If classical education is the art of becoming free, then we need to build our habits of attention.
The British-born turn-of-the-century American journalist, Sydney Harris, once posited:
The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one’s mind a pleasant place in which to spend one’s leisure.
For this to be accomplished, we have to be selective and meditative about how and with what we furnish our minds – yes, our minds, and not only our children’s.
Circle Time, or Morning Time (or Basket Time or Morning Meeting or whatever your family calls it) is our time for centering on the truth as a family and beginning our day together on a foundation of prayer and Scripture.
But I’ll admit it: with my iPod right there to turn on accompaniment CDs for our singing, it’s really hard to not hold it under the table and glance at it while the kids are reciting. It’s hard to not notice the flashing notification while we sing and direct my attention toward what that email subject line might portend rather than keeping my attention on what’s happening around the table.
Lectio Divina Basics
In the early church, a practice called Lectio Divina – divine reading – was practiced by church fathers, Ambrose, and Augustine. Augustine, clearly an educated and astute studier of the Bible, also recommended the Scripture as a thing to pray as well as study. Later, medieval monks codified the practice into four steps:
- Lectio – Read the Scripture.
- Meditatio – Meditate on the Scripture.
- Oratio – Pray the Scripture.
- Contemplatio – Contemplate the Scripture.
In different traditions over time, the practice became more specific or more mystic or more neglected, but if we look to the beginnings, we see at the root an acknowledgement that the Scripture is more than a textbook or storybook and that our attention to it needs focus.
We also see that later developments of the practice of learning are foreshadowed in this process: information is attended to, it is taken into the mind and thought about, words are spoken to solidify our grasp of it, and then we are left with a mind full of ideas to connect up and mull over. These four steps, taken at face value, sound eerily like CiRCE’s steps of mimetic instruction.
The Lectio Divina process shows a way toward mindfulness, toward meditation, toward deep attention. This is particularly necessary to pursue intentionally in our age of distraction and immediate gratification. It demonstrates to us that there is another way of reading, a way that will build space and margin into our thoughts. It confirms that lingering is valuable. It teaches us that once is not enough and that “just get it done” is inadequate.
There has been nothing like our recitation time, we call it Circle Time, that has shown me just how scattered, anxious, distractible, and impatient my own mind is. Years ago I said to myself, “We should learn long chunks of Scripture!” So I made my selections, printed out whole Psalms and whole epistle chapters, and we read them together in different ways every day, multiple chapters a day, out loud. At first I was on vigilance mode to snuff out signs of restlessness and mutiny around the table. Eventually, routine kicked in and our Circle Time flows smoother now.
And then I noticed it. My mind was restless. My fingers mutinously tapped on my email notification under the table. I both winced when a long chapter came up in our rotation and our voices plodded along yet also raised eyebrows at my children if they attempted to rush through their part as if it were a tongue-twisting speed challenge.
Sometimes, when you set out to do something for your children, you realize it’s actually needed for you.
It turns out Circle Time is not merely for the children to get good language into their heads and out their mouths and fingers, it’s not only to build a family culture, and it’s not simply because God’s Word never returns void – though these things are true and are good reasons. It turns out Circle Time is also to build attentions spans, not only in the children, but also in myself – maybe even primarily in myself. Experiencing the restlessness, I let the children fidget more. I let the little girl dance while we sing and the baby bang on the floor. I let the older ones experiment with tone and speed (within the bounds of respectfulness) and am much more patient with their lapses of attention to where we are. I did shorten things up this year, though I kept chapter-long selections included.
Now when I sit down to recite and sing with my children, I am one of the students. I submit to the time just as I have been making them do all these years while letting myself off the hook. No notifications, no email checks, no lists or notes. I bring all of me to Circle Time. As I do so, I am modeling, but that’s a side benefit, not the cause nor reason.
The reason is that I need this time, too. I need this pause at the beginning of our school day, this tone-setting exercise of mindfully saying over and over again the same true, good, and beautiful things. I need to pray before issuing orders. I need to sing and I need to mean what I sing. I need to pay attention.
I need to say, over and over, these Scripture passages myself. I need to read them closely, as reciting requires. I need to meditate on them, as repetition allows. I need to pray them, as a humble spirit notices. I need to contemplate them, as familiarity fosters.