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Reading Literature to Reveal Reality

  • LAURA M. BERQUIST

The role of stories in good education is invaluable.


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girlreading It's not the only, or even the most perfect, way to teach.  But it's preparatory, important, and natural.  It's no accident that Jesus taught using parables, or that the Old Testament is largely stories, true stories, but stories about our fathers in faith.  Men learn from stories, especially the young, and they are thus prepared to learn principles.  A significant advantage of the story is that the reader can achieve the knowledge he gains without the painful and destructive consequences that often come with lived experience.

I am sure we are all familiar with Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.  I often wish that all young women, actually all young people, would read it.  Both Marianne and Eleanor have to deal with betrayal by one they love.  Marianne does it emotionally and self-centeredly and nearly destroys herself in the process.  Eleanor, on the other hand, struggles against self-absorption, learns to subject her passions to reason and works on a charitable outlook of all concerned.  She is a much happier woman, and all those around her are happier, too.  The effect of the book is to make the reader see that Eleanor is right, and to wish that Marianne would learn from her (which she does eventually).  Jane Austen does admirably what Saint Thomas says is the poet's task, "to lead us to something virtuous by some fitting representation.  "

In a recent article, "American civilization has lost its way", Michael Novak said this:

"We normally encounter morals through the language of moral codes and commandments.  Do this, don't do that.  But it is much more illuminating to approach ethics and morals through stories and narratives.  The reason narrative is more helpful than a code or set of Commandments is that it brings into play imagination, manner, style, and even tonal quality.  For example, the Commandment says, "honor your father and your mother."  But the commandment does not tell us in what manner, with what tone of voice, with what degree of gentleness and/or firmness, or whether with renewed devotion or simply by routine.

"Sometimes, to do the right thing in the wrong way or in the wrong manner, is to spoil it.  Perhaps that is why Jesus so often chose to talk in stories, rather than in blunt commands.  He wanted to teach about the manner and style of actions, not only their substance.  To be gentle, to be kind, to be forgiving, to temper your treatment of the weak reeds — all these were essential to his message.  To act as a Christian is not only to perform certain abstract duties to the letter of the law, but also to live according to the spirit and temper of the law.  In some ways, it is more illuminating to speak of imitating Christ than of merely obeying him.  We are all skillful at the little child's trick of performing exactly what the parent tells her, while the same time mocking the task."

When I am talking to the mothers I consult with in my program I remind them that "obedience is no good unless you have their hearts". Stories capture the hearts of the children.

Through the story, then, the reader takes on the actions of the characters he is reading about, particularly the protagonist, as performed by an individual, not as a universal proposition.  One knows that one's emotions should be ordered by right reason, but in watching the concrete instance of Eleanor dealing with her difficulties, one sees what that looks like, and even feels what it feels like.  Through the privilege of the reader, who can participate in the life of more than one character, one also sees and feels what it is like to let the emotions rule the reason as Marianne does.

Because of this stories often move the heart toward the good in a way the direct teaching of the truth, especially initially, and especially in the young, does not.  Since these truths are encountered in a concrete, incarnational format that engages both mind and heart, there is less inclination to reject the teaching.  The reader is participating in the journey and learning with the characters, so he's learning the lessons that life teaches, and he's learning them in a non-confrontational mode.  In many people there's a resistance to just being told what to do.  Even if one does what one is told, the act of obedience is not then the act of the whole person, as Dr. Novak pointed out.  When I am talking to the mothers I consult with in my program I remind them that "obedience is no good unless you have their hearts".  Stories capture the hearts of the children.

Dr. Andrew Seeley, in a recent article on his website, explained that reading The Lord of the Rings when he was young "captured his heart and excited his imagination.  " It inspired "A longing for great deeds beyond the ordinary, comfortable, stable and safe life.  " He explained, "that longing for an imagined ideal prepared [him] to embrace Catholicism as the highest and most real kind of romance."  Living the story presented by Tolkien, in the way one lives a story, not only captured his heart, but molded it, showing him and moving him toward a moral universe he had not encountered in the secular culture in which he lived.

Why is this?  What is it about stories that makes them achieve these important ends for our students?  And what is the best way to take advantage of this quality?  The first thing that reading a story well does for one is enlarge his experience.  In the book "An Experiment in Criticism" CS Lewis says the following:

"The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself.  The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.  In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this.  Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self.  But that is an old paradox; "he that loses his life shall save it."

Lewis expands a bit:

"...we become these other selves.  Not only nor chiefly in order to see what they are like but in order to see what they see (emphasis mine), to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theater, to use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal...... This, so far as I can see, is the specific value or good of literature considered as logos; it admits us to experiences other than our own. "

This is a huge benefit that comes from reading stories.  There's more to be said, as not every experience is worth having.  Similarly, not every book is worth reading.  But, to use the words of CS Lewis once again "Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.  We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend.  He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world.… My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others...."

At that point in this text CS Lewis says something else well worth meditating on.  He says "literary experience heals the wounds, without undermining the privilege, of individuality."  Isn't that interesting?  One immediately asks, "What does that mean?" The wound he is talking of, I think, is loneliness (as he said earlier).  The individual is alone and he is incomplete.  He needs others to complete his being.  He goes on, "There are mass emotions which heal the wound" that is, they give us the experiences of other beings, "but they destroy the privilege.  In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality" (not unlike the idea of the Arabian Aristotelians that at the end of mortal life all men will be joined in one great consciousness.) "But," Lewis says, "in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.  Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.  Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and I am never more myself than when I do."

"Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and I am never more myself than when I do."

In reading a good story I see as others see, I understand what I would not on my own, but I do this by enlarging my individual understanding, not by submerging it.  The story does this by teaching, not didactically, but nonetheless truly, and through the story my mind and will are led to the truth.

No teacher learns for his student.  Only the student can learn for himself.  What a good teacher does is lay out the truth, and the steps to arrive at that truth, in the right order, so that the student can follow his teacher step-by-step to the truth which he then sees by the light of his own mind.

This is what a good story does.  It does so through individual concrete experiences in which the reader participates vicariously, rather than through universally true propositions leading to a conclusion.  But it is essential to see that in a good story the individual experiences are embodiments, or incarnations, of universal truth.

The way that the author represents the objects leads the reader to regard them, in a good story, in a true light.  The imitator has an advantage over nature.  He can bring out and make evident what, in the nature of things, is inward and hidden; he can make things look like what they are.  The heroine of the story can be beautiful and kind and the hero brave and handsome.  Their outward appearance matches their inward character.  Of course, this does not give knowledge, but it does give right estimation.  This follows the natural order in the formation of one's mind and character.  Disposition comes before habit, and discovery comes before judgment. Good stories give the reader experience and show him, in an incarnational way, what virtue is and what it looks like.  That was Dr. Seeley's point.  So his experience and understanding of reality is extended, enriched and guided.

All of the arts do this in some respect.  A painting, for example, is a likeness of some aspect of reality, just as a story is.  What the painter does for the viewer is show him a particular aspect of, or an insight about, the object that he is painting.  He allows the viewer to see the object as he sees it, which is often, in an excellent painting, a way the viewer would not see on his own.  Thus his experience is enlarged not only by presenting objects that he would not otherwise see, say from across the world, but also by presenting them in a way, or mode, that the viewer would not otherwise have.  When I look at a Thomas Moran painting, for example, through my enjoyment of the picture I learn something about the importance of light and shadow in fully appreciating natural features.  I can universalize that and apply it elsewhere.

Long ago Aristotle defined a good story.  He said that it is an imitation of action and life (Poetics 1450a16), and an imitation of the agent of the action for the sake of that action (ibid. 1450 b4) 

He also pointed out that the storyteller is not a historian.  His work is more noble, because it is more philosophic and more universal.  It teaches universal truth.  To do that requires that the truth be presented as a whole; the story as a unit, with a beginning, middle and end, must be presented intact.

Now, the historian differs from the poet [the storyteller] by speaking of what has actually occurred, whereas the poet speaks of the kinds of things which are likely to occur.  In view of this, poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history; for poetry speaks rather of what is universally the case [even if concretized in this particular incarnation], whereas history speaks of particular events which actually occurred.  (Poetics 1451b1-10)

History is particular, literature is universal.  G.K.Chesterton says it another way: a good poet, or storyteller, is able to give his readers "a glorious glimpse into the possibilities of existence".  (Autobiography, The Collected Works of GKC)  But those possibilities have to be possibilities, that is, they must be consistent with reality.  "If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck.  If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw him with a short neck, you will find you are not free to draw a giraffe."  (Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton)

The universal truths with which the storyteller concerns himself have to do, most of all, with the moral order.  Since stories are about human actions, and human actions are either good or bad, the stories are going to have to portray the characters' actions in such a context.

In A Landscape with Dragons, Michael O'Brien says: "The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of our own universe."  The stories we read to our children need to reflect the true moral order, because it is that about which it is teaching, in the way stories teach.

Some might object that the wicked prosper in this world, or that everyone is a mixture of good and evil, and a good story should take these things into account.  That's true, but a story, which is not a history, must mirror the ultimate reality, not the short term, shortsighted, inversion of the moral order.  People may be a mixture of good and bad, but the bad has to be seen as bad, which in a story means that the consequences of bad actions have to be shown in an intelligible manner.

Philosophy starts with common experience, and a reflection on that experience.  Stories provide the right experiences, morally ordered experiences, for one to reflect on fruitfully.  That is what reading a good story well does for you.  It expands your experience, safely, shows in concrete, particular characters and actions what good universal principles look like encountered in life, and prepares the mind and heart for the encountering of those same principles in a universal form.  It engages the reader's mind and heart and moves him toward the truth.

Here is the philosophical underpinning, so to speak.  Stories are natural to man because of his composite nature.  Composed of body and soul, he participates in both the material and the spiritual.  His intellectual knowledge arises from sensation, and continues to depend upon it.  All his learning depends on sensible experience.  He must learn what he knows, little by little, knowing things in a sort of confusion before he knows them distinctly.

The things that are harder for him to know —things more distant from the immediately sensible — must often be grasped in a likeness before they can be grasped in themselves.  [Our Lord's frequent use of parables illustrates this need.] Some things, of course, one thinks about from the very first images he has, or forms he receives.  That the whole is greater than its part, for example, or that a thing cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time, are possible to understand from the first encounters one has with being.  But an understanding of justice and beauty, right and wrong, sacrifice and greed, is going to depend on what the student encounters in his environment, which includes what he reads.

Good stories give the reader experience and show him, in an incarnational way, what virtue is and what it looks like.  That was Dr. Seeley's point.  So his experience and understanding of reality is extended, enriched and guided.

He has to have experiences of these immaterial qualities in order to come to understand them.  Some such experiences will come in his day-to-day life, but reading good stories can add to that experience.  And, as I said earlier, good stories help the reader see in a guided way, since the story actually highlights those important concepts in such a way to direct the readers' attention to them.

I have spoken about this before, but I do honestly think that a knowledge of how one comes to understand is important for every teacher.  In nearly every training I do for my own teachers and consultants, on any subject, I come back to the importance of the doctrine of the De Anima.  You are very welcome to look at my public website for Mother of Divine Grace School, under curriculum, and then classical methodology, for a more developed explanation, if you are interested.  But for now let me say that everything we learn starts in our sensible experience, what we receive through our proper senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.  What we receive through the proper senses is integrated in another power, the common sense, and then passed on to be received by the imagination (what we think of as the brain).  Those forms received into the imagination, often called phantasms, are then grouped into like kinds by a power called the vis cogitativa.  All of this involves the body, and the powers that are a combination of body and soul.  But at this point the immaterial power of the agent or active intellect comes into play.  It shines its light on those collected like images and draws out of them what is common to them all, their essence.  That essence is then impressed, so to speak, by the agent intellect into the possible intellect.  This is how we come to know everything that we know.  This is the process by which intellectual knowledge comes to be in us.

As you can see it starts in the sensible experience, and utilizes those images received into the imagination.  This is one of the reasons why, in my program, we concentrate so much in the early years on strengthening and making docile the imagination, so as to improve the quality of those images.  But it is also the reason that learning from stories is so natural.  We receive images by means of the stories we hear and they are utilized as are the images we receive from direct experience.  And then, as we do with all experience, direct or indirect, we reflect, see likenesses in the experiences, and learn concepts such as justice and truth, nobility and greatness.  It is to this reality that Plato directs himself in the Republic, when he tells us that if the soul has in it good, true, beautiful, noble, and heroic images, it will become like those things.  The images in the imagination are signs of a noble, in fact a divine, reality.  And they do, not by themselves, of course, but nonetheless truly, help bring about that reality in the soul of the student.  Thus one can speak of a sacramental imagination, one that provides signs pointing to divine reality, and participating in bringing it about in the soul.

So a story teaches, but teaches as experience teaches: concretely.  A story is a whole with a beginning, middle and end.  You don't grasp a story until you have the whole.  So the intellectual truth to be gained is apparent only after the whole experience and by reflection on it.  Chapters of a novel, or the acts of a play are often relatively meaningless when wrenched from the whole.  Certainly, any judgements made about the parts or the characters as one is going through the story will have to be reexamined when the story is complete.  (I was recently talking to a friend who just finished Kristen Lavernsdatter.  He said his estimation of the characters changed radically from part to part and it wasn't until he finished the work that he actually understood them.) Further, you won't grasp the story unless you 'live' the story.  Because of its nature two of the most important aspects of reading a story are thus lack of interruption and total immersion.  These two aspects go together; if the story is interrupted the reader can't be immersed in it.

Since a story read effectively must move us, we must let it work on us.  We must make ourselves open to it.  It's not possible to do that when you are constantly moving in and out of the story to discuss, analyze, or prepare for the upcoming chapters.  That encourages a kind of skepticism.  For this reason, Mortimer Adler's first piece of advice for reading stories in How to Read a Book, and it's mine as well from personal experience, is to read the story quickly and with total immersion.  He says the ideal is to read a literary work in one sitting, but since that is not always possible "the ideal should be approximated by compressing the reading of a good story into as short a time as feasible.  Otherwise you will forget what happened, the unity of the plot will escape you, and you will be lost."

He also says, and this resonates with me," The tremendous pleasure that can come from reading Shakespeare, for instance, was spoiled for generations of high school students who were forced to go through Julius Caesar, As You Like It, or Hamlet, scene by scene, looking up all the strange words in a glossary and studying all the scholarly footnotes.  As a result, they have never really read the Shakespearean play.  By the time they had reached the end, they had forgotten the beginning and lost sight of the whole."

There is a place for a more in depth study of a story.  But it comes after the story has been seen as a story, a whole, and has, so to speak, been lived.  Also, it comes when the student is ready to analyze.  Then one moves to the next level; he is ready to fruitfully analyze, categorize, and criticize. CS Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, agrees.  "The necessary condition of all good reading is "to get ourselves out of the way; we do not help the young to do this by forcing them to keep on expressing opinions.  " (Page 93)

Lewis further points out that direct contact between the mind of the author and the mind of the student should precede any commentary by another person.  He notes "everyone who sees the work of Honours students in English at a University has noticed with distress their increasing tendency to see books wholly through the spectacles of other books.... The all important conjunction (Reader meets Text) never seems to have been allowed to occur of itself and develop spontaneously.  " (127) Lewis maintains that critical reading, that is reading about books in other books, should only happen after one has read the original oneself.  Scholarly notes should not be used in the first reading.

I anticipate some objections.  I can imagine some of you thinking, "But the students will miss so much."  Or "Shakespeare is impossible to read without a gloss." As to the first, my response is: have confidence in the mind of the student.  He's learned a lot already in his life, much of it from context.  Stories really are "more experience" and one learns from them profitably in the same way.  It is so much better for a student to gather the meaning of a word from its context then to stop and go find a dictionary.  In the first place stopping interrupts the flow of the story, and in the second place it doesn't encourage in the student the valuable habit of learning from context, which he will need as he progresses scholastically.  Similarly, stopping the story to go to another source to explain the plot or the character panders to our cultural desire for immediate results, and inhibits wonder.  It's good for the students to be reading and thinking, "What's going on?", "How is this going to work out?", "What is the relationship, anyway?"  They exercise wonder, they learn to wait for results, they draw inferences, and they develop the habits for all of those things.

Also, don't expect the student is never going to read this work again.  One should be willing to, and expect to, read and re-read a truly good book.  We don't have to and shouldn't try to get everything the first time around.  CS Lewis says "the sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers 'I read it already' to be a conclusive argument against reading a work...  Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work 10, 20 or 30 times during the course of their life."  (page 2)

With respect to the problem of reading Shakespeare, or other difficult texts, without a gloss, it is the case that sometimes a word is so foreign that even context is not going to help.  Because Shakespeare is writing plays, and plays are meant to be performed, it's best with such a work to see it performed, or if one is going to read it, to read it out loud.  That's a great help in figuring out what's going on.  But I agree that there can be a place for judicious explanation.  Some students need more help than others, and everyone should get the help he needs.  I myself have made use of retellings, high quality, literature-in-its-own-right, retellings of Shakespeare, such as Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare,  and also similarly good retellings of Homer, such as The Children's Homer.  But I wouldn't use them if they weren't literature in their own right, and I use them as preparation, either proximate or remote, for the real thing.  Further, they should also be read without interruption and with total immersion.

This brings me to another point, however.  I think that the discussion that's appropriate to young students as they read the good stories that we give them should be student led.  It is always better for the student's own mind to work on the matter first.  When he has tried and he has a question, that's the time for him to get the answer.  When we anticipate what his questions are going to be and anticipate the answers for that we often usurp the activity of his own mind.

Say that you have a reading time in your classroom.  Maybe you have offered a variety of books to the students, from different genres, and at different reading levels.  Everybody is reading, they are not all reading the same thing, but a number of people will be reading the same thing.  Someone, reading a Shakespeare play, or a Jane Austen novel, or one of the myths, or something from Padraic Colum, has a question.  He asks you, the teacher.  You make a judgment.  Is it something that he needs to know now in order to move forward in the story, is it something that if he continues to read he will figure out, or is it a question that would be of value to the entire group of students reading that story?

If it's the first, you just answer the question.  If it's the second, you ask him to keep reading but to come back to you if it doesn't make sense after a while.  And if it's the third situation, you ask him to write it down to discuss with his group at the appropriate juncture.

With a short work, that discussion ought to be delayed until the end of the story for the reasons we have discussed.  For a longer work, if one thinks discussion during the reading of the story is merited (though that can be questionable also for the reasons given, but is sometimes desirable), then the discussion should 1) be student led, that is consist of questions the students actually ask themselves; 2) center on what's happened and what people think of the characters at this point, recognizing that we don't yet know them well, so not drawing any firm conclusions and 3) encourage inference and wonder.  "What do you think is going to happen next?  "is a great question under these circumstances.  Or "Did Frodo make a good decision here?" Neither of those questions requires a judgment on the work or the plot or the character as a whole.

CS Lewis goes so far as to say that since the wrong kind of activity when reading impedes reception, he is inclined to think criticism as such should be avoided altogether by boys and girls.  "A school boy's reaction to his reading is most naturally expressed by parody or imitation".  (93) So writing a similar story is an excellent activity for young students as they integrate the truth learned in reading a story.  For the very young retelling performs the same function.

We lead them, intentionally and carefully, to that point.  But that means letting stories be stories in the early years. 

My own experience suggests that high school is the place for real analysis.  Mr. Adler's book talks about the various levels of reading and his determination fits with my experience.  There is elementary reading, which is learning how to read; inspectional reading, where one learns how to intelligently skim a book to get an idea of the whole; analytic reading, which, obviously, involves analysis; and finally syntopical reading, reading a number of books in order to find out what each has to say about a given subject of interest to the investigator.

Elementary reading, contrary to much modern educational pedagogy, involves kindergarten through eighth grade.  Within elementary reading there is first, reading readiness, which involves physical, intellectual, language, and personal readiness.  This is common to preschool and kindergarten.  The second stage is when children are reading at the easy readers' level, usually first grade.  The third stage is fluency, which is often complete by fourth grade, and then mature reading which is hopefully achieved with some degree of perfection by eighth-grade.  All of that is still, in various ways, learning how to be a good reader. 

It is in high school that one, in a good school, encounters inspectional and analytic reading.  And syntopical reading is appropriate to college.  Mr. Adler knows it's true that in the present day people are often working on fluency and mature elementary reading through high school, and such a reading Instruction is even offered remedially in college.  But not in our classical schools.  Our children actually are prepared to think, in various ways, and they are ready, usually, to think analytically about their books.  We lead them, intentionally and carefully, to that point.  But that means letting stories be stories in the early years. 

In Mr. Adler's model analytical reading can be broken down into 15 rules, which is interesting, but even more interestingly, those rules come from four basic questions that he says "constitute a whole obligation of a reader".  These questions are 1) What is the book about as a whole?; 2) What is being said in detail and how?; 3)Is the book true, In whole or in part?; 4) What of it?

His book is primarily about that analytical reading of expository work but he does discuss how to use those questions with respect to literature.  I think this is what we aim for when we are at the point of approaching a work analytically with our students.  Notice that the four questions are structural (what is it about as a whole), interpretive (how is that whole constructed in detail) and critical (is it true, and what of it).

Are the good characters truly presented as good, and the bad characters regarded as bad?  It also requires one to say he fully appreciates the experience provided by the author.  So one is not questioning the world the author creates but rather what he does with it.

For imaginative literature the structural questions are translated into: what kind of work is it: lyric, novel, play?  What is the unity of the whole work?  For a story this means what is its plot.  (219)  Ask how the whole is constructed of its parts.  That is, what are the steps that develop its plot; the beginning, middle and end. The interpretive questions involve looking for the elements of fiction, episodes and incidents, the characters and their thought, speeches, feelings and actions.  Look for the total scene or background or world that connects the characters.  Become 'at home' in that world.  Follow the adventures of the characters on this world.  This is the specific plot.  (Aristotle says the plot is the soul of the story.) Once one is clear about how the whole is constructed he goes on to ask the critical questions.  In literature the question, "Is it true?" requires thinking about whether there is verisimilitude, and how that is achieved.  Are the good characters truly presented as good, and the bad characters regarded as bad?  It also requires one to say he fully appreciates the experience provided by the author.  So one is not questioning the world the author creates but rather what he does with it.

There is a way in which there is no answer to the "What of it?" question applied to literature.  A practical book is intended to move you to action.  A theoretical book is an end in itself; it enlarges your understanding and you rest in that.  Literature performs according to its nature, does what it is designed to do, well, when it gathers you into its world, moving your mind and heart to encounter the concretized truth of God's created reality, revealed to you by the expert eye of the author.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

berquist Laura Berquist. "Reading Literature to Reveal Reality." Catholic Classical Schools Conference (July 18-21, 2006).

The Catholic the Classical Schools Conference, sponsored by the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, inspires, informs and unites classical educators working in Catholic schools around the continent.  Two hundred educators from over 50 institutions participated in this year's Conference in Philadelphia focusing on "The Sacramental Imagination".

The Author

berquist1 berquist2 Laura M. Berquist is founder and director of Mother of Divine Grace School, a home study program accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Mrs. Berquist is the author of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and editor of The Harp and Laurel Wreath:Poetry and Dictation for the Classical Curriculum, both from Ignatius Press. Based on the philosophy of the classical Trivium grammar, logic, and rhetoric she has developed a modern classical homeschool curriculum for grade K-12 that strengthens character and intellect, and reinforces virtue.

Copyright © 2016 Laura Berquist
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