Sunday, June 01, 2008

Back to the Blog.... With scraps of a vision for our home

Thanks to an abundance of grace and constant support from my husband and my family, I have emerged from beneath the heavy yet illuminating stacks of theology books and finally finished my Master's degree, even miraculously passing my comprehensive exams in March amidst the throes of an admittedly mild (but still tiring) first trimester of my second pregnancy! I'm back to the blog to facilitate a turning of my intellectual mental energies towards home again.

I was inspired by a post over at Elizabeth Foss' blog to dive into a reflection on the educational ideas and theories of Charlotte Mason, via a short (but substantial) e-book called Education Is... Much could be said about this, certainly, and I hesitate to throw my 2-cents in with seasoned mothers who have much more experience and wisdom than I, particularly because I am only beginning to learn about CM's thought. But perhaps because of my lack of experience it seems like a privilege and a gift to have time to reflect on ideas that ring so true while my son is still so young. My challenge to myself will be to synthesize the ideas I encounter in the upcoming months with some of those I had time to ponder at the JPII Institute these past few years.

Education Is describes Charlotte Mason's approach to education as "three-pronged": "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." The first prong--"atmosphere"-- is what has most provoked my thought, particularly because Gabriel seems to absorb and mimic behaviors , placement of objects, and words so easily. The book points out six elements of Charlotte's thought on education via atmosphere:
  1. Children should grow up in a natural home setting, not an artificial, adapted environment.
  2. Character traits can be learned through the atmosphere of the home.
  3. We must be careful how we live, because our children will pick up attitudes and ideas from us that will affect them the rest of their lives.
  4. The atmosphere of our homes is formed out of the ideas that rule our lives as parents.
  5. Atmosphere is only part, not all, of a child's education. We must also give the discipline of good habits and the living ideas of a generous curriculum.
  6. The atmosphere of the home should encourage freedom under authority and obedience.
In light of these six points, I contemplated what words I might want to describe our home. I kept coming back to these :
  • ordered
  • rhythmic
  • peaceful
  • simple
In other words, in the best of all possible worlds, our little domestic church might echo something of a monastic lifestyle, with adaptations, of course, because the family, just as the monastic community, is called together by God to fulfill man's vocation to love. I spent 30 pages writing a paper for my Patristics course on how St. Benedict's monastic Rule might inspire and structure family life, so I'll try to hit the highlights. Perhaps this is a tangent from CM's atmosphere, but it is the direction my brain went...!

The Monastic and Familial "Milieu": Physical, Temporal, Auditory
The monastic enclosure is designed with the recognition that man is both body and soul, and so both physical and spiritual elements of a home must be oriented towards God. Each of Benedict's monastic communities were to have an oratory, a physical space dedicated particularly to group and individual prayer and nothing else. In a similar way, the physical space of the home could be filled with sacred objects and pictures, and a special place might be created for family prayer. This physical space can be the place where the family gathers at specified times, creating a rhythm of daily prayer which fit into the daily schedule of the family. I think in particular the "tide" of monastic life--flowing in and out of the oratory to other tasks and occupations--is what I would like our home to be like. Certainly it will be a challenge as schedules become more complex and little ones start their own activities, but I think such an "objective order" centered on specific times of prayer is important. One of my professors always said that the more one enters into an objective order, the more the order shapes who you are, the way you live, and the way you think. (A chaotic order in life creates a chaotic, scattered person; on the other hand, a rhythmic, prayerful life forms a careful, prayerful person. I know this is true in my own life so I can only imagine my children might be the same way!)

Another element I found fascinating was the reverence with which the Benedictine rule treats material objects. All objects must be treated with the same reverence as the "holy bowls of the altar"--even the most "lowly" bucket or scrub brush used for cleaning. Each item is seen as a gift which God has allowed the monks use of for the purpose of their survival and flourishing. Since we've been married we've tried to keep our home "simple" in terms of the stuff we have and the way we have it arranged in our home (books are our major stumbling block here). What I think has been challenging to us is in this realm is to maintain a proper appreciation for material things in the midst of a proper detachment--in other words, to maintain an appreciation for what we have such that we take the proper time to care for it, rather than adopt an attitude of carelessness with the excuse of detachment. Treating what we have and are able to use as the "holy bowls of the altar" helps keep us away from such carelessness, I think. Reverence towards material goods is also tough to cultivate when so much of what is out there is created really to be "disposable". We try to use as few disposable items as possible (although we really could still do better), not only out of "environmental" concerns but also with the above reverence in mind. It is hard to cultivate reverence and gratitude when we can throw away something once it has been dirtied or used once.

The monastic year as structured by Benedict in the early Christian era was quite dependent upon the seasons for both timing of prayer (due to available light and scarcity of oil and candles) and work (harvesting vs. planting, etc). One might pass over this detail regarding the temporal environment of the monastery as irrelevant to modern families, but it seemed particularly important with regards to the type of attitude it cultivated towards life: a Marian attitude of receptivity and dependence upon God and creation as He designed it. Certainly family life now might not revolve around available hours of sunlight, but the Marian virtues of active, patient receptivity and dependence might be cultivated in other ways--an obvious example might be planting and tending a vegetable garden, as my husband has tried to do these past few years. Such an activity seems to go hand in hand with "eating with the seasons"--possible not only for gardeners but by frequenting local farmer's markets, or at the very least, respecting what is reasonably and locally available in grocery stores (rather than eating Chilean strawberries in January, for example).

The Benedictine monastery was not completely silent, but it adopted specified times of day for silence. Further, the monks were encouraged to avoid "bawdy laughter", gossip, and pointless chatter. Certainly in light of the presence of small children a "rule of silence" even if for particular times is challenging, and even the practice of reading Scriptures at table rather than talking during certain seasons as the monks do has been a tough one for our family, even though I think we have made a valiant effort. I think the most successful way I have tried to "cultivate silence" in our home is to avoid excess noise--certain children's CD's with synthesized backups and annoying vocals can tend to fit in this category--and ensure that the sound that is present is beautiful and uplifting. (Although this isn't too tough when we have got a pianist for a husband/daddy, a nice piano taking up most of the living room, and lessons and practicing echoing through the little house throughout the day!)

Obedience, Service and Hospitality
...are further ways the monastic life and familial life can be paralleled, and further elements that I think would fit into Charlotte Mason's "atmosphere as education". I'll save discussing these for another post, because I think I've gone on long enough today. Gabriel is bound to wake up from his nap soon, and the "rhythm" of our little domestic church is currently quite determined by his sleeping and waking hours, so I must be finished with this post for now!

No comments: