Emily | A Year of Living Adventurously
I was so excited to read Hallowed Be This House: Finding Signs of Heaven in Your Home, because I am a Thomas Howard devotee. The first book of his I read was On Being Catholic, when I was in college, and now I press it into the hands of all my Catholic friends.
Howard, a convert, has an elegant writing style that befits his profession (he was an English professor), and I have to admit, this is part of what draws me to him. I know that might not be for everyone.
But this little book is definitely for everyone, because we all have some place we call home, whether it’s a bedroom, a dorm room, an apartment, or an estate. Howard takes each room in the house and methodically addresses the things we do there, and how we can incorporate our faith into things like dusting, bathing, and sleeping.
Howard acknowledges, early on, that this may sound preposterous. “It is hard to see ourselves as walking daily among the hallows–that is, as carrying on the commonplace routines of our ordinary life in the presence of mighty mysteries that would ravish and terrify us if this veil of ordinariness were suddenly stripped away.” Somehow, Howard says, “we have gotten swept into a millrace, and it’s nonstop flailing and thrashing just to keep ourselves from drowning.”
I can relate to this. I live alone, but even then, the housework piles up. How can one person, for example, have so many dishes? How can there be so many trash cans to empty? How can the papers breed and multiply all over my kitchen table, like the brooms in Fantasia? Has some Sorcerer’s apprentice bewitched my house?
I don’t think so. I’m caught in the millrace Howard talks about. But how do we get out of it?
Howard has gentle answers for these questions. He takes us slowly through the house, starting with the door, and ending with the bedroom, and, with his unique perspective, talks about how we can hallow our houses–how we can make them holy.
Howard suggests that a closed door, for example, protects us from “mere randomness and clutter.” The living room is a place where a family practices charity to each other; we learn the rules of order for living together in a household.
I found a point in the living room chapter to be rather evocative. It’s when Howard talks about the purpose of rules. The example he uses is Peter, the son, wanting several pieces of chocolate. The parent says he may have one. Peter protests this. Who hasn’t seen this happen? Who hasn’t been that child, wanting more chocolate?
But the chocolate isn’t just chocolate: it’s a lesson between love and making someone happy. The child thinks that more chocolate will make him happy. The parent knows it will not lead to good results. Howard brings this to bear on religion, and our relationship with God. “Left to his own way, he will choose the bogus, and land in surfeit and slavery (hell); led in mine, he will deny the bogus and choose the real, and find mastery and liberty (heaven). His way will lead him to the pestilent bog, mine to the glittering summit.”
All this from a discussion about the living room!
In the chapter on the Kitchen, Howard talks about housework and the daily routines of life as acts of love, which, of course, they are. Laundry is done because people in the house care about the others, so they have clean clothes to wear. The dishes are done so that people have clean plates and cups to use when they are hungry or thirsty. Food is cooked to satisfy others. Everything in the daily routine is really an act of love, either for the family, or for the place, or for both. “Nobody,” Howard writes, “supposes for a moment that it will be all ecstatic. Learning to love is like learning anything else: A great deal of it is a matter of fumbling through the steps until they become automatic and habitual…the saints would tell us that their freedom and joy stand at the far end of long years of getting into habits of Charity. It is not all ecstatic….but handed to us from hour to hour, year to year, in muted, plain forms.”
That’s what my dishes are tonight–muted, plain forms. So is the sweeping and the vacuuming and the dusting and the mopping, and the changing of bedsheets, and balancing the checkbook. Is it all fun? Well, no. We all know that unlike playing house, actually keeping house is not as lovely as Disney’s Snow White would make it seem.
But Howard tells us that the things we do every day are things of eternity–God is in them all. St.Teresa of Avila said she found God amid the pots and pans, and Benedictines have ora et labora–prayer and work–as their motto. Members of Opus Dei commit their every action every day to God. When St. Paul tells us to “pray constantly,” this is what he means, what Howard presents to us here. We can pray constantly by doing these small things with great love (as Bl. Teresa of Calcutta often exhorted).
So now I’m going to unload the dishwasher, then load it again, and start another cycle. And then do battle with the papers on the table. Because that’s part of housekeeping, and they’re my responsibility. Service, as Howard writes, is behind the scenes, and so is all this. But God, and our families, see it.