I am approaching my sixth year of motherhood, and if there is one thing that I’ve learned, it’s to recognize the rub of sanctification in my heart. I sit down with a book and a cup of tea, the toddler down for a nap, my eldest decides he needs three knots tied in a piece of string in very specific locations, and two small, tight knots untied.
My body and brain are tired – I’m ready to sit and do nothing. But the feeling of conviction creeps in: he’s had a lot of time on his own today while I’ve been cleaning the house. He is reasonable to want my attention. A few minutes messing about with knots would ‘fill his cup’ as they say. Do I lay aside my own interests? Or cling to them and ask my son to wait?
As mothers, we face situations like these every day. We deeply feel the tension between our own interests and the interests of others, to use the phrase from Philippians. We feel it with our children, with our spouse, even with our church and our friends. Dealing with this tension, allowing it to sanctify us, refines our character. It is educational. This is the embodiment of education as an atmosphere.
Education is an atmosphere.
I find that ‘atmosphere’ is the most difficult of Charlotte Mason’s three educational instruments to wrap my head around. ‘Atmosphere’ is intangible. It attempts to define something ethereal and shapeless, that we don’t give consideration to on a daily basis. If it were concrete, it would be easier to define. Charlotte Mason does, however, define ‘atmosphere’ in Philosophy of Education, and that makes a great starting point for us.
(Atmosphere) is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense.Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education
Let’s consider this definition, but replace ‘child’ with ‘mother’.
A mother’s natural element.
As mothers, relationships are at the heart of what Charlotte Mason would call ‘our natural condition’. Living among our children, we learn self-denial, patience, self-control. Yes, these lessons are slow and can be painful, but by degrees, we do learn them. Likewise for our relationship with our spouse and for our friendships.
If mother culture is about character development, then this is good news. Much of our growth comes through learning to live well in relationship with others. We don’t have to go to a specific place or even do a specific thing in order to grow as persons. Mother culture isn’t just about reading books. We can and should give learning through life it’s due.
Atmosphere is sweetened by love.
The idea that marriage and parenting – that maintaining any relationship, actually – is sanctifying is not new. I have read plenty of books that tell me that in these areas, as in all things, God is more concerned with my holiness than my happiness. These books are written in order to communicate the idea that we shouldn’t be surprised when relationships are hard, because sanctification itself is hard.
However, if sanctification is rough, then we have a balm in the love we have in these relationships. Love for our children helps us to lay our own interests to the side once again. Love for our spouse leads us to reconcile after an argument. Love for our church keeps us showing up, serving, investing our time and effort into our community week after week. Love sweetens what we would otherwise begrudge and resent.
Atmosphere is thrown off from persons and things.
We often think about how parents, especially the mom, create the home atmosphere. But we mothers are not just generating atmosphere. The people around us influence and ‘throw off’ the atmosphere we live in.
Charlotte Mason believed that a child should not grow up in a contrived atmosphere, where their parents spare them challenges and prevent from testing their mettle. Likewise, we shoud not avoid every hard situation and each difficult person that cross our path. However, Charlotte Mason also calls on parents to use judgement in what and whom we expose our children to. We do not want our children to buckle under the strain of a challenge or to fall prey to an influence that they are not strong enough to handle. Similarly, we need to be aware of the influences in our lives and exercise wisdom.
I think we can find a guide for our discernment for navigating this balance in the Old Testament. Time after time, God warns the Israelites to not intermarry with foreigners. The risk of the Israelites serving false gods was too great in a marriage relationship – and God did not plan share His throne with them. If a foreign woman fully abandoned her gods and served Israel’s God, then God permitted that marriage.
The crucial point in the above example is that it is the consequences to our relationship with God that help us discern what we accept or avoid in our own atmosphere. The New Testament calls us to live in the world, but not be of the world. Our guide is this: live in the world so far as our loyalties to the one, true God are not swayed, so far as we aren’t distracted by and tempted to serve the gods of our culture.
Atmosphere is regulated by common sense.
What does the atmosphere around us normalize? Do the influences in my life – including the media I consume – cause me to view unchristian values as acceptable? Am I drifting into the service of false gods? If the answer to this is ‘yes’, then it’s worth developing a plan for dealing with that influence in your atmosphere.
This where we find a ‘common sense’ approach to atmosphere. How can I, with love toward God and love toward those around me, walk faithfully through life, holding tightly to His values? It may be time to ‘unfollow’ certain people on social media, to relocate playdates to your own home, where your atmosphere has the greater influence, to study the Bible with a view to shoring up your foundations so that you can be in the world without thoughtlessly accepting its values. This isn’t a call to become a hermit. This is a call to develop the strength and awareness to cling to the one, true God and His values.
On its own, atmosphere will have a substantial influence on our character – either for better or for worse. However, it is not the only tool we have to hand. We have other ways to intentionally pursue self-education, and hence, sanctification. In fact, these other tools directly influence our atmosphere by informing our principles and giving us the means to apply them. Walking firmly in God’s values has very much to do with education as a discipline and education as a life.