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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Signs

by Mrs. Colles
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 334-337


"All that meets the bodily sense I deem
Symbolically-one mighty alphabet
For infant minds! and we in this low world,
Place with our backs to bright Reality,
That we may learn with young unwounded ken
The substance from the shadow!"
S.T. Colridge

As the close observation of Darwin has taught us to see in the development of the embryo of plant or animal, a microcosm of that of the Human Race, so according to the deep-sighted teaching of F.D. Maurice in the calling and education of the Chosen People, may we read microcosmically those of the whole Human Family-the Race of Man.

If this be so, the parallel between the special religious training given to the Jew, and that which man as a whole, and which we of this generation as part of the whole man, are receiving now, ought to be perceptible enough to throw light on the difficulties which we have to encounter in learning to know what God would teach us.

We go to the history of the Chosen People, as to a Primer of Human History, and in the study of it are forced to recognise the large share which Symbolism took in their education, by which word "education" we may understand their growth in the knowledge of God, of His kingdom, and of His will.

They were taught by figures, acts and appearances unlike the things which they represented, and yet intended to point continually to these things, were constantly before their eyes in the worship of the tabernacle and the temple.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is the great inspired commentary on this fact, and we cannot but be familiar with its interpretation of the spiritual meaning of the symbols to which it calls attention, how the death of the sacrificed animal pointed to that of the Lamb of God, the institution of the priesthood to Him as the Great High Priest, etc., spiritual truth of inexhaustible value to the Church throughout all ages.

But what specially strikes the modern mind-trained to value that spiritual truth, and moulded in thought by its character-trained also by the progressive insight of prophetic teaching to see through and above the material and formal act, is the huge unlikeness of the sign to the thing signified in these symbolic acts of Jewish worship. Impressive they no doubt were. The blood of bulls and of goats may have spoken strongly of a total yielding up of life to its author, and of absolute self-surrender. The dumb creature's unresisting submission did certainly convey a striking lesson to the restless human will, yet the mode of teaching appears to us now crude, "carnal,"-appealing chiefly, one would say, to very immature and uncultivated imaginations. We can well understand the exclamation of the Psalmist, "Thou delightest not in burnt offerings," and again when speaking in the person of God, "Will I eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats?"

The more spiritual and higher view of the prophets seemed almost to recoil from the forms of such religious worship. It was "a constant protest against the sacrificial system of Levitical ritual, which they either, in comparison with the moral law, disparage altogether, or else fix their hearers' attention to the moral and spiritual truth which lay behind it." Our natural feeling now is: "Why was not something higher and more lovely used to lift the minds of this people to those spiritual truths?" "and would not the form of teaching have been in itself more elevating, had it for instance, taken that of noble art, such as produced the glorious statues of the Greek?" Were not the winged Mercury, the Jove, the Sun-God Apollo worthier symbols of the ways and thoughts of Deity, and would they not tend to produce closer communion of mind with the Divine Mind than could be produced by such sights as met the eye of the Jew?

One answer is both clear and familiar to us. The very perfection of Greek Symbolism formed its dangerous and debasing tendency. The statues of the Greeks were sufficiently satisfactory symbols of the idea of God to become objects of worship. Therefore no image of Him, nor the likeness of anything in heaven or earth, not even beautiful ones were allowed in Jewish worship. Perhaps this is also the reason why all the mere ceremonial of approach to God was kept from anything of a too aesthetic nature. True, there was beauty and melody in the Temple Service, but never enough to hide that gross "carnal" butcher's work, with its many disgusting accompaniments which are so minutely described in the Levitical books.

The sign was very unlike the thing signified; it was meant to disappoint and baffle the spiritual appetite-that of the increasingly spiritual man,--even more than to feed his hunger and thirst after righteousness, so that he should come to say with intense emphasis, "It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins."

