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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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The Inculcation of the Spirit of Reverence.

by Miss Carta Sturge
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 493


I have now great pleasure in calling on Miss Carta Sturge to give her address: The Inculcation of the Spirit of Reverence.

Miss Carta Sturge said: Ladies and gentlemen, ever since I undertook to address this meeting on the subject of reverence, I have naturally had the matter a good deal in my mind, for the word expresses something so subtle that when one tries to find a definition of it, you find that it eludes you. I shall not attempt to define the word, but no doubt everybody present here knows well what it means--I hope from practical experience in their own minds. From the fact that we are gathered together here this morning, I take it that all who are parents desire to bring up their children in the spirit of reverence. Instead of trying to define reverence, I will illustrate what I mean by irreverence by giving an instance of it that I met with a little while ago. I heard a young woman, who would count as a person of some culture and knowledge, and who would have been shocked at the thought of there being any touch of vulgarity in her mind, who was talking to another lady who was twice her age and who was possessed of a width of culture, depth of thought, richness of character, and wealth of ideas, far surpassing the ordinary. They were talking of religion, a thing which the younger lady knew that the elder had arrived at after years of development and much thought and experience, and which, therefore, should have been treated seriously, even if not at all agreed with. Instead of that, the younger lady treated it with sneering remarks, and adopted a spirit of effrontery which, not only argued an entire inability to appreciate the higher qualities of the person she was addressing, but an entire ignorance of the great questions at issue in the discussion, and indeed so little could she apprehend that there might be in the person she was talking to qualities that she could hardly reach up to, and issues in the subject that she was not deep enough to judge of, that she was quite innocent of having said anything of the nature of effrontery or insult. I could only think to myself, "What is the matter with that young woman's mind?" And then I remembered that it is far from peculiar to her, but that whatever is the matter is a characteristic of the age, in fact, as someone puts it, reverence is a virtue out of fashion.

I believe it is largely due to an exaggeration of some of the very virtues of modern life, to the political importance attached to the idea of every individual in the state. Every individual now counts for something, and, however obscure, he is politically, in theory at least, as important as the most learned, most refined and most highly developed. This excellent principle, like all good things, has its bad side--a tendency to produce the assertion, "I am as good as you," and as soon as this becomes our life-principle, we tend to make ourself the standard by which we measure everybody and everything. Now, ourself is only a tiny fragment of the whole, and a very imperfect and undeveloped fragment at the best, and if we are to be the standard, we shall soon fill the whole field of our vision and become incapable of apprehending anybody or thing larger or better than ourselves. The result is blindness in the face of anything superior to ourselves, and reverence, which is essentially the recognition of that which is superior, has no room for development.

We not only have a tendency to set ourselves up as the standard by which to form our judgments of other people--that is bad enough,--but worse still, to make our poor intellect the measure of the mystery that underlies the universe. What we can understand we admit, but what we cannot understand we tend to say cannot exist and to brush, in our thought, lightly aside. Nothing can be more fatal to the acquisition of true knowledge. Nature only reveals her secrets to the reverent mind, and this because only such a mind is capable, in the first place, of seeing that there is a secret, and, nextly, because it alone can, by throwing away its own limitations and standards, approach it in an attitude of mind capable of learning. Only such a mind can hope to explore, in even a little degree, the depths and heights of things, since the intellect that sets itself up as the master of all things, is unable to apprehend that there are depths and heights to explore.

Irreverence, then, even on the plane of the acquisition of true knowledge, is a hindrance; how much more disastrous still must it be on the moral plane? For, in this attitude of self-assertion, in this blindness to that which exceeds oneself, how impossible to aspire. If we are to grow, we must perceive our need of growth; we can only reach up by having at least some slight perception of something better than ourselves, otherwise our mind remains "cribbed, cabined and confined" within its own imperfections, and the limitations of its own personality.

Then there follows from this false attitude of mind an utter inability to appreciate the unity of things. To make our individual self the measure of things, is to lose sight of the fact that we are only a fraction of a whole, and leads morally to every man's doing that which is right in his own eyes, instead of suppressing in himself that which militates against the good of the whole. Then follows loss of unity in the home, and of unity in the State, and disintegration sets in. This disintegration, lost of unity, is known to have lain at the root of the causes which have led to the fall of many a great civilization.

Another way in which we break up the idea of unity, is not only that as individuals we set ourselves up as the standard and measure of things, but that a whole generation will do the same thing and judge all past generations by itself, as if wisdom had, to quote an old Hebrew, first been born with us. Such a generation ruthlessly sweeps away the past, destroys all relics of it, despises all its teachings and tries to being everything anew, without pausing to think whether the past may not enshrine some underlying truths that may be true all time. This irreverence towards the past is most mischievous, and augurs always a shallow present with no deep roots. How, if the universe is a constantly evolving whole, can we thus break away the past without mutilating it, so to speak? How can the past in an organic whole be valueless, how can we look upon it lightly and sneeringly, and say that we have done with all that, and that we have nothing to do with it? There is great danger of our throwing away the kernel with the husk; we may have to change things, but we have not done with the past. It is an integral part of the great whole, and has not only to be counted with, but contains the germs of all that is to come. I cannot help thinking that one of the uses of classical studies must be to keep well before us that the past has been as great as the present, and to widen our ideals by making us study those of many generations, instead of limiting ourselves to the passing ideals of one single--our present generation. To despise and be irreverent to the past is to belittle ourselves.

I have been asked, "Is it possible to inculcate a spirit of reverence?" And this is a reasonable question, for happily there are some children whose minds are so reverent that nothing could brush their reverence away, whilst there may be others, perhaps, whose minds are so utterly irreverent that it would be impossible to develop reverence in them. But these do not form the mass. The vast majority of children are neither extremely reverent nor extremely the reverse, and for such it is at least very easy to destroy any reverence that there is, even if it cannot be inculcated--or, I would rather say, drawn out, educed. I think that much can be done by so presenting things to children that they shall always feel that there is much beyond, by making them aspire, reach up, even if it be with difficulty. We should so teach as to give them the feeling that, however much they learn and however easily they understand, they never can think that they have grasped all things, or that they can make their own intellects the measure of things, or that the human mind can do this at all. We want to make them feel the sacred mystery of things, even in teaching them the exact sciences or mathematics. These things properly taught should above all things give them a sense of the unfathomable wonder of things. We want to make them realize what that mystery of life is that is manifested in the smallest weed, and which made Tennyson write an address to a "flower in the crannied wall," in which he so felt its unity with all Being that he could say "If I could know What you are, root and all and all in all, I should know what God and man is."

We want to help them to realize what it was that could make Wordsworth write

"To me the meanest flower that blows can bring
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

I believe myself in what I call opening up a vista, just letting them have a peep down some avenue of knowledge and thought, which they may never be able to follow up or have time for. But they will then never forget that there are avenues leading to wonderful places, even if they cannot traverse them, and this will help to keep them humble and reverent.

My experience with young people has led me very much to believe in this opening up of a vista to their sight. It is often the best cure for the crude ignorant assertions one so often hears confidently enunciated by the young, such as that one so frequently made by young men, that there is no such thing as an unselfish action, and that a person who is devoting himself to social problems is morally no higher than one who spends his time in dissipation, because he is prompted just as much by his own feeling of pleasure. I always find the best way to meet such an assertion is not to argue at all, the point is far too subtle for the grasp of this order of mind; but I have often found it very useful to say something like this:--"Of course one must assume that before making such a statement you have carefully studied the subject: I suppose you have gone through the three thousand years of controversy that has raged on this obscure ethical point, and of course you have read such thinkers as,"--and then you give him a list of names such as he has never heard of in his ignorance; nor did he know that his, as he thought, almost original remark had been studied for at least three thousand years. I have sometimes seen symptoms of modesty set in with the mere opening up of a vista of a few thousand years like this. We want to train the young to look beyond themselves and their own ideas: we want to help them to climb up and have a look over the wall, as it were, to let them know that the narrow lane bounded on each side by the walls of their own limitations is only a lane, and to let them get, if but a glimpse of the beautiful garden that lies on the other side of the wall, if I may so put it. It is sometimes interesting to see the change of expression that will come over their faces if they can but get just a glimpse of the vast world of thought that lies over the wall and into which they had never before had any insight. They may never have time or opportunity to get more than a glimpse, but that will often be sufficient to make them realize through life that there is something beautiful and wonderful beyond their grasp, and that there are "more things in heaven and earth than their philosophy has ever dreamed of." Such a training will ensure something of the spirit of reverence.

Then, again, our own example in speech and conduct, if it cannot inculcate reverence, can at least go far to destroy it. Careless, unsympathetic criticism of other people before children is very baneful in its efforts. It may not be wrong to criticize before children; I am not one who would recommend that all conversation before them should be watered down to their level, but there is much in the way we do our criticism. I know a family where people's faults are incessantly canvassed and criticized, whilst their virtues are scarcely ever alluded to, and you will scarcely be surprised to hear that the children in that family have a highly irreverent way of feeling towards their elders. They will constantly speak of their relations thus, "I loathe Auntie So-and-So much the worst," a sentence implying that all aunties are to be loathed--that is the best feeling you can have for any of them, but some are worse than others! I am sorry for those children. I happen to know the aunties referred to, and they are women before whom most of us would stand in reverence.

Yes, we need to discuss people and their faults in a different spirit. We must continually come into contact with persons whose aims and objects and interests we cannot either understand or share, but that is no reason why we should ruthlessly pronounce all their aims and objects as ridiculous, as too many do, and hold them up, as is often done, for laughter. This has been done with all the initiators of every reform that has ever been brought about. I believe, then, that something can be done to help foster the spirit of reverence, and mainly in the direction of so presenting things to children, as I have said already, as to continually widen their outlook beyond themselves; thus I believe, they will not only learn reverence towards people and towards ideas, but that they will thus learn to keep an attitude of mind which will enable them to gain far more knowledge of the universe. Modesty is the attitude for being receptive of ideas greater than our own, and is far more likely to unlock the secrets of nature than crude self-assertion.

Those of old in that far-gone past which we sometimes so irreverently despise, knew the truth of this when they wrote, "Them that are meek shall he guide in judgment, and such as are gentle, them shall he learn his way."

Mrs. Boole: I should like to ask Miss Sturge whether she does not think that a good deal of irreverence is due to laziness--laziness or tiredness induced by over-fatigue. I think that people nowadays, in the rush of life, are more disposed than formerly speaking contemptuously of many good things. They do not stop to think, but say, "I have nothing to do with that, and I have not time to enquire about it; I prefer that you should not ask questions about it, because I have not leisure for such things." Do you not thing that people now attempt so much that they are afraid of the labour involved in studying the higher subjects?

Miss Sturge: Yes, I think that one of the great things that tends to brush away reverence is the hurry of these days. But many who come to a vista of things beyond may just peep down, who perhaps cannot do more.

Mrs. Ketley: I should like to ask Miss Sturge whether she does not think that a good deal of the irreverence comes from reverence of wrong things? By learning to reverence the wrong things I should think that we are likely to get confused.

Miss Sturge agreed.

Mrs. Bennett: I do not think quite that parents do not want to open the vista, but I doubt whether many open their children's eyes when they come to it. I think also that the want of reverence is often due to the want of imagination. Our present way of teaching often, I think, has the effect of smothering the imagination of children. I do not think that we begin early enough with this training of the imagination, but if this is attended to the child gets the power of forming conceptions, and when it gets that, the right attitude of reverence is there. I do not see how a child can measure higher things aright unless it has its imagination spiritualized. I think, too, that great attention should be given to the teaching of history to children between the age of ten and fifteen especially. If we teach nothing but English History in the way we generally do, all the world is out of perspective.

Mrs. Flint: The thought has struck me how much imagination can been introduced into the study of nature, and in training children in the observation of nature. How much has been said about nature by the poets, and how much poetry has been mixed up in nature! This study, I think, is not only likely to lead to a reverent spirit, but I think it generally proves fascinating. I thought it a very true remark made by Mrs. Fisher yesterday about children being nearer to nature than we who are older, and I think that they are also nearer to poetry. (Hear, hear.)

Miss Sturge: I am very glad that the questions of imagination and poetry have been brought up--I only left such matter because of want of time. No doubt the possibility of reverence must rest upon the possibility of the mind to soar above. I believe that it is intensely important to bring children up on poetry as much as possible. Some children reject it, and we must try other means, while some children's imaginations are better brought out by studying the forces that lie behind machinery, etc. Some can get ideas through mathematics as to the underlying forces of the universe. But if a child can receive benefit through poetry, I should say let that child have plenty of it and fairy tales. There are signs of divine life in everything, and this is brought out by the Greeks who speak of the trees and water with their spirits and nymphs--all allegorical of important truths. Something of the kind is expressed in the vivid line of Wordsworth, "Touch not, for there is spirit in the woods." If mothers could help to look at things like that, I think that such a way of seeing things would grow upon the children, and bring out a true sense of reverence. (Hear, hear.)

Mrs. Anson: Might I mention what seems to me to be the first element of reverence? I think that is the actual reverence of the children towards their parents. Some children are allowed to give their parents nick-names--one I knew used to call its father "Dog"--(laughter)--but I do not think that any supposed affection from the use of such nick-names is true affection. I think that the children's manner towards us who are older ought to be more respectful. Two generations ago the child would get up when its parents or grandparents came into the room, and although perhaps children could not be expected to do that now, I think they might be trained to get up from the best arm-chair in the room when the parents come in. (Hear, hear.) They ought also, I think, to be taught to be courteous to the servants--opening the doors for them, and running downstairs to save the parlourmaid doing so sometimes. (Hear, hear.) They should have, too, a courteous manner towards even poor people whom they come across, but above all things they should have a proper reverence for their parents. This seems to go without saying, but I do not think that it is always found in these days. (Hear, hear.)

Here followed for Demonstration Lessons by students from the House of Education, and by Madlle, Duriaux:--

11.45-12 (a) Dictation Lesson to Class II.,
By Miss D. Hughes Jones.
12-12.30 (b) French Lesson to Class III.,
By Madlle. Duriaux.
12.30-12.45 (c) Lesson on Plutarch's Lives to Class II.,
By Miss Faunce.
12.45-1.5 (d) Geography Lesson to Class III.,
By Miss Wingate.