Atmosphere is one of Charlotte Mason’s three(and only three) educational tools. In atmosphere, she’s not concerned with creating a “perfect” environment for a child, but rather making full use of the home atmosphere (and even mimicking the home atmosphere within a school), because the home atmosphere can be so instructive for a child. The home is where children learn how to interact with and respond to the world around them.
The daunting part is that, as the mother, atmosphere begins with me. That’s scary, because I’m not always the best example. But my theory is that it’s better to face facts rather than hide behind false ideas I prefer, like the one where the home atmosphere consists primarily of decorating and background music.
When I was reading the final chapter of The Liberal Arts Tradition (called Culture, Calling, and Curriculum), the idea of atmosphere kept coming to me. In fact, I think these might be the same principles presented using very different words.
Right out of the gate, Clark and Jain remind us:
Because “imitation precedes art,” the culture is as much of a teacher as the curriculum.
The focus of the chapter, then, is this concept of school culture — and it is this “school culture” that I think Miss Mason would call atmosphere.
School, say Clark and Jain, need to “incarnate a culture of piety, virtue, wisdom, and grace.” Naturally, this brings us back to theology.
Let me explain.
It is so easy for us to think of theology as something we learn in our books, in our lengthy confessions. While it is that, it is also more than that. Theology is meant to be incarnated — lived out in the body. This is where the tension always is for us, right? We know the ideal, but continue to fall hopelessly short of embodying it.
Two days ago, our family awoke to a rabbit that was deathly ill. It seemed to be a case of Head Tilt. We did what we knew to do to revive him, but he didn’t respond. The girls brought him into the house, fed him an electrolyte solution with a dropper, kept him warm and comfortable, and eventually, he passed away.
What is my point in telling this story? I think it has a lot to do with today’s subject. What we want is the Garden of Eden — the ideal, most perfect world. But what we have is a world where pets get sick and die, families come down with the stomach flu, husbands lose jobs, siblings are selfish, and the list goes on. Things also go right, of course, but my point is that things go wrong, and when they do, we have to respond. Learning to respond properly is one component of what Miss Mason called the educational tool of atmosphere.
What I realized in reading The Liberal Arts Tradition is that theology is our tutor in these moments.
The atmosphere in our homes (and schools)} is grounded in our theology. How we handle things — if we discipline ourselves to handle them thoughtfully (because otherwise we fall into whatever our default habits are, both good and bad) — is this “incarnation” — it’s the embodiment of what we think about reality.
Clark and Jain go on to remind us:
[T]ransmitting culture is a central aspect of the educational task.
This is, of course, a good reason to be thoughtful and think about what culture we’re transmitting.
[A] Christian classical school will not thrive without developing and embodying a proper school culture.
So how does this intersect with the life of a homeschool mom? Are we exempt because we aren’t really a school? I actually have more fear — because it’s just me, all day long. This is the big burden we all carry, right? The weight of culture on our shoulders?
Mothers, you see, are the central culture makers of the homeschool.
Clark and Jain say that because the transmission of culture is a central task, and because schools require a proper culture, we come full circle back to where we began: piety. Piety is the soil in which everything else (meaning the other components of the curriculum) can grow. And piety is informed by theology. While piety is doing our duty towards God and man and creation in humility, theology tells us who God is, who man is, what creation is, and what our duty is toward all of these. Piety is the action, but theology is the content.
There is a helpful parallel we can draw here between atmosphere and piety-as-embodied-theology. Atmosphere can seem like a really neutral thing — if we’re not careful, we will try to subjectively determine the atmosphere that is right for our own homes. Calling it piety — or saying that piety is a huge part of it — makes it more objective. Suddenly, there are standards outside of myself to which I must conform. My theology is making demands upon my life.
It logically follows that tending to our own internal culture is important, because that is what is going to spill out all over the place. We have to start in the right place. Where is theology born in my heart, that I might live it out in the first place? It’s acquired by listening to the preaching of the Word on Sundays, the taking of the sacraments, prayer, the reading of the Word, and so on and so forth. We can get so caught up in needing to read this book here and learn this hobby here, that we forget these very basic things that are foundational for a pious life.
And I do mean we — I forget sometimes, too.
Sometimes, remembering isn’t enough. As moms, we have to be careful because many important things can get away from us. Remember those early days when somehow you never got a shower, and you weren’t even sure why? It’s all about equilibrium — motherhood throws us off. We are creatures of habit, but then we have a baby. Disequilibrium. We used to get up and take a shower before leaving for work, but all of a sudden this squalling creature demands food, and then rocking, and then playing, and then and then — my, where did all the time go?
It changes as children grow, but the theme is the same. I set aside a Bible time, only to find a million interruptions keeping me from ever solidifying the purposeful use of that time as a habit.
And yet, if atmosphere begins with me, this time is even more important than I initially thought. So what is the solution?
Learning to Deal with Interruptions
I don’t think there is an easy, one-size-fits-all way to go about this, but I think a big principle is that we have to learn to deal with interruptions. I get up early, only to find my children up even earlier. They knock on the door behind which I am hiding. They don’t stay long, but there are four of them, and if I’m not careful, they’ll eat up all my Bible time before breakfast. It’s easier with older children. Recently, during the Morning Meeting portion of Circle Time, I reminded them that Mom gets up early to read her Bible, and that time needs to be uninterrupted.
But with toddlers? Maybe one could be pulled on our laps and we could simply read aloud. Instead of stopping, and hoping that we’ll find time again later, we need to find ways to push through, to continue, even if it means having one or more children join us. Or is there an older child that can be tasked with entertaining the toddler during Mommy’s Bible time?
Is the long-term goal to train them to let you read your Bible uninterrupted? Yes. But there has to be a way to live and thrive in the meantime. I’ve met people who had toddlers for almost two decades. That is a long time not to figure out a solution, so we need to get creative.
Building the Disciplines into the Day
I like having Bible reading in Circle Time not just for my children, but also for me. If something made my early morning Bible reading impossible, I have a second chance. Historically, Scripture was read aloud in community. Reading the Bible isn’t less meaningful just because I’m with other people.
I think we can have these points throughout our day that are designed to redirect the children and us back to the most important things. Meals have potential — we usually don’t miss them. So if reading Scripture, singing a hymn, reading aloud, or some other good ritual is built into them, that’s great! Circle Time is huge, of course. Evening routines are another possibility. The point is to have so many of these along the way that it becomes almost impossible to miss them all — meaning that all of us are getting the soul food we need throughout the day.
I’ve mentioned before how very, very important I think it is for us not to try and do this on our own. There are great authors to keep us company while we’re learning to be pious. Reading good books and listening to encouraging podcasts has been a wonderful help to me.
But it’s more than that.
You need to find your sisters. The nice thing about having a local group is that when I’m starting to grow weary in doing good, it is about time for the next meeting, and I always leave inspired to do more of what I ought. Having other women in your life — where you’re encouraging each other to build the Christian culture of your minds and of your homes — is priceless.
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