see that you don't measure up to some of them. It can feel like a report card with a bunch of poor marks. However, when there is a path laid in front of us, even if we are on the very first stages of a journey and feel like we are taking a step backward for every two forward -- we do well to keep on OUR path. It doesn't really help to put on the mask of some saintly person and then try to become that person. Though well meant, it is not effective and can sometimes make a person stumble -- like David wearing the armor of King Saul. It is a sort of pretense. I know that, both from experience and intuitively.

In contrast, there's nothing at all wrong with trying to aspire to become more like that saint.... that's different. It's like the child wearing a superhero costume or pretending to work like his Daddy. I don't know if you can see the difference. I can usually feel it in myself. Walking around rapt in admiration of a favorite saint or great person is usually ennobling. My father took his early fervent admiration of Albert Schweitzer and alchemized it into some excellent life choices. His life was not that much like Schweitzer's in the details (beyond the fact that they were both physicians who worked with indigenous peoples) but he took some of the best things about Schweitzer's life and principles and incorporated them into his life. This is not mask wearing, but a kind of inheritance.

Now to make my following point, I ask you to visualize the Candyland board : ). You have so many steps to go until the end. It would be cheating to take a shortcut. .... like search through the deck for all the good cards like some of my 4 year olds want to do. HOWEVER, sometimes you find yourself drawing the right card or landing on the right space and getting a real boost in your progress.

Or, the Gospel at mass today was about the crippled man let down through the roof. He was "behind" all the healthy people and blocked from Jesus, seemingly intractably, by the crowd jostling to hear the Teacher. A few minutes later his sins were forgiven and he was taking up his pallet and walking. Where you are at one point doesn't always predict where you will be in a given point in time.

This, I believe, is somewhat true of habits too. Just because you feel you are just barely starting out on the first steps of some endeavor, doesn't mean that you will stay way behind forever. St Francis de Sales was talking about spiritual progress but you can see the analogy with education and lots of other things. Say a 9 year old still doesn't read. That definitely doesn't mean he will always be 4 years behind his peer who learned to read at age 5. Often you see that within four months they will be equal and sometimes the late reader actually pulls ahead quickly. This is very often true with life things too. St Augustine at one point was a sinner and a heretic..... in a way, miles behind my grandmother, probably, as far as virtue and straight thinking and simple devotion went. Within a short space of time he was one of the greatest people and thinkers of his day and the following centuries. That doesn't minimize my grandmother's good qualities, or make it somehow fine for Augustine to keep being sinful and wrongheaded while he was being that way... it just means that the road is not always strictly sequential and step by step.

David Isaacs said that often if you get a fair start on one good habit you find some of the others following naturally. This seems to have some truth to it. So in some ways starting just one thing can sometimes provide that Candyland double card or short-cut. Flylady says that sometimes a clean shiny sink can make a difference in how the rest of the housekeeping goes. Reason for hope, there.

Another way to think about it is that whenever you "think upon" what is good and wholesome and true and beautiful and try to plant the seed in your own life, you never know what good things might sprout and what fruits may be produced. There are some things in CM's writings that stuck in my heart and helped me immensely. If other things in her books haven't yet struck me in a way that can allow them to help my life, it doesn't mean it was useless to read them at all.

And finally, one of those links I mentioned on habits mentioned that when you are trying to replace a bad habit with a good one it's helpful to build on what you already have instead of try to pull something new out of yourself that you never had before. For me, it's helpful when I'm reading "challenging" books to glance at where I am already. It's usually not as bad as I think. Try it if you are a melancholic, easily discouraged person like me. Make it a discipline to gather your stock around you and take inventory. THEN decide what the next step ought to be from there. (horrible mixed metaphors -- to unite them let's say you take a look through your knapsack of handy possessions before you start on the next stage of your climb).

Lots of words! But good to have written out. I'm going to list some of the habits that CM thought were helpful for a mother to acquire. But I wanted to write this out first as a qualifier.

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