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Nurturing the Divine Life of the Child

It is a King that our spirits cry for, to guide them, discipline them, unite them to each other; to give them a victory over themselves, a victory over the world. It is a Priest that our spirits cry out for, to lift them above themselves to their God and Father, to make them partakers of his nature, fellow-workers in one authentic testimony that He is both the Priest and King of Men. [1]


A great power has been placed in the hands of parents and teachers, the power to enthrone the King, to induct the Priest into the innermost chamber of a child’s heart. There is no greater service to be done for a child, no greater gift to be given a child. For what does it matter if a child gains the whole world but loses his soul?


The soul has one appetite, for the things of God; breathes one air, the breath, the Spirit of God; has one desire, for the knowledge of God; one only joy, in the face of God. “I want to live in the Light of a Countenance which never ceases to smile upon me,” is the language of the soul. The direct action of the soul is all Godward, with a reflex action towards men. The speech of the soul is prayer and praise, the right hand of the soul is faith, the light of the soul is love, the love of God shed abroad upon it. [2]


Who will bring a child to the place of light and life, to rightful communion with his Maker and his Destiny? Who is worthy of this holy task, this supreme function of parent and teacher in the educating of a child? None who would take it lightly. When it comes to the Divine life, the first question one must ask is, “How much do I really care?” It is a hard truth that, as a rule, a child will not give greater care and attention to the Divine life than do his parents and teachers. Unless we are ardently pursuing a life of holy dependence upon and joyful obedience to our Heavenly Father, there is little chance that our students will find the true life of their soul. They always believe what we live, not what we say. If we are content with a religion of passionless ideology propping up an artificial righteousness, so it will be for our children. If we pursue the vanities of this world more ardently than the things of God, so it will be for our children. If, however, we can say with Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” [3] then our children will have experiential knowledge of living water flowing through us to them. As a rule, our students will go no deeper in the things of God than we do. Thus, it must be the continual prayer of the parent and teacher, “More Lord, more of You, for Your glory, for the students’ sake, and for my sake.”


Sowing Naturally, Lightly and Consistently


Yet, even if we possess true spiritual passion, a mind that is enlightened and a heart that is ablaze, we must not make blundering efforts. It is not our place to meddle, manipulate, or cajole the soul of another, particularly a child entrusted to our care. The union and communion between God and the soul is a holy mystery. It is not our place to manipulate it, but we must sow. We must sow naturally, sow lightly, and sow continually. To illustrate this light but prodigious sowing, Charlotte Mason used the image of a bee.


But what can the parent do? Just this, and no more: he can present the idea of God to the soul of the child. Here, as throughout his universe, Almighty God works by apparently inadequate means. Who would say that a bee can produce apple trees? Yet a bee flies from an apple tree laden with the pollen of its flowers: this it unwittingly deposits on the stigmas of the flowers of the next tree it comes to. The bee goes, but the pollen remains, but with all the length of the style between it and the immature ovule below. That does not matter; the ovule has no power to reach the pollen grain, but the latter sends forth a slender tube, within the tube of the style; the ovule is reached; behold, then, the fruit, with its seed, and, if you like, future apple trees! Accept the parable: the parent is little better in this matter than the witless bee; it is his part to deposit, so to speak, within reach of the soul of the child some fruitful idea of God; the immature soul makes no effort towards that idea, but the living Word reaches down, touches the soul––and there is life; growth and beauty, flower and fruit. [4]


The work of the bee is natural, flowing from the bee’s very being. It is not artificially fabricated. It is with a light touch. It is not demanding or heavy handed. The bee is doing what it knows. Similarly, when speaking of heavenly things, the parent or teacher must speak of that which she knows. Does she know something of God’s goodness? Let her speak of His goodness when there is an opportunity for gratitude. Does she know something of God’s power? Let her speak of it when there is a need for Divine intervention. Does she know something of God’s love? Let her speak of it when there is a need for love. Does she know something of God’s mercy? Let her speak of it when there is a need for mercy. Does she know something of God as her King and her Ruler, let her speak of it when there is a need for obedience. To speak where there is no personal experience is to be a hypocrite, and children have a tremendous ability to discern hypocrisy. It is almost their superpower.


In addition to the natural, fruitful labor of the bee, Charlotte Mason gives us a second image, that of the wind.


