Sometimes people come to our house for a visit and then, upon leaving, remark that they felt so "at home" with us. I'm always pleased to hear that, and yet I've never understood why it should be so. We significantly remodeled our home about one and a half years ago, after a fire, and we've done little to it since moving back in. Some walls have no pictures, some lights bulbs have no fixtures, and there are some odd mixtures of decorative items (love those 'tures) -- a kind of eclectic style, as a designer once remarked, for a fee. That's a nice way of putting it, I guess, if expensive. But still they say they felt so "at home."
Two articles I read in Books and Culture recently resonated with all my ruminating about the connection between faith and the built environment, one by Lauren Winner entitled "Getting Comfortable," in which she looks primarily at Winifred Gallagher's book, House Thinking, and one by Andrea Nagy entitled "Anti-Bland Design," in which she reviews Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House series. I have skimmed Susanka's books but never seen House Thinking. I wish I had -- about two years ago -- before we remodeled.
The bottom line of Gallagher's book is apparently this insight: our surroundings call forth certain behavior. This is intuitive, and yet not very articulable, and not very notable even when we do articulate it. For example, overhead lighting always makes rooms seem bright, and yet somehow cold. We might say such lighting ruins the ambiance (even though we're not sure what ambiance really is if called upon for a dictionary definition), whereas table lamps tend to create a warmer feel. There's nothing brilliant about that insight, and yet just notice how few people seem to take note of it. Visit a few homes. You'll see what I mean.
Gallagher notes that entryways should mark a gradual transition form the world outside to an inviting home without dumping you abruptly into someone's den. Amen. People need time to adjust without feeling intrusive. And yes, we have big, bright, airy rooms now, with lots of sunlight (it's all the rage), but (and I've noticed this) such rooms lose the sense of refuge that a closed in nook of space may provide. A small, cozy room reminds me of all those cardboard and blanket-over-card-table forts my friends and I made (and my children made when younger). What we liked about them was the sense of protection and refuge (their snugness). Amazing what blanket wall can do, or a tent canvas, for that matter. The outside is close, perilously close, and yet we have the feeling of security created by a piece of canvas. It's an ephemeral security and yet innate need. I like to think of the invisible hedge God places around us. Such places remind us of our real and true and strong refuge.
If nothing else, these books are good reminders that we need to be cognizant of how our surroundings impact our behavior. They also offer a helpful corrective to the bigger is better mentality (sorry, I bought into that a bit, and I repent). Marketers tell us what we should have. But our bodies and minds, if we listen to them, if we listen to God speaking through them, tell us much better what we need. Homes ought to be places of refuge, a reminder of our sabbath-rest. Now that's a home to hope for.