Early in the first of her six poetic volumes titled The Saviour of the World, Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) retells the story of the visit between two expectant women, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, the mother of John. In these passionate moving verses, Mason conveys her deep intuition about the possibility and promise of caring, mutually encouraging relationships between women called to walk a similar journey.
Mason describes the anxious courage with which the young virgin traveled a great distance “that she might ease her bosom in her kinswoman’s arms” (Mason, 1908, p. 22). Through her description Mason touches on the archetypal ache for a loving familial breast upon which our tears may be wept and courage for tomorrow found.
The content of the conversations between the expectant women, Mason imagines, ranged from the ordinary—such as the feeding of infants, the illnesses of childhood, and concerns for their child’s adulthood—to the sublime doxological moments in which God is blessed and their souls are laid bare. “The common tender talk that mothers use was theirs” (p. 26). Although never a mother herself, Mason touches on the wonderous, intimate, formative conversations which first time mothers (and perhaps first time educators) of all times and places share.
Mason’s sensitivity to the promise of gentle intimate relationships between women is doubtlessly rooted—at least in part—in her own lived experience. Coombs (2009) has recently found that Mason as a fifteen year old girl nursed her own mother, a woman apparently estranged from her husband, through her last year of life as she battled a cancer-type illness. Her young adult friendships with Miss Brandreth, Mrs. Groveham and Selina Heelis (begun in the1860’s), her close working and living relationships with Mrs. Epps and Mrs. Steinthal through her thirties and forties (1870’s and early 1880’s), her extensive work in her fifties (1890’s and into the 20th century) with Henrietta Franklin and Elsie Kitching represent several of the close female relationships within which Mason lived throughout her life (Chomondley, 1960). Spencer (2010) suggests that Mason’s ability to work with women, to connect them and mobilize them into vast relational and productive networks was unusual for her time “and underpinned the success of her enterprise” (Spencer, 2010, p. 105). Thus Mason’s sensitivity to the gentle power of the deep caring connection between Mary and Elizabeth is not surprising as she also had richly experienced such intimacies.
When Mason writes her words reflecting on the visit between these women she does so as a women of about 65 years of age after a decade or so of establishing numerous flourishing educational institutions and networks. Although her organizational achievements were remarkable and their effects continue to resonate through our times, her biographer also reminds of the many interludes and quiet times of reprieve in pastoral and continental settings that Mason required for her health and well being. “Three happy months the Holy Women held—in field, ‘mid lonely hills, on quiet roof—sweet converse” (Mason, 1908, p. 24). From her own experience Mason understands and conveys the joy and refreshment found in quiet outdoor rest and conversation.
As is her occasional habit in this series on the Saviour of the World, Mason punctuates her ideas by directing her reader to two pieces of art which further convey the sensitivities that she is seeking to elicit.
The first piece that Mason suggests is The Visitation by The Master of the Life of the Virgin who is known to be a late Gothic German painter working (productive from c.1463-c.1490) in Cologne. Although his name is not known his paintings are the most celebrated of The Cologne School of this time. “The Visitation was a welcome theme for Christian painters because it allowed showing two wonderful women, both elegantly pregnant in the beginning stage only, so that pregnancy could be hinted at in all elegant grace. The scene is usually set in marvelous mountain landscapes since Elisabeth lived in hill country” (Dewil, 2010). This version of the visitation is no exception in the tender elegant beauty with which the cousins are portrayed, their care for one another demonstrated in their touch. This work reminds of the elegance of intimacy.
The second work that Mason offers in these verses is the Madonna and Child (c. 1440) by one of the leading painters of Early Renaissance Florence, Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406 –1469). Follower of Masaccio and teacher of Botticelli, Fra Filippo Lippi loved life in all of its fullness and painted more realistic subjects than were usual for his time. This tender lush version of Mary and her child draws us into the intimate humanity of women and children, a communion that points to the ultimate of intimacies.
As educators continue in our times to expectantly probe Mason’s ideas for education much common tender talk continues to take place. In the midst of our messy humanity, rich sympathies, caring connections and compassionate relationships grow. In our own advent days of longing, of waiting expectantly for the coming of the Saviour of the world, Mason beautifully reminds and invites us to cherish the moments of common tender talk among a caring community of those emerging together in educational service.
Cholmondey, E. (1960/2000). The Story of Charlotte Mason. Hants, UK: ChildLight Ltd.
Coombs, M. (Autumn 2009). Puzzling over Charlotte Mason’s Date of Birth. L’Umile Pianta. Ambleside.
Dewil, R. J-P. (2010). The Visitation. Located December 9, 2010 through The Art of Painting at internet: http://www.theartofpainting.be/AOM-Visitation.htm)
Mason, C.M. (1908). The Saviour of the World, Volume 1. At internet: <http://www.angelfire.com/journal/SaviouroftheWorld>
Master of the Life of the Virgin. (2010). Accessed December 9, 2010 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_the_Life_of_the_Virgin
Spencer, S. (2010). “ ‘Knowledge as the necessary food of the mind’: Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education” in J. Spence, S.J. Aiston, & M.M. Meikle (Eds.) Women, Education, and Agency, 1600-2000. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group
“Meeting With Elizabeth”
by C. M. Mason
Book 1, p. 22-24
of “The Saviour of The World”
as found at http://www.Angelfire.com
St. Luke 1: 39 -46
St. Luke 1: 46 -56
Illustrated “The Visitation” by ‘Master of the Life of the Virgin’
MUCH troubled was the Maid-full of high hope
And diffident fear: nor might she tell her mind
To kin or neighbour, least of all, to him,
Her betrothed husband: so, with bold resolve,
She would go forth to seek among the hills
Of southward Judah for Elizabeth:
The friendly seraph, sure, had meant that she
Might ease her bosom in her kinswoman’s arms!
Little she recked of distance, lonely ways,
Of days of travel, footsore and distressed,
And nights of little ease: Mary made slow way
To the hill-city, Hebron, where she dwelt
To reach whom all this travail. Entering the house
Of Zacharias, with sisterly salute, Elizabeth she greeted.
At her word,
Tumult of welcome whelme’d the poor Maid,
Lonely and travel-worn: when Elizabeth heard
Her cousin’s salutation, in her womb
Up-leaped the babe : and, full of the Holy Ghost,
With a loud cry she lifted up her voice
“Thou blessed amongst women, whence is this,
That the Mother of my Lord should come to me?
No sooner had the babe I bear thy voice
Heard, me saluting, than he leaped for joy!”
Then, fill’d with the Spirit of God, she blessed the Maid
“To her who could believe, shall be fulfilled
The whole of God’s high counsels.” And Mary said : -
“My soul rejoiceth in the Lord,
My spirit triumphs in His word
He looked upon my low estate,
And, looking, made His handmaid great
To God, my Saviour, be the praise,
Who lowliest men doth highest raise!
“Henceforth the generations shall
Name me for Blessed, one and all
He that is mighty hath to me
Done great things, low though my degree
His mercy is for ever sure
While tribes and nations shall endure
“Holy His name, and full of grace
To them that fear, and seek His face
His arm with ready strength is found
To cast the high ones to the ground,
Scatter the proud, the meek upraise,
And nourish all their sheltered days
The rich go empty, and the poor,
Filled with good things, shall leave His door;
Princes from thrones He putteth down,
To raise those meek who be His own:
To His servant Israel brought He aid,
The promise He of old hath made : -
“That mercy should remembered be,
That Abraham his race should see
Countless as sand on the seashore,
Blessed by their God for evermore!
The promise that hath been of old
To Abraham and his sons foretold,
To kings and prophets dimly shown-
His secret-now, He maketh known:
The promised SEED is come, and I,
Poor Maid, by God, am set on high !”
“The Days of the Visit”
Book 1, “The Holy Infancy” p 25 & 26
of “The Saviour of The World”
By C. M. Mason
as found at http://www.Angelfire.com
St. Luke i. 56
“Goeth forth as a Bridegroom” – Ps.xix.5
“Meek, sitting upon ass.” – Zech. ix. 9.
“He is led as a lamb to the slaughter.” – Isa. liii. 7
“Hills made low and valleys raised.” – Isa. xl.4.
Illustrated “Madonna and Child” by Fra Filippo Lippi
THREE happy months the Holy Women held-
In field, ‘mid lonely hills, on quiet roof-
Sweet converse, of those things the prophets spake
Concerning Shiloh, and him, should go before.
Not yet had Mary shaped her lips to the Name
That is above all names; but in her heart,
“JESUS,” she breathed, tremulous with delight
And rosy joy-awful, for amazement wove,
With fear, the weft across her warp of love.
And, many a time, would they to Zacharias
Look for interpretation; who would write,
Being mute, the thing they asked of him; for he
Was learned in the Scriptures, being a priest:
“‘Goeth forth as bridegroom, -shall Messias wed?”
‘Meek, sitting upon ass,’ is this the King?
‘He is led as a lamb to the slaughter ‘-not my Son!
Nay, holy man of God, this cannot be
The Ruler of His people shall not die
At the hands of the violent!” And Elizabeth,
“What meaneth ‘hills made low and valleys
With many questionings came the Holy Women
And he, the priest, who knew himself full learned,
Astonished at their understanding, owned
Him ignorant before them ; but they held
Not all of themes, awful for woe,
August in dignity and suffering,
Or joyous beyond measure, did the two
Hold converse; but the common tender talk
That mothers use was theirs ; and — as they spake
Of breast and milk and little children’s pains,
Each could have said she heard a cooing babe.
Thus, for three months : then Mary returned home.
© 2010 Deani Van Pelt