Spiritual teaching, like the wafted odor of flowers, should depend on which way the wind blows. Every now and then there occurs a holy moment, felt to be holy by mother and child, when the two are together––that is the moment for some deeply felt and softly spoken word about God, such as the occasion gives rise to. Few words need be said, no exhortation at all, just the flash of conviction from the soul of the mother to the soul of the child. Is ‘Our Father’ the thought thus laid upon the child’s soul? There will be, perhaps, no more than a sympathetic meeting of eyes hereafter, between mother and child, over thousand showings forth of ‘Our Father’s’ love; but the idea is growing, becoming part of the child’s spiritual life. This is all: no routine of spiritual teaching; a dread of many words, which are apt to smother the fire of the sacred life; much self-restraint shown in the allowing of seeming opportunities to pass; and all the time, earnest purpose of heart, and a definite scheme for the building up of the child in the faith. It need not be added that, to make another use of our Lord’s words, “this kind cometh forth only by prayer.” It is as the mother gets wisdom liberally from above, that she will be enabled for this divine task. [5]


As the bee sows pollen and the wind spreads the fragrance of flowers, so must we sow ideas of God that are “fitting and vital,” fitting in that they are appropriate to the current life needs of a child, and vital in that they energize, give spiritual life.


There are some few ideas which are as the daily bread of the soul, without which life and growth are impossible. All other teaching may be deferred until the child’s needs bring him to it; but whoever sends his child out into life without these vital ideas of the spiritual life, sends him forth with a dormant soul, however well-instructed he may be in theology. [6]


God as Father — ever present, benevolent, and all powerful, Who holds me in the palm of His hand and is glad to be with me in my strength and in my weakness, Who knows my true heart and smiles upon it, Who despises sin which is a cancer to the soul and is angry at sin with a protective, life-giving anger. The child who does not know that the Father is glad to be with him in his strength and in his weakness or sin has a malformed soul. Likewise, the child who does not know that the Father despises sin, and its pernicious effects has a malformed soul.


Jesus as Savior and King — ever present to bring healing, to deliver us from evil, to bring us into the Father’s joy and life, to rule and to order our hearts. Everyone seeks a savior; a person, idea, or thing to bring wholeness to the soul. Every child must and will have a savior. In Charlotte Mason’s words,


Jesus, our Savior. Here is a thought to be brought tenderly before the child in the moments of misery that follow wrongdoing. ‘My poor little boy, you have been very naughty to-day! Could you not help it?’ ‘No, mother,’ with sobs. ‘No, I suppose not; but there is a way of help.’ And then the mother tells her child how the Lord Jesus is our Savior, because He saves us from our sins. [7]


Every child must and will have a king. The idea of Jesus as true King, good King, benevolent King, with Whom we can walk and talk, must be ever present in the air. Charlotte Mason’s words,


Christ, our King. Here is a thought to unseal the fountains of love and loyalty, the treasures of faith and imagination, bound up in the child. The very essence of Christianity is personal loyalty, passionate loyalty to our adorable Chief.


That Jesus, Savior and King, comes to indwell our hearts is an idea most accessible and most essential to our students,


The Indwelling of Christ is a thought particularly fit for the children, because their large faith does not stumble at the mystery, their imagination leaps readily to the marvel, that the King Himself should inhabit a little child’s heart. ‘How am I to know He is come, mother?’ ‘When you are quite gentle, sweet, and happy, it is because Christ is within,

And when He comes, He makes your face so fair, 

Your friends are glad, and say, ‘The King is there.’


Holy Spirit as Comforter, Guide, Teacher — ever present to comfort and instruct, Who makes His home within us, who is about the work of making us holy, Who gives strength and wisdom.


Notice the cultivating of God’s Word in our own deepest being, manifested by the work of our hands and the direction of our attention, comes prior to and is the necessary precursor for the instruction of our children. If God’s Word is not a lived reality, we need not bother putting it on our doorposts or gates. If and only if life in God is a lived reality, does a place for definite instruction in the things of God take shape.


During the English Civil War (1642-1651), the devoted supporters of King Charles I were known as the Cavaliers. Charlotte Mason presents them as a model for cultivating allegiance.


