Several months ago I talked to the Deacon of my Anglican church about the theology of Charlotte Mason. I told him that Charlotte Mason said that children “are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” He instantly replied that Mason was wrong and that her statement was untrue. Children are born bad. St. Paul said as much: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”
Over the years many people have searched Mason’s writings to find qualifications and explanations that might help us to reconcile her famous statement with the orthodox teaching of the Church. But few have extended their search to Mason’s massive six-volume meditation on the Gospels entitled The Saviour of the World. And so few have found where Mason directly deals with the truth that St. Paul revealed to the Romans.
In Volume 4 of The Saviour of the World, Charlotte Mason writes the following:
The Fall (The disciple)
Alas, sweet souls, ye fell! but not so low,
Ah, not so low as we! Abashed are ye
Where God was all a separate self to see;
And, naked, conscious souls, ingenuous go
To hide yourselves for shame! Your Fall’s worse woe-
Th’ inevitable “I”-inherit we:
Our child-souls quit their paradise to be
First in a fall’n state that day they know
Themselves for entities, with passions, parts:
Alack, the difference! Ye who did dwell
In th’ light of God see from what height ye fell,
And shun the recreant Self that filch’d your hearts:
No gracious shame’s in us; complacent thought,
Approving or contemning, ‘s Ego fraugtht!
She begins her poem by addressing our first parents. These innocent souls were once in the presence of God, but then they fell. So they hid themselves from God. But this Fall affected more than just themselves. There is something of this Fall that all of us “inherit.” Inevitably this inherited nature manifests itself and our souls leave paradise. We recapitulate the tragedy of our parents. “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man … so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”
But there is something worse about our Fall. Our first parents felt an ingenuous – an “innocent” – impulse to hide. But the poison of original sin that dwells in us has drowned that impulse. No “gracious shame” seizes us. Instead, we are “complacent.” We are “dead through the trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1)
Two pages earlier, Mason describes the poor man who must contend with this inherited poison. She writes,
But the poor man,
The hunted soul who has no innermost
Where sin is not at home, who strives t’escape,
Who hates and yet inclines, and, desparate,
Cleaveth to Grace to save him from the Thing –
Is it himself? – that daunts him…
This poor man realizes that there is no place in his heart where sin is not at home. Even in the innermost part of mansoul, sin is there. He strives to escape it, but how? Does he try to develop good habits based on good ideas derived from science and literature? No! He knows that habit and living ideas, as powerful as they may be, cannot save him from “the Thing”. Only Grace can save him. And so to Grace he cleaves.
But what is “the Thing”? Is it a demon? A devil? A disease? No … it is “himself.” “Th’ inevitable ‘I’-inherit we.” The sin that I exhibit in my thoughts, words, and deeds are not from some outside thing. They are from me – the horror of me.
And yet between these two somber passages of poetry, in the intervening page, we find three lines that make us gasp:
This poor man holds the Innocence that shines
In the face of a little child a mystery,
The deepest and most precious God doth keep.
I believe St. Paul. I believe the historic teachings of the church. I believe in original sin. And yet just the other night at bedtime my little one reached out his arms to me. He smiled and squeezed my neck in his arms. I looked at his face and it was filled with an expression of pure love. In the face of this little child, I did not see a snake. I did not see a monster. I saw heaven.