Ordinarily his body lacked a soul – or, if he did possess a soul, he seemed to keep it elsewhere than where it ought to have been; so that, buried beneath mountains (as it were) or enclosed within a massive shell, its movements produced no sort of agitation on the surface.
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
All fat is the Lord’s. Leviticus 3:16
In my final semester as an undergraduate in Russian, I could no longer avoid the dreaded Professor Efimov. Efimov was a legendary terror who had somehow escaped the Soviet Union and for some reason did not use the grammatically correct last name, Efimova. Even the graduate students who were actual Russians feared her and told wild stories, which to this day I believe to be entirely true.
She gave us a heavily accented warning on the first day of her 20th-century Russian literature class. “I am trying to quit smoking. So, if you ask a stupid question, I might bite you.” I do not doubt that she would have, so I avoided stupid questions to the best of my ability. We read one tome a week – now Dr. Zhivago, now Gulag Archipelago. It was the Russian literature equivalent of waterboarding. Though she was hardly an ideal pedagogue, I learned much about Russian literature as one can only learn from a Russian. The most important benefit, however, was that it permanently ruined my taste for bad writing.
On a recent car trip, I introduced my children to P. G. Wodehouse narrated by Jonathan Cecil. I know that my children enjoy great literature. But do they want to listen to something really good on a vacation weekend with their cousins? It was, in a way, a practical assessment. You can tell a lot about a person by what they consider a beach read. It took a few minutes, but they were hooked and begged for more. Overnight, Bertie-isms became part of the family lexicon. They delighted in the beautiful language.
For years I have been mystified by the relationship between the good, the true, and the beautiful. Are they really three? Or one? How can you draw any sharp boundary between good and true? Or the good and the beautiful? It should be no surprise – people have been mystified by such relationships between three and one for a couple of thousand years.
Apropos this contemplation, I discovered the prayer for holy thought in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer:
O God, without whose beauty and goodness our souls are unfed, without whose truth our reason withers: Consecrate our lives to your will, giving us such purity of heart, such depth of faith, and such steadfastness of purpose, that in time we may come to think your own thoughts after you; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
Without truth one has a withered reason. But without beauty and goodness, one has a lean soul. So why do we only assess students for their apprehension of truth? What does it profit my son to memorize the first declension if he has a slim soul?
Assessing your children’s progress as a homeschool mother is daunting. Based on my experience in the classroom and as a Grammar School administrator, I know where they “should” be academically. This primarily assesses, however, their reason. What about everything else? It is easy to assess by the embarrassing moments – when they tell the pediatrician we “don’t do much school.” Their general mutiny against wearing shoes and utilizing cutlery. I don’t think I will ever outgrow the fear that I may be ruining my children, which seems common to all homeschool mothers, no matter how experienced.
As with everything else, homeschooling’s strengths are also its weakness. Strength: I can teach whatever I want however I want. Weakness: I am teaching whatever I want however I want. Amidst all this open-endedness, how in the world can I measure the fitness of their souls to apprehend beauty and goodness? How do I know if we are on the right track?
The measure is this: how do they want to spend their leisure time? In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks writes, “The life of virtue has nothing to do with one’s prospective pleasures, possessions, or practical affairs, but concerns the manner in which one is prepared to spend one’s leisure hours.”1 Bertie Wooster is the test.
The lasting gift of the dread Efimov’s Russian literature class is not my knowledge of the Russian literary theme of poshlust. Though fundamental to understanding Russian literature, but it does not give me a well-fed soul. There won’t be a “themes of literature” test to gain entry to the kingdom of God. The lasting gift is, that in one area of life, my soul is fat. My appetite for bad or even mediocre literature is spoiled forever.
My assessment of my children is the same as my assessment of myself: what do I do when I can do what I want? How do I rest? How do I play? What do I eat and drink and read and watch? Does my soul feast on the good and the beautiful? How can I get a fatter soul?