Let us save Christianity for our children by bringing them into allegiance to Christ, the King. How? How did the old Cavaliers bring up sons and daughters, in passionate loyalty and reverence for not too worthy princes? Their own hearts were full of it; their lips spake it; their acts proclaimed it; the style of their clothes, the ring of their voices, the carriage of their heads––all was one proclamation of boundless devotion to their king and his cause. That civil war, whatever else it did, or missed doing, left a parable for Christian people. If a Stuart prince could command such measure of loyalty, what shall we say of “the Chief amongst ten thousand, the altogether lovely“?


One is reminded of the words of Moses to the people of Israel.


You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. [8]


Religious Habits: The Incarnation of Spiritual Realities


Spiritual realities are to be joyfully and freely lived. There is a natural spontaneity to the healthy life of the soul. Thus, there must be a spontaneity in all our efforts to cultivate the spiritual life of a child. Yet, while such cultivation is spontaneous, it is neither random nor precipitous. All Good and Beautiful spontaneity is the fruit of well-formed habits. This is true of an acrobatic catch by an outfielder, an elegant solution by a mathematician, or a luminous act of charity by a great saint.  While the work of nurturing the spiritual life is like a bee or like the wind, there are definite habits to be intentionally cultivated. In Charlotte Mason’s words:


The next point we must set ourselves to consider is the laying down of lines of habit in the religious life. We need not enter again into the physiological reasons for the compelling power of habit. My present purpose is to consider how far this power can be employed in the religious development of a child. [9]


A few of the more important and often neglected habits of the religious life include:


The Practice of the Presence of God.  God is ever present with us in power and in love. The continual awareness of His presence is a habit to be cultivated. The life lived in the light of His countenance is a glorious one, even for a child. The life unaware is an impoverished one. It is a small thing to call a child’s attention to the presence of the Father, small but glorious.


Reverent Attitudes. God may be our Father, but He is not our old man. Too often, God is treated like a servant. We acknowledge His presence, appreciate the good He can do for us, and perhaps give Him a tip. In so doing, we deny His glory. At the end of the day, no child will be inspired to follow a bellhop god. We only truly give ourselves to One who commands our worship, whom we approach humbly and reverently, be it in times of prayer, Sunday school, Bible study, church worship, or most importantly, daily encounters with the holy.


Regularity in Devotions. That which we value, we give time. Children understand this. The family that gathers faithfully to sing a hymn, listen to a passage of scripture, retell the Gospel story, and discuss, giving attention to the thoughts of all, is a family that values life with God. When father and mother sing, children sing. When father and mother declare their gratitude and their need, children thank God and share their longings with Him. When time in devotions is a priority over sport, entertainment or homework, children grow up to value God.


The Habit of Praise. In Charlotte Mason’s words, Perhaps we do not attach enough importance to the habit of praise in our children’s devotion. Praise and thanksgiving come freely from the young heart; gladness is natural and holy, and music is a delight. The singing of hymns at home and of the hymns and canticles in church should be a special delight; and the habit of soft and reverent singing, of offering our very best in praise, should be carefully formed.”


The Habit of Sunday-keeping. Charlotte Mason reminds us that The habit of Sunday observances, not rigid, not dull, and yet peculiar to the day, is especially important. Sunday stories, Sunday hymns, Sunday walks, Sunday talks, Sunday painting, Sunday knitting even, Sunday card-games, should all be special to the day, quiet, glad, serene. The people who clamor for a Sunday that shall be as other days little know how healing to the jaded brain is the change of thought and occupation the seventh day brings with it.”


There are other habits, too many to name. Indeed, the formation of a child is a task too big for us. But we are not alone. It is ours to be like the bee or the wind. For the joy of it, we begin in a direction. The children will intuit our holy pursuits. That we care, truly care, and try will go a long way with them. We remember:


Unless the Lord builds the house, 

    those who build it labor in vain. 

Unless the Lord guards the city, 

    the guard keeps watch in vain. [10]

[1] Maurice, Frederick. Sermons on Sacrifice qtd. in Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 341.

[2] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 342.

[3] Galatians 2:20 NRSV

[4] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 344.

[5] Ibid. 348.

[6] Ibid. 347.

[7] Ibid. 351

[8] Deuteronomy 11:18-21 (NRSV)

[9] Mason, Charlotte. School Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989. 140-144 (excerpts)

[10] Psalm 127:1 (NRSV)

Image: Philip Mercier, The Bible Lesson