Now going back to the thought with which we began, namely that the religious education of the Jew, is a microcosm of the religious training of man, of the human race, from first to last, where do we find in human life universally and through all time this character of teaching by symbol? Surely we find it in the entire universe as it impresses the mind of man at every stage of his conscious existence. Literally and exactly we are being taught by symbols in everything that our sense apprehend. Certain sensations in the brain of each individual are the Signs by which he recognises the facts outside him. He is aware of them in no other way, and these sensations are by their very nature unlike the objects which give rise to them. They are but symbols-not pictures-hieroglyphics merely. We do indeed "see as in a mirror dimly" in this stage of our existence, and are being slowly taught that "we know nothing yet as we ought to know." And what is the conclusion professing to rest upon science, which is the special danger of this age? Is it not materialism-an acquiescence in the conclusion that there is no spiritual--nothing but "carnal" signs--signs which mean nothing, and point to no "thing signified;" "Cells" and brain changes, mere movements of matter-we are tempted to believe that these are all!

And how is this tendency met by the lesson of the training of that microcosm of humanity--the Chosen People? By this answer surely "You are being educated as we were." We are the embryo in whose growth you see your own. By signs unlike, yet witnessing for mighty spiritual truths were we slowly, painfully, often bafflingly trained to hope and long for and expect the Fulfiller of all types. No other way of being trained was really good for us in our crude and immature state. The very imperfection of the symbol to satisfy the hunger which it aroused stimulated the exercise by which we grew. So is it still with us. It is God's way-the wisest way-the most effectual, that we should as yet "see as in a glass darkly." So with Faith and Hope and Love grow and make us capable of the higher Revelation when the "good appointed time" is fulfilled. In the meantime our probation lies in the very effort to apprehend the Invisible behind the Visible, and to take the sign as indeed a sign, and as implyingly therefore the existence of that which it is a sign, namely, God and His Revelation of Himself.

SIGNS
BY MRS. COLLES
PART II
Parents Review VOL 4 1893/4 PAGES 527-530

Is attempting to reduce the thoughts expressed in the foregoing little paper on the subject of "Signs" to practical suggestions as to its bearing on the education of children, I am met by considerable difficulty, not because they have never yet been educated on the principle laid down in that paper, namely, that "All that meets the bodily sense I deem symbolical"--indeed we never could have taught them any spiritual truth without applying that principle. The "seen" had to be treated as a sign and symbol of the "unseen" if we were ever to make the latter a reality to them. Every little child has received its first impression of the Heavenly Father through its knowledge of the earthly one. Its notion of the Divine Family--the Church with the Elder Brother at its head--just so far as it is a realised idea, rests on the child's familiarity with its own home circle of brothers and sisters and the kind "big brother" who comes home from school or college to slave gladly for the "little ones"--to carry them on his back and spend his time in amusing them.

And Keble's well-known hymn beginning "There is a book who runs may read" but expresses the general teaching which Christian parents and teachers from time to time give their children as to the relation of the physical universe to the spiritual one.

But something more habitual and continuous with daily life would seem to be required, if we would prepare them for just that battle with materialism which appears to be the special struggle of this age, and would instill into their inmost hearts the deep-seated conviction that the seen is the appointed means of leading them to seek for that which lies behind it, that it is intended to stimulate their desire to discover that of which it witnesses, and must therefore lose its meaning when regarded as an end in itself.

And first it seems to me that if we are to bring this home to them we must have made it our own habitual and familiar thought. Unless they see that we believe it at least as really as we do the desirability of possessing those things, which contribute to our material comfort and prosperity, no amount of set teaching on the subject in church, at school, or as the Sunday bible-lesson will do anything very effectual in making them believe it. My own conviction is that these things have a distinct tendency to produce antagonism and skepticism, when coupled with such a contradiction as the example set by us, when we talk of the value of the unseen, while steering our course by that alone which is seen. And how many times during the day does this temptation meet us?

The old illustration of the mother who was like a sign-post turned in the wrong direction so as to mislead the traveler is a good one to keep constantly before our minds. The sign-post directing to Heaven while turned in the opposite quarter.

