Books & Reading, Mother's Education

Mother Culture: Why I Set A Timer

July 24, 2018 by Brandy Vencel

I adore the idea of Mother Culture, as you know. That 30-minute habit of daily reading can bring so much growth into our busy lives as moms. But like anything, Mother Culture can become the idol around which we arrange our lives.

In his book The Intellectual Life, A.G. Sertillanges warns us against being so caught up in study that we neglect our duties:

[S]tudy … is not always opportune; if it is not, the person who then pursues knowledge forgets his duty as a man, and what is to be said of the intellectual who is not a man? (p. 26)

It’s interesting to me that to Sertillanges, the man who forgets his duty becomes less of a man — or something other than a man. So his manhood is defined by his proper attention to duty.

What intrigued me were the examples he gave:

A country priest who devotes himself to his parishioners, a doctor who turns away from study to give help in urgent cases, a young man of good family who adopts a calling to help his people and in doing so has to turn his back on liberal studies are not profaning the gift that is in them, they are paying homage to the True which is one and the same Being with the Good. If they acted otherwise they would offend truth no less than virtue, since, indirectly, they would be setting living truth at variance with itself. (p. 26)

He speaks here, obviously, of men. But what if we rewrote this for moms who choose to pursue the intellectual life as well? Something like:

… a woman who turns away from study to nurse her sick children … is not profaning the gift that is in her, she is paying homage to the True …

It’s easy to think of Mother Culture as just one other thing we must do — a nonnegotiable imperative rather than a healthy habit. On the days when it doesn’t fit in, we beat ourselves up. Sometimes that sense of conviction is healthy. If it didn’t fit in because I wasted time, that’s a problem. But I’ve encountered moms berating themselves because they just couldn’t get it done after being up all night with a sick baby, or because they had high-maintenance company over, and to that I say: There is no guilt in this. You were doing your duty!

That’s the thing: to Sertillanges, the intellectual life is part and parcel of the pursuit of virtue, and to be virtuous is to do your duty. Sertillanges gives this rebuke:

One sees many men avid for knowledge who do not hesitate to sacrifice to it their strictest duties. They are not men of study, they are dilettanti. (p. 26)

This is why I think the 30-minute limit is so brilliant. I mean, yes, sometimes we need to read longer. I certainly have days when I’m in the middle of thinking through something and schedule a couple hours for extended reading and thinking. But as far as normal days, to read longer than thirty minutes would probably translate into not finishing my laundry or not getting dinner ready.

Thirty minutes is plenty of time to get a good chunk or reading done, and, most importantly, to glean some big thoughts worth chewing on as we go forth and fold our laundry. For some of us, it’s important to admit that it’s hard to move on to the next task. (For me, this is especially true if it’s a novel, which is why I pick up novels with fear and trembling — I have a hard time being moderate with novels!)

What duties might be crowded out? Meals and laundry come to mind — we are moms, after all, and so the motherly tasks rise first to our thoughts. But Sertillanges stops us and says:

[S]tudy must first of all leave room for worship, prayer, direct meditation on the things of God. (p. 28)

When you are up all night with a baby, make sure that the the first Book you pick up is the Bible. It’s okay to fall asleep while praying (your baby falls asleep in your arms, doesn’t he?), but do not forget to pray.

Sertillanges continues:

Study carried to such a point that we give up prayer and recollection, that we cease to read Holy Scripture, and the words of the saints and of great souls — study carried to the point of forgetting ourselves entirely, and of concentrating on the objects of study so that we neglect the Divine Dweller within us, is an abuse and a fool’s game. (p. 29)

Sadly, I have met a handful of women who get really caught up in Charlotte Mason research — to the point where they are not getting their school lessons done, nor are they engaging in worship, prayer, or Bible reading. While the cases I have encountered have to do with Charlotte Mason obsession, this can happen with anything. The point is that something — anything — that catches our fancy can be dangerous when our affection for it become disproportionate.

Don’t play the “fool’s game.” Setting a timer is probably the easiest way to get your house in order. A timer puts study time in its place by putting boundaries around it.

As Sertillanges said:

The order of the mind must correspond to the order of things. In the world of reality, everything rises toward the divine, everything depends on it, because everything springs from it. (p. 29)

Mother Culture is great — reading is great — but let us not neglect so great a salvation.

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12 Comments

  • Reply Lauren Scott July 29, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    This was such a great exhortation. Thank you. The guilt of not getting to all the wonderful things I have in mind to do is real. But so is the tendancy to want to abuse that time by going overboard and hoarding more and more of it for myself any time I can. To ignore your duty is anti-intellectual and foolish. I’m taking that thought away from this and will try to keep it at the ready. next time I’m tempted to either feel guilty or to indulge.

  • Reply Tracy Barton Niles July 29, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    This is timely , as summer comes to a close and planning time has snuck up on me! Finding a balance is always a challenge, whether it be one more blog to read, a great novel, or one more hour of floating in the pool by myself…ahhhh peace and quiet. The reality is , none of those mentioned the Lord. Thank you for your writings.

  • Reply Becca July 29, 2018 at 10:39 am

    This is why I actually love the checklist you offered this summer. On the days I get to sit and read for an hour or two I can check a couple days off to make up for those with children with 102 degree fevers. It’s also helps me to see if I’m neglecting by building too big of a gap in my days. It’s both flexible and holds be accountable.

  • Reply Amy Sterrett July 28, 2018 at 9:07 am

    Thank you for these thoughts. They encourage me to think about how to create the right balance in my life.

  • Reply Hilary July 25, 2018 at 2:51 pm

    I also approach fiction “with fear and trembling.” Every responsibility becomes a nonessential until the book is finished and then, “What have I done?!!?” as I look at the wreck of undone everything.

  • Reply Amber July 25, 2018 at 1:05 pm

    Oh, Brandy, this is so good! I love the quotes you pulled out and how you pulled these thoughts together. And yes, it really needs to go so far beyond the duties of cleaning and caretaking – but yet do we think of study or even our daily duties in this way?

    I am so intrigued by the quote where he calls men who put aside duties for study “dilettanti”. At first it seems like he’s turning the meaning of the word on its head, as these men of serious study certainly aren’t dilettantes with regards to their area of interest. However, they are dilettantes with regards to what is so much more important – the life that God has given them and the opportunities to know Him, love Him and serve Him.

    As I read this post this afternoon I was glad I spent some time reading and doing written narrations from St. Francis de Sales before working on my CM commonplace. :-D.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 26, 2018 at 2:34 pm

      I really think you would love this book, Amber! He really is making me think about things differently — and yet he is also so much like CM. He had a whole section about taking care of the body, and it reminded me SO MUCH of what CM said about creating the proper conditions for the brain, etc.

  • Reply Lisa Seegert July 25, 2018 at 3:07 am

    Thank you for this post. Very balanced. I can relate to some of the points for sure. The timer is a good idea. It helps me to see the simplicity of fitting it in. I typically take my mother culture in one big chunk first thing because it’s early and quiet. But I find I need more later in the day when my tank is empty. Always with Jesus first. A psalm, prayer, memory verse, a worship song. That’s where this 30 minute timer will come in handy so I’ll fit it in. And then right before I go to sleep, I will read a small portion from a book or two or three that I’m currently reading until I can’t keep my eyes open. I’m going to deliberately work on squeezing in the midday mother culture. Thanks again!!

  • Reply Carol July 24, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    Very interesting, Brandy. I think ‘duty’ has almost become a dirty word. I like the comment Tess made about never reading more in a day than you pray. I echo the gulp!

  • Reply tess July 24, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Great post, Brandy! It reminded me of advice given to me by a wise priest: Never read more in a day than you pray. *Gulp* 🙂

    • Reply Alicia Hart July 26, 2018 at 1:20 pm

      This is exactly what I needed to hear !! Thank you, thank you Brandy. This article was an answer to my prayer for wisdom in running my home. I need to restore balance in my life and duties. It is so easy for me to get stuck with my head in a book. It is not very Charlotte Masonish to be so lopsided in how we spend our time.

      • Reply Brandy Vencel July 26, 2018 at 1:26 pm

        Ugh. I know what you mean! I am so tempted to be lopsided. The struggle is real!

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