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18 April 2016

20 Principles: Habit in Religious Life

This post is part of a series. Feel free to visit the series index for more thoughts on the writings of Charlotte Mason.

I've joined a Charlotte Mason study group. I'm already behind. But I'm learning tons anyway, so I'm happy; it's not a race. I've been reading Teaching in the Branches, where Miss Mason outlines some of the principles that underlie the work they did as they were teaching in the various branch schools in her organization. There's a lot of great food for thought, but this really caught my attention:

The next point we have set ourselves to consider is the laying down of lines of habit in the religious life. ... Let us consider the subject as it bears upon habits of thought and of attitude of life and of speech; though indeed all these are one, for every act and attitude is begotten of a thought, however unaware we be of thinking.

The Lord has asked us to acquire a number of habits that, taken together, comprise the heart of our relationship with Him: He commands that we pray, that we read, search, and ponder scripture, that we bring Him our questions and problems. Additionally, that which we might describe as "Christian living" is a way of life that grows out of habits drawn from scripture: we are hard working rather than idle, honest, rather than deceitful. We honor our parents and care for our spouses and children. We turn the other cheek, forgive, and are kind. We care for the widow, the fatherless, and the unfortunate. We are hospitable and generous.

All these things are often thought of as morals or values, but it is doing them habitually that writes them on our hearts, that slowly brings about the mighty change of heart and, through the Grace of Christ, transforms us and overcomes the natural man.

Man is the sum result of what he thinks and does. Habit is the instrument that molds his character and makes of him essentially what he is. Habit can become a monster to tarnish and destroy, yet proper behavioral traits can bring lasting joy and achievement. To say no at the right time and then stand by it is the first element of success. The effect that both good and bad habits have on our lives is all too real to be ignored. 

We don't often talk about it in those terms, but certainly habit plays a big role in our efforts to endure to the end. Many times, the Lord has used the habitual scripture study our family does at the end of the day to speak to me in times of need. And teaching these things, these ideals, habits, and patterns of life to our children is a parent's sacred duty. I think it is our duty because it will give them the tools they need to be strong and resilient and safe in the Lord during the hard times.

Moral Habits, the way to form them and the bounden duty of every parent to send children into the world with a good outfit of moral habits, isn't a subject so much to the front in our thoughts... The moral impulse having been given by means of some such inspiring idea as we have considered, the parent's next business is to keep the idea well to the front, with tact and delicacy and without insistence, and to afford apparently casual opportunities for moral effort on the lines of the first impulse. 
-Charlotte Mason, Teaching in the Branches

Moral habits can and should be at the heart of education because, as David O. McKay said,

Character is the aim of true education; and science, history, and literature are but means used to accomplish the desired end.
-David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals, pp. 440-441

But character is most often a plant of slow growth. Habits of thought are cultivated when we read history and literature with an eye toward noticing the virtues and vices of the characters we encounter. By reading quality literature that shows truly the effects of choices on outcome, we give our children the opportunity to experience vicariously the costs and benefits of different choices, and good books can help us to guide our children toward right living, as well as reenforcing the need and benefit of good religious habit. 

Little Women was the first book where I noticed this effect on myself: the goodness of the March girls left me wanting to become better myself. Since then, I have become much more aware of this aspect of reading, and appreciate the way that a skilled author can inspire without ever preaching. Consistently choosing high quality literature for their education offers our children many opportunities to encounter and admire the results of these religious habits, as well as the lack of those habits - and it allows us the opportunity to discuss it as thoroughly as our children need, without running into concerns about gossip or other difficulties that come with too much discussion of real, live people in our community and acquaintance. Of course, the very best literature is scripture. There is no more direct way path toward wisdom and virtue than by studying scripture, which should hold a primary place in the education of our children.

"Our children should be indoctrinated in the principles of the Gospel from their earliest childhood. They should be made familiar with the contents of the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. These should be their chief text books, and everything should be done to establish and promote in their hearts genuine faith in God, in His Gospel and its ordinances, and in His works."
-Wilford Woodruff (source)

Sometimes, dealing directly with the Word can be intimidating, and it is easy to become reliant on devotional books and even church manuals (many of which have much to offer), but none of them can offer our children the strength or depth or power that is in Scripture itself, and you cannot grow into understanding the actual words of the Lord recorded in scripture if you do not meet with and work with the actual text of scripture.

The habit of hearing, and later, of reading the Bible, is one to establish at an early age. We are met with a difficulty that the Bible is, in fact, a library containing passages and, indeed, whole books which are not for the edification of children; and many parents fall back upon little collections of texts for morning and evening use. But I doubt the wisdom of this plan. We may believe that the narrative teaching of the Scriptures is far more helpful to children, anyway, than the stimulating moral and spiritual texts picked out from them in little devotional books.
-Charlotte Mason, Teaching in the Branches, emphasis added

This post is part of a series. You can also visit the series index for more essays inspired by Charlotte Mason's excellent work.


Jenna Dilts said...

Loved this post, Rits. The importance of good spiritual habit can't be overstated, I think. I've been especially pondering how to start reading the real scriptures to my 3yo daughter. Right now she is reading through the Church's little Book of Mormon stories and adores the pictures... But I can't wait to start with the actual Word!

Ritsumei said...

My Mom used to read to my brothers sometimes, when they were in high school, and that was about the same time that my oldest was born, so I just followed her example and read to my boy, too. We do it at bedtime, and do the other stories more in the daytime. Now I've got 3 kids (the youngest is 3), and they all love it when it's their turn. I usually read off my phone, so they each have their own bookmark in the Church's app, and we read a different amount, based on things like how tired they are, if I have a cold, what kind of attention they're paying... it varies from just a few verses, to occasionally multiple chapters. Three years old is a great time, because they're so unselfconscious about asking questions! My oldest used to ask me to "stop and go and stop and go" when I'd read, meaning that would I please stop and explain every.little.thing. They're pretty awesome. I've been amazed at what the kids can get out of reading straight from the Word at such young ages!

Jenna Dilts said...

Hmm, encouraging. I hadn't thought about using the app! Yeah, my 3yo I'd definitely asking why about everything, too. :D


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