But though to believe realisingly and practically in the spiritual realities ourselves must be the surest way of witnessing for them to our children, and therefore should necessarily be our first aim, we do require to find special methods of drawing their thoughts into this channel by our conversation, and surely the parabolic teaching adopted by our Lord affords us the plainest indication of this may be done. He used the common things with which they were most familiar as well as the beauties of nature, to awaken the minds of His hearers to the underlying spirit--realities of which those objects were so many symbols. A candle, a bushel, a woman sweeping her house, a shepherd, or a merchantman, as well as the wind, the flowers, the birds of the air--everything in creation as He regarded it was a "sign," and pointed to the real which lay behind it. And just in proportion as our minds are habitually placed at the same point of view as His with regard to the physical universe, shall we be able to draw our children's thoughts to "that true world within the world we see." We shall not weary them by forced and far-fetched "sermons," of which the texts are their everyday life of play and lessons, but rather gild that everyday life with the brightness of a new meaning.

What child is there whose imagination has not been checked and stunted, that does not naturally delight in the kind of talk which suggests an ideal fairy world behind the actual one of which its senses are cognisant? And is it not possible to adopt in our intercourse with our children the same natural and spontaneous tone, albeit more earnest and reverent, when alluding to the spiritual and unseen realities? Personally I have found it easy to do this when the habit was begun early in the child's life, but we still suffer from the old idea of reverence, which, coupled with so much that is most precious in the legacy of their thought, dashed the teaching of a past age, and mars, as it seems to me, the religious sense of our own; I mean that habit of regarding life as a sort of check-board, in which the religious portions are to be definitely squared off from those which are secular, with the result that the child's mind is but too often led to regard the former as represented by the black squares. What has been well termed "nature's flowing ways," have simply been violated by such a method of treating any part of life. If religion, by which I mean the growing apprehension of a living God, be worthy of its name, it must be essential life, and should penetrate every part of our human experience as the blood does a healthy body. We need not drag it into our daily thoughts and words; it should be there, and surely if this be true, and all things are to us associated with a growing sense of the Eternal, it must and will find its way out in our talk with our children of the things of daily life.

No doubt the shell of reserve--a shell which has its special use and value in preserving from too rough a contact with the world the (as yet) but slowly forming spiritual consciousness within our souls--must often prevent our conversation from fully bearing this character in ordinary society--or even among intimates. Few things have done more harm than forced unreserved on religious topics, and the noblest and most innately reverent natures have felt this most instinctively and deeply, but with our little ones it is happier and better to be as simple and unreserved as possible just because our tone in this matter is as yet the forming nourishment of their spiritual sense. They are learning to see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and are catching the accent of our voices as we direct them to the great open secret of God's temple with its signs and symbols of His presence. The relation between the mother's mind and that of her young child is analogous to that which exists between her body and that of the unweaned babe. In both cases the child depends for its nourishment and support directly and immediately on its mother.

By what I have said I am by no means intimating that parents should question or pry into their children's hearts--a practice which I believe to have led to many evils--untruth being one of the chief. No, it is in imparting religious truth that I would urge the sort of natural unreserved which can be wisely cultivated if we set it before us as an aim. Of course there is another special method of bringing into activity our children's sense of the symbolism of the universe. Poetry which acts so powerfully in this direction on the adult mind, does so even more on that of the young. Wordsworth, first studied by the parent, will be found most helpful in parts. Those passages in his writings which strongly bring before us his own grasp of the underlying spiritual, may be beyond a child's comprehension, but if imbibed by the mother they can be by her transmuted into food for the little one's mind. Even Dante, with his eagle soarings, can be brought down in this way to the level of its thought. I found recently that my youngest child caught at once, and with delight, at the vision of the heavenly rose with its petals of white-robed saints, and bee-flights of golden-winged angels mounting upwards in adoration and again descending on ministries of love. She recurred to the image with evident pleasure when she next saw a garden-rose, and it evidently kindled a fresh appetite within her for the beauty of goodness. Surely, just what our highest poetry is intended to do.

I think it will not be difficult to apply the principle of the symbolism of life and of the universe in teaching our children, if its truth be first vividly realised by parents themselves, and I hope I may not have appeared vague and visionary in the statement of my own idea of how that principle should be applied.