I’ve been thinking lately about a story told me by one of my favorite teachers, a professor from England who wore tweed hats and occasionally teared up while reading poetry aloud to his classes. It was the story of his first encounter with the divine as a child raised in an atheistic household. His parents were researchers in a remote, rural area, and one day he was riding in the back of his parents’ vehicle across a wide expanse of grassland, quietly watching the land go by. Suddenly, it was as if his vision was sharpened so that he saw not just a grassland but the dazzling particularity of each individual blade of grass. Something about this combination of vastness and yet individual particularity spoke to his heart of the existence of a divine creator, even though no one in his life was teaching him this.
I love this story in part because it reminds me of the nineteenth chapter of Luke. As Christ descends to Jerusalem, a crowd gathers, shouting praises, and the Pharisees urge him to make them quiet down. He answers, “I tell you that if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” Even the humble and seemingly voiceless things in creation can and must testify of their Maker. Paul says that “from the creation of the world the invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made.”
Creation is imbued with eloquence, from the humble stones and grasses to the bright stars — “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.”
Our God is a Maker, and this earth is his great work; it speaks of his nature and his heart the way an artist’s work must, if it is to be living and true. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay writes in For the Children’s Sake that just as we ensure that a child encounters the works of various artists, “how about seeing that [the child] grows up with as much daily access as possible to his Lord’s created works? The Bible is a direct verbal word. But we have a place also for other ways of knowing Him.”
To be in nature is to be the student of God, drawn toward deeper understanding of his ways and his thoughts. There is no substitute for reading the Bible, for church attendance, for religious instruction — but how beautifully the witness of creation completes a child’s spiritual education. And for the mama, what rest it is “when despair for the world grows in me … [to] come in to the peace of wild things,” which teaches my burdened, unruly spirit to know the peace of God as nothing else does.
As Charlotte Mason educators we understand the value of nature study and time outdoors for children. But how much more vital and meaningful these hours outdoors become when we understand that the purpose of nature study is not just that children be able to identify a lot of plants and birds, but also to attune their hearts and imaginations to the beauty and goodness of their Creator. Charlotte Mason writes that the parent should offer this idea
very rarely, and with tender filial reverence ( … for to touch on this ground with hard words is to wound the soul of the child): she will point to some lovely flower or gracious tree, not only as a beautiful work, but a beautiful thought of God, in which we may believe He finds continual pleasure, and which He is pleased to see his human children rejoice in. Such a seed of sympathy with the Divine thought sown in the heart of the child is worth many of the sermons the man may listen to hereafter, much of the ‘divinity’ he may read. (Vol. 1, p. 80)
It is characteristic of Mason’s respect for the minds and souls of children that she advocates such delicacy and reticence, where many of us as eager, earnest parents would tend toward didacticism. But she is confident of the cooperation of the Great Educator —
[H]is God doth instruct him and doth teach him, her God doth instruct her and doth teach her. Let this be the mother’s key to the whole of the education of each boy and each girl; not of her children; the Divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child. Because He is infinite, the whole world is not too great a school for this indefatigable Teacher, and because He is infinite, He is able to give the whole of his infinite attention for the whole time to each one of his multitudinous pupils. We do not sufficiently rejoice in the wealth that the infinite nature of our God brings to each of us. (Vol. 2, p. 273)
I am grateful for the reminder not to weary my children with too much spiritual explication of the natural world because it is very difficult for me just now, when everywhere I look creation is speaking to me of the resurrection. Some of you are still under snow, I know, but here in Texas spring has arrived. Branches are budding, seeds are germinating, even the roadside ditches are breaking out into grass and wildflowers. The pair of cardinals that nest near our house are once again singing the songs I remember hearing in the early spring last year, their own humble liturgy, marking the change of seasons after the long winter.
very morning we notice some evidence of new life in our yard, and it’s all I can do to keep myself from preaching at my daughter about her savior who conquered death. But I hope to leave her space to observe for herself, when the time is right, how resurrection is the rhythm and rhyme of the universe, the unmistakable signature of the Artist.
Friends, we are raising a generation that may live in difficult times. This seems fairly clear to me when I consider how our world is changing. Our culture exacts a heavy toll from its children; it pressures them and demeans them, distancing them from nature, rushing them along to loss of innocence and prioritizing achievement and success. I pray we are educating our children not for ‘success,’ but for the work of holy resistance and radical hope.
For the time we are called to live in, how I long for our children to be faithful, courageous, strong and joyful, to be rooted and grounded, to abide very near the heart of God. I long for our children to live in the bright, clear light of the coming resurrection.
The specific burden in my heart (and perhaps it seems trivial in the grand scheme of things) is for our children to go outside this spring, to observe in this miraculous season the ways of their God. So this spring, that’s what I’ll be doing, if I can keep my priorities straight and lay my own agenda aside.
I’ll take my children out to “God’s world,” as my daughter calls the outdoors, and together we’ll watch for the first leaves on the lantana and the elm tree. We’ll eagerly await the return of butterflies and chimney swifts. We’ll rejoice as the days grows longer and warmer and all around us death gives way to new life. It’s a little thing, I know. But I pray that in these spring days our children are laying up a store of comfort and joy and belief to support them through whatever their lives may be, learning to wait with eager hope for the great spring of our savior’s return, when even the deserts will blossom with roses.