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.
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.
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »