Beauty and the Home

After writing about media and children I was raring to expound on the idea of children and beauty, but as I started on the post I realized I really needed to write about beauty in the home more generally first. Afterall, why should you care about your children’s experience of beauty or how you are shaping their palate if you don’t first have an idea of why it matters in general?

Truth and Beauty are often referenced together (with Goodness completing the triad). In some ways it’s hard to define these things, as they are transcendent, but for the sake of this post I’ll attempt a (by no means exhaustive) definition of how they relate to each other (which I hope won’t make my more philosophically-minded friends cringe). We’ll call Truth that which is (reality), Goodness that aspect of Truth that is right (versus evil), and Beauty how we experience Goodness (e.g. in an object or moment). Humans naturally seek beauty.  In some ways this desire is both our very desire for God and how we are like Him. The principles of beauty flow from His very nature and are an important aspect of His creation. In my research for this post I stumbled across this article on C.S. Lewis and Beauty (worth a read), and the author says that in Genesis when God declares about creation that “it was good,” the Hebrew word could be translated as either good or beautiful.  

When illumined by truth our innate desire for beauty leads to goodness, but like all desires, it can be twisted and confused, in which case it spirals down to destruction.

What does this have to do with our homes? Many people either see no inherent value in making a home and therefore do not bother, or they make one with no clear guiding philosophy or goals. But this is a theology of homemaking where everything matters! Beauty illumined by truth inspires goodness! They all encourage each other.

Homes definitely have an atmosphere. You can sense it when you walk in the front door! It is the impression made by all of the little things that your senses experience as you come in, whether you make a conscious note of them or not (smells from food being cooked and laundry being done, the sound of people talking or laughing or instruments being played, and the choice in colors and art and the thoughtful arrangement of things conducive to a lively family life), and yes, I believe it is something spiritual too. It affects your ability to be hospitable, and more than that, as Leila Lawler says, “Beauty reflects something absolute and real. And the whole culture gets formed by each person’s relationship to beauty.” The atmosphere of the home is a force in the formation of your family’s culture, and culture as a whole! It affects the very formation of the child: their understanding of reality (truth), God, themselves. 

So, pursue beauty in your home (and your music and books and art, as it has the power to shape you too!) I do not believe that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder and completely subjective, but there is obviously room for differences in taste, and this most certainly goes along with your family culture.  I would venture to say that as fallen humans we might sometimes be confused about what is truly beautiful, and that growing in understanding of beauty might be part of our sanctification! 

There must be thought and effort put into the making and running of a home and the pursuit of beauty, and time in which to do it. I think it should be a priority. Keep cutting back (on activities, distractions, frivolous spending, whatever) until there is time for it. I love this post by Auntie Leila where she quotes Richard Scruton’s observations on the two types of beauty:

The individual, expressive and revealing gesture, and ordinary harmony and fittingness. In everyday life it is the second kind of beauty that is important, and it is exemplified in home building, gardening and the design of squares, houses and streets. It is important because it expresses and amplifies the human desire for settlement, for an environment in which things fit together and people too. 

It also does not mean perfection! Leila goes on to say in her own words, 

Scruton speaks of how ordinary beauty is imperfect, unlike the perfection of the grand gesture. But it reconciles us to our own imperfection, while allowing us to remember that there is perfection. It gives us a home in the world. I believe that these words resonate particularly with the mother and the father of the family, however large or small it may be. If we serenely pursue this ordinary beauty in everyday things and relationships, we build our home. This beauty gives us settlement, and it gives others settlement as well. It gives them a glimpse of what they can have, themselves, without the anxiety of thinking they must somehow be perfect; paradoxically, it’s that very home-likeness, the imperfection, that most reminds them, and us, of Perfection.

As far as what this means practically (and I'm focusing on making a home here), I feel like the only thing I can offer is how I have attempted to pursue beauty in my life and home (with a disclaimer that this is for inspiration and is not a set of rules):

  • Timelessness. I’ve made my fair share of “trendy” mistakes, and I now try to aim for a style with longevity or timelessness, partly because I believe more “timeless” styles are probably such because they are somehow closer to the core of true beauty. In art, music and literature these are the “classics,” and they have earned that term from standing the test of time.  A good foundation and a steady diet of these things helps us train our eyes to judge the truly beautiful amongst the other things that flow across our path.
  • Quality. I try to find clothing and furniture that is of actual good quality. Oftentimes this means natural materials: solid wood, real cotton, linen or wool. Things that are made well and of good materials not only last longer, they communicate a sort of warmth and authenticity. I do not spend a lot of money finding these things: think craigslist, thrift stores, discount stores etc.
  • Thrift. I thought it was important enough to have its own point, so that you don’t feel like this is some call to buy more (or new) stuff or to spend more money in general.  It’s great to use your money wisely and to use what you already have, too! Think of Ma using scraps of calico from old dresses to trim the curtains in the house at Plum Creek! This can create a sort of beauty unique to your family and endowed with even more layers of meaning.
  • Orderliness. I try to keep things relatively orderly and tidy. Not perfect! Normal, healthy family life makes messes, we just try to clean them up in a somewhat timely fashion. A place for everything and everything in its place. Leila Lawler calls it The Reasonably Clean House. Do not make this a sticking point for guilt, it takes time to figure out, but the key to success is finding a good routine and involving the children! 
  • Usefulness. Minimalism is kind of all the rage right now, and of course everybody likes to have nice and beautiful things, but while we won’t forget that this post is actually about beauty, the goal is the type of beauty that is subservient to and enriches family life! While decluttering is a huge aid to orderliness, it can be taken too far. And a family room full of beautiful things, that are not to be touched, a garden full of flowers not to be picked, childrens’ clothes that are not comfortable or allowed to get dirty, are not useful.  They are sterile, not life-giving (as is pure utilitarianism!) I sometimes look at pictures of minimalist or perfectly-styled homes and think, where are all of the accoutrements of rich family life?  Where are all the books, the toys, the hobby materials, the subtle signs of normal wear from actually being used? Where beauty and usefulness meet is a happy place to be. 

While I was working on this post, I found myself stopping to question the value of these things in a world so full of brokenness and need.  Is the pursuit of beauty still a worthy pursuit, a valuable use of time and resources, when there is so much need? Well the first part of the answer is that those things are of course not mutually exclusive. Yes, feed the hungry and clothe the naked (and don’t forget that that includes your children!) And indeed families can and should reach outward in works of mercy. But having a family, making a home, living life together and pursuing beauty is of great importance because the family has always been God’s original plan for creation.  It is, in and of itself, just by the very nature of its existence, a powerful force for Good, and the solution to much of the suffering in the world. Among other things, the family protects children, and raises them up to lead the world towards Goodness.  As Scruton says, the sort of ordinary beauty we pursue at home is “an instrument of peace.”

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