Charlotte Mason and The Act of Seeing
More than I’ve ever been aware of in my lifetime, this season in history feels volatile and uncertain, if not downright absurd and sometimes scary. Every headline seems to announce a new and previously unimagined form of insanity. Tragic, catastrophic world events have become common place. Trust in authority is at an all-time low. We are swept up in a current of technology and media that has done more to distract and overwhelm than to deliver on promises to make our lives better through constant connection.
In the midst of it all, there is something very soothing and centering about looking up from the flood of commentary on our own current state of craziness to turn to words and ideas from another era—ideas tested by time and set apart from the dizzying tempo of our day.
I think that’s why, when I recently came across the writings of Charlotte Mason—Victorian-era British educator and educational philosopher, I wanted to sit at her feet and bask in the warm glow of her measured, practiced, beautifully recorded wisdom. Her educational philosophy is more applicable as a lifestyle, as her thoughts touch on every rhythm in the life of a family from the most mundane to the most sacred.
I wouldn’t attempt to sum up the whole scope of Charlotte Mason’s work in a single blog post, but one theme that I think is very relevant to this space is the way that she speaks about the act of seeing.
The Outdoor Life & The Act of Seeing
“Never be within doors when you can rightly be without” – Charlotte Mason
Charlotte Mason devotes thousands of words to the many benefits of being outside and experiencing nature. She speaks of the happy memories that children store up while playing outside, the science lessons provided by observing natural things in their place, and the physical learning that takes place as children climb trees and run in the open air. Speaking to mothers on the out-of-door life of children she says,
They must be left alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this—that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder—and grow. At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. (Volume 1: Home Education, p.44)
Don’t you just want to sit with that a while?
She goes on to describe the way in which children should learn to see. As they explore the natural surroundings, they are taught to carefully observe both the intricate details of a single leaf or bud and at other times to zoom out and take time to note all the subtle features that make up a wide landscape. She speaks of “taking mental photographs, exact images, of the beauties of nature” so that the observer collects a mental gallery of images that can be carried with her and called to mind and enjoyed at any moment. Beyond just the educational context, Mason’s way of teaching us to treasure the act of seeing the world around has value for us all.
Attention to the Moment
The practice of truly seeing—observing so closely that the sight beheld becomes part of us, printed forever on the fabric of our mind—is not a fleeting or distracted activity. It is directly linked to what Charlotte Mason describes as the chief mental habit: the habit of attention.
Practically speaking, she recommended several outdoor activities to help train this habit of attention. Games of recalling and describing sights to one another, gently encouraging more and more detail. The habit of recording close observations and watercolor drawings in a nature journal. Studying the names and classifications of local trees and flowers. She said that when a child has learned the names and characteristics of the leaves and manner of flowering of every neighborhood flower, they will have made life-long friends that they will always recognize.
More than just a feat of mental effort, she recognized that this practice of devoting one’s full attention in a moment to see and wonder at a beautiful object of nature is truly a delight to the soul. That when we take the time to step out of the busy rush of our day-to-day lives, “slip our necks out of the yoke and come face to face with Nature” we are blessed and healed by it (50).
Gratitude and Peace
How much more do we 21st century dwellers have to gain from “the breathing balm, the silence and the calm of mute, insensate things”?* Our phones, aka powerful personal computers, are within hands reach at all times. With every buzz, ding, or mindless swipe, we are drawn out of the present moment. Our attention is constantly divided. Instead of letting the pace and particulars of our actual place in time and space speak, we miss what is right in front of us. The common, but fleeting gestures that make up our days with the people we love. The subtleties of the changing seasons. The little pieces of creation that inhabit our miniature worlds, no matter how urban of an environment we live in.
I believe that reading Charlotte Mason has altered the course of my life as a mother and an educator in a way that I am really excited about and thankful for. But the most immediate shift in my mindset has been this inspiration to set down the technology, put to rest the anxious thoughts, and truly observe what God has set before me in a moment. It is not an instant change as the habits of distraction run deep, but I’ve been inspired to seek out large chunks of time in the outdoors with a mind to pay attention. I want to learn the names of the trees and flowers in my yard. I’ve started a nature journal.
Where the rabbit trail of media distractions leaves me feeling anxious and thin, these moments of devoted attention and hours spent breathing in the outdoors give a gift of peace and gratitude. When I look to the details of nature and away from myself, I am acutely and graciously reminded of the Creator and his charge over all things great and small. There is a reason why when calling us out of anxiety and worry, Jesus beckons us to “consider the lilies of the field. “ In the consideration of his power and care over creation, we know of his goodness and love toward us.
*Lines paraphrased by Charlotte Mason from William Wordsworth's poem, "Three Years She Grew"