When my wife and I (along with the great Zachary Guiliano) published “10 tips for domestic beauty,” I was most surprised by one stream of criticism. Namely, there were quite a few complaints in various places about our fondness for ironing. For some the concern was straightforward: Ironing is just one of those things I hate to do. For others it was an unfortunate casualty of being busy: There just isn’t time.

For others (and this is the group that intrigued me the most), ironing posed an ethical problem that impinged on the other tips as well: Smooth pillowcases represent a willful negligence of other duties. If I am wasting time at the ironing board, my neighbors aren’t receiving the love that the gospel compels me to give them. Likewise, why would I waste $400 on single oak, leather soled, Goodyear-welted, premium calfskin Oxfords when I could wear flip-flops and feed a poor family for a month? (This stream of criticism was less surprising but, I think, equally misguided.)

Judas complained in John 12 that Mary of Bethany dumped 300 days’ wages on Jesus’ feet. The traitor is the iconoclast whose pragmatism is thrown back in his face: “The poor you always have with you.” Jesus expands his defense to the rest of his disciples in Matthew 26:  “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” In the reality of God on earth, time and money are not just means to ethical ends. Even in an intimate scene at home, what may seem like extravagant waste can be sacred. It’s for Jesus, people!

In practice, one person’s decadence is another person’s innocent delight. What matters to me is worth it. What matters to you may be suspect. While I am whittling away my precious time listening to Pet Sounds or reading Chesterton, you are doing the New York Times crossword puzzle or walking your German Shepherd. Generally, it’s all well and good until we take certain activities out of the realm of leisure. No one should object if I say that ironing is a subjectively therapeutic experience for me. But to say that ironing is useful in a life lived for Jesus or that it inherently proclaims the kingdom of Heaven may be beyond the pale.


And what about the monetary cost of beauty? Is it worth it? Must we justify our aesthetic decisions in terms of usefulness? If we must, then the Church faces an unnatural situation. I found this series by the often very insightful Baptist minister Ed Stetzer slightly puzzling. He is pondering a rationale for a broadened aesthetic goal in modern Protestant church architecture (specifically the goal of a third space, or third place). But surely, churches have been both the most beautiful and most useful buildings in most communities for centuries. They are otherworldly and therefore the most appealing places for spending time with others on earth. (Where do the tourists go in the great European cities?)

American churches are too often built with “use” above beauty, and are therefore not nearly as useful. That this fact is lost on a large swath of Christians reveals how far we have to go in understanding and championing theological aesthetics. And the point is simple: Beauty is an end in itself. As such, it is incalculably useful for our souls. And beauty is an expensive proposition, both in money and time. It is entirely worthwhile.

Liturgy works the same way. It is both unfortunate and necessary in our culture that Christians must explain their practices like never before. But as we teach, we should shy away from falling into the faux-ethical trap of modern pragmatism: Like beauty more generally, liturgy doesn’t mean anything, but is an end in itself. Alexander Schmemann writes of the aesthetics of the Holy Eucharist in his classic volume For the Life of the World:

We are beyond categories of “necessary,” “functional,” or “useful.” And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love. And the Church is love, expectation and joy. It is heaven on earth … it is the joy of recovered childhood, that free, unconditioned and disinterested joy which alone is capable of transforming the world (p. 30).

Cloth-of-gold chasubles and hand-painted icons, for example, are not just fancy add-ons, but part of the life-giving fabric of Christian habit that is for the benefit even of the poor who need and deserve charity. If ordinary people on tight budgets chose to sacrifice for decades to contribute to the most extraordinary cathedral on earth, it would be a good and holy use of their resources.

To return to ironing: The aesthetics of everyday life must go hand-in-hand with a larger vision of the beauty of holiness in public life. Beautiful churches are useful “third places” because our homes — with our carefully curated wardrobes, record collections, bookshelves, tea sets, and crisp cotton sheets are, to varying degrees, embassies of the kingdom of Heaven. A shanty hut with a single (barely affordable) flower in a vase is a victory for Christ and a sign of his new creation. Even a morsel of beauty is to the benefit of rich and poor alike (both of whom will exist in varying proportions until Christ returns).

So iron those pillowcases without apology. It’s for your benefit, and everyone else’s too. And wear those recraftable cap-toe balmorals with abandon. It’s a beautiful thing for Jesus.

About The Author

Andrew Petiprin is Assistant Director in the Office of Faith Formation at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville. He is the author of Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself

Related Posts

6 Responses

  1. Charlie Clauss

    A facebook thread on this post brought up the word “luxury” and I think it is a helpful word. Humans seem to have a built in drive for luxury, that is, to go beyond basic survival needs and experience beauty. If nothing else, humans decorate the implements of survival. Beauty may be “useless” but we need it.

    As Christians, we see an analogy between luxury and worship. Again, we have an innate need for the extravagance that is worship. It is no accident that God directs the Israelites to build a Tabernacle and a Temple that include extravagant beauty. That ultimately Moses must turn people with offerings away (they had given enough already – how would you like that problem during stewardship season?) shows that we “need” extravagance.

    The problem we have comes in the area of discernment. How do we know that our extravagance is “rightly directed” (Mary’s extravagance was to Jesus; always the right direction!) and we are not deceiving ourselves? We of the Modern West have taken rationalization to great heights.

    The just concluded Olympics provide a great forum for thinking about these questions. An oft raised objection is that the money used for the Olympics could have met the needs of a great many people. But are the Olympics a thing of beauty that we actually need? I think they are. But it is also noteworthy that inside the quest for Beauty there also lies the responsibility to pursue Goodness and Truth, and the Olympics showcased that in the efforts to have a team made up of refugees.

  2. Philip Zoutendam

    I’m not buying it. I see where you’re coming from, and I think I see where you’re trying to go, but I’m not buying — not yet — the connection between “beauty that will save the world” and the “carefully curated” collections of possessions you name here and in the previous post.

    I think it’s worth noting that, in its original Dostoevskian context, the idea of salvific beauty almost certainly refers to a kind of moral beauty. (It never actually comes to fruition in The Idiot, but I think it does in Brothers K with Zosima.) And I think that at the heart of that moral beauty is sacrifice. When I think of beauty that will save the world, I think of Jean Vanier. What a beautiful life. What a witness to the reality of the love of God.

    I think it’s instructive that the one Scriptural example used here, and in similar conversations, is that of the woman whose extravagant gesture of beauty is, indeed, a sacrifice. She is not acquiring or possessing or curating anything. And what she is doing, she is doing directly to and for Jesus.

    So to identify “cap-toe balmorals” as an analogous gesture “for Jesus” is a strain, I think. And though I think it was written with a kind of gusto and perhaps even whimsy, I worry that it verges on the flippant.

    I don’t mean to deny the validity of having and using and caring for good things, or beautiful things. But I do think the Scriptural current flows so strongly toward selling possessions and relinquishing our anxiety about them that an argument for having the nicest things needs to work harder to demonstrate it’s not swimming upstream.

    I would genuinely like to see a more careful ethical discussion. I’m aware of the pitfall of infinite regression — I could have used that hour to care for the poor! They don’t care if my clothes are ragged! — but I’m more wary of the pit on the other side of the road, because I think it’s trendy now to indulge in all sorts of “craft” because we can afford it and we don’t have enough people calling us toward sacrifice.

    • Andrew Petiprin

      I don’t know, Philip. I think the emphasis on “craft” today has everything to do with sacrifice. It is much easier to purchase cheap plastic (and quickly replaced) goods than to invest in quality that is the fruit of someone’s love and labor.

      And it’s all relative. I hope you wouldn’t walk into the Louvre and say, “Let’s clear all this out and make a homeless shelter.” Beauty is good for the world. And the world isn’t just “out there,” but in our homes and on our very person. This can (and probably should) be pursued in a very minimalist way.

      • Philip Zoutendam

        I wouldn’t dispute anything that you said above (except perhaps that the recent prevalence of craft has “everything” to do with sacrifice; I think that trendiness and also indulgence play a role that needs to be sorted out).

        What I’m attempting to say is that, given that beauty is a good we vitally need, in both public spaces and our personal lives, I’m still not convinced that the particular kinds of personal beauty these two articles recommend clearly follow from that. I’m concerned that the argument, as it stands, for curated closets, etc., hasn’t accounted at all for appetite, and hasn’t helped us to distinguish between appetite and aesthetics.

        I think I can intuit an argument that says it’s important to support craftsmen, and to limit consumption, and therefore it’s worthwhile to choose, say, a $200 pair of shoes and maintain them. And to relate that to sacrifice, one might say that in order to have such a thing, one has to forgo other luxuries — say, one’s curated bar. But between this article and the previous one, there are a lot of luxuries identified and recommended, and there are none that I can remember that are sacrificed.

      • Andrew Petiprin

        Philip, I take your point to some extent, but I also see something of an absence of evidence fallacy. My not mentioning sacrifice of luxuries should not imply that I do not think it important; and for what little it may be worth, I made a couple of points that I hoped would offset your concerns. In the “10 tips” piece we started by saying that we strive for these things in a very modest context. Our family is not wealthy and for the most part we neither envy others’ luxury nor pursue it ourselves. In this piece perhaps I ought to have made more of an example like the flower in the shanty hut. And indeed, I know I ought to have made more of the kind of domestic care that used to be seen much more often among the poor in many parts of the world, including the American south: If you have one coat, make sure it’s made of good stuff and well kept. We may all sleep in two rooms, but we’re all sleeping on clean, ironed sheets. We may not have a bar at all; but if we’re drinking water, we’re not drinking it out of an animal trough. Etc…

        I think, too, that there is a larger problem with luxury. From my perspective in American suburbia, luxury is expressed not in quality but in quantity. Large homes rather than well-made ones. Many cheap clothes instead of very few well made ones. Part of what I am arguing is to flip that paradigm. For those who do so, there is certainly sacrifice of a sort.

        Finally, I am grateful to be pushed to remember a much deeper call to sacrifice. If our curated homes burn to the ground, our real treasure is untouched. And where we have two coats, as it were, we should be looking to give one of them away. For some, there may even be a call to abandon it all. But as we know from the gospels, Jesus demands different things of different people (Rich young ruler vs. Zacchaeus, to name but one).

        Thanks again for engaging here.

  3. Eugene Schlesinger

    This is a marvelous post, and reinforces something that bears a good deal of repeating in our utilitarian age.

    Whenever I teach trinitarian doctrine to undergraduates (at least at the introductory level), they tend to get hung up on the “why” end of things. “So God is three so that…[insert reason here]…” And in connection with the doctrine of the Trinity, the question of “why” is deeply problematic. I can explain the intellectual exigencies that led to the development of the doctrine, but none of these actually determine the question of who God is. God isn’t the Trinity for a reason. Instead, this is simply who God is.

    And, of course, God is beautiful. The source of all beauty is himself the epitome of “useless beauty.”

    There might be a place for quibbling about the particulars, but beauty for beauty’s own sake is divine, and a pursuit of useless beauty by humans is, in fact, an imitation of